On the first weekend of this year’s Cannes, the heavens opened with a ferocity and persistence rare for the Côte d’Azur, dousing the red carpet galas and sending hordes of festival attendees, unprepared for inclemency, running for cover inside the vast, labyrinthine confines of the Palais. On the last weekend of the festival, the sun shone so brightly that, exiting a cinema, my eyes were blinded by the light as I squinted out over the Mediterranean’s cerulean waters. An apt metaphor, perhaps, for the festival itself.
With last year’s edition providing an exceptional amount of controversy, excitement and cinematic prowess, Cannes 2012 had a hard act to follow. How to compete with the furore concerning von Trier’s notorious Hitler comments at a press conference for Melancholia, the fervent critical division surrounding Malick’s highly-anticipated Tree of Life, or the commencement of The Artist’s triumphant march towards Oscars success? It was only inevitable that, in certain quarters, this year would be felt as somewhat of a letdown in comparison to those dizzying moments, that it would be remembered as a relatively staid affair, settling into an aesthetic middle ground rather than striking out at the extremes of the art.
And yet this year’s edition showed that Cannes always, always, has the ability to throw up the highs and lows of the year’s cinema. Whether it is the intense, pressure-cooker atmosphere, the unmatched concentration of excitable journalists, the constant hum of business negotiations in progress or simply a Gallic penchant for impassioned snap judgements, there is something about this inimitable festival which makes the films on offer not simply good or bad, but transcendentally so. Whether they succeed or fail, they will do so in spectacular fashion, eliciting responses not of satisfied content or shrugging disappointment, but of vigorous acclaim and strident disapproval.
Nowhere else do the rounds of applause echo so lengthily, or the jeers and boos ring out so loudly, as they do in Cannes. And it is precisely this volatility which proves not only the health of the festival – in spite of all the unwanted accoutrements, the nauseating gala events, detestable industry figures and shrill nouveaux riches descending on the Croisette – but also the vitality of the cinema itself. No other event, in any art-form, can quite match Cannes in this regard. Far from being dead, the cinema is more alive than all the other arts at present, precisely because a film still has the possibility of failure. It is impossible, today, to see a bad opera, and nearly impossible to attend a bad professional theatrical production, so much have the categories for success in these fields become fixed, ossified conventions. In the visual art world, meanwhile, the very notion of artistic proficiency has become voided, and, when faced with works, critics – as much as they might deny it – simply flail about in a maelstrom of incomprehension. In the cinema, by contrast, even when all the elements for a film are propitious, the end result can still be an unmitigated disaster.
Or it can be a universally-lauded masterpiece. The thrill of Cannes is that whether a given film will be the former or the latter is utterly unknown until the lights dim and the projector fires up. The cinema is a living art because it is an evolving art, a tumultuous art, where the criteria for aesthetic merit are still in a permanent process of refoundation. Being at Cannes means taking part in this process in a more direct way than is possible virtually anywhere else in the world: in this small, coastal resort town, the fate of the year’s cinematic output is, too a large degree, decided – whether in hotly disputed press screenings, confidentially concluded market dealings or the opaque wrangling of jury deliberations.
And yet, amidst all this frenzied contestation, one film was able to gain universal approbation. Virtually without exception – I have yet to read a single review panning the film, or even mildly criticising it – Michael Haneke’s Amour was lauded as yet another chef-d’œuvre from the Austrian master. The consensus was so overwhelming that, in spite of jury chair Nanni Moretti’s reported disdain for Haneke, the awarding of the Palme d’Or was little more than a fait accompli. In doing so, the jury bestowed Haneke with the rare distinction of receiving the prize for his second film in succession, after Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) ruled over Cannes in 2009 – a feat only previously achieved by Bille August (bizarrely enough). That Haneke has been able to conquer all before him with two very different films, neither of which will go down as highpoints in his career, seems only to confirm the widespread notion that he is head and shoulders above every other filmmaker working in auteurist cinema at present.
Beyond the rapturous acclaim, however, critical interpretations of Amour diverged markedly. For the first time, Haneke – himself having just become a septuagenarian – turns his acerbic eye to the elderly. Marshalling the considerable talents of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who both give magisterial performances, Haneke depicts the companionship of an old, unapologetically bourgeois Parisian couple named, of course, Georges and Anne, whose decades-long marriage is swiftly altered when Anne suffers two strokes in quick succession. Georges is thus required to look after her in her debilitated state, especially when his gruffness alienates both her nurse and their daughter Eva, played, of course, by Isabelle Huppert. As Anne’s condition steadily worsens, her situation becomes unbearably ignominious, and Georges is led to make the fateful decision. The result of this act having been foreshadowed in the opening scene, Haneke voids the film’s climax of any notion of suspense, and yet as it concludes, we, the spectators, are unavoidably wracked with tension, such is the director’s mastery of pacing, mise en scène and emotional cadence. While the entire film is shot in Haneke’s characteristically gelid, neutral style, the end result is by far the most tender, compassionate work in his œuvre. That it should portray a husband who murders his wife is the type of contradiction that is the lifeblood of Haneke’s filmmaking, and the fact that this “crime” is an act of supreme love feeds into the tempestuous debate in Europe (and elsewhere) over the ethics of euthanasia. Human cruelty, so central to his prior films, is absent in this work – indicated nowhere more sharply than when a pigeon inadvertently flies into the couple’s apartment. Georges’ response is to capture it in a blanket, and for a second we fear that a repeat of the grisly scenes of Benny’s Video (1992) and Caché (Hidden, 2005) is in the offing, but instead he benevolently lets it out the window, where it flies back to freedom.
It is surprising, then, that many critics persisted in viewing the film through the jaundiced prism Haneke’s earlier work had established, as if the director’s name itself was a guarantee of the presence of a dark core to the film. Yes, Georges and Anne can be cold to the people they come into contact with, yes, they prefer to shut themselves off from the outside world even before Anne’s stroke, and yes, their marriage is mainly empty of passion. But a profound, genuine love persists between them – a remarkable feat in and of itself, and one which finds no parallel in any of Haneke’s prior films. If a dark core there is in the film, then it has its source not in any of the actions or motivations of the characters, but in the inescapable fact of our mortality, the concomitant deterioration of the human body, and the morally vexatious situations that this destiny gives rise to.
Few filmmakers in the world would even attempt to chart such a thorny thematic terrain, let alone succeed so masterfully with the subject matter, and for this alone, the Palme d’Or was warranted. And yet one could not help but feel that the air of inevitability surrounding the choice merely underlined the Official Selection’s purported conservatism in programming tastes, heavily slanted towards already-established filmmakers. Certainly this was the sentiment of Peter Bradshaw’s wrap-up of the festival. While readily agreeing that Amour was the strongest film of the competition, and acknowledging that “it is highly obtuse and ungracious to find fault in the right decision being made,” the Guardian reviewer expressed a distinct yearning for the main prize to tilt towards provocation, and be awarded to the “wayward, exhilarating and kaleidoscopically weird Holy Motors.” (1) Indeed, after the Haneke, Leos Carax’s first feature since 1999’s Pola X was the talking point of the festival. Assessments of the film were sharply divided: while some found it to be hollow, pretentious and largely incomprehensible, others (myself included) appreciated the dose of ludic idiosyncrasy Carax injected into the festival.
Carax’s work is notoriously erratic – even within the same film he can veer from the casually sublime to the laughably bad with unnerving swiftness – and even after reports came through from its premiere I had no sense as to what, exactly, to expect of the film. You see, an hour of queuing in the Midi sun was not enough to get this reporter, with my lowly ranking in the Cannes hierarchy, into the initial press screening of the film, and I had to content myself with a reprise viewing on my last night in Cannes. As we made our way to the Salle du 60ème, however, my beloved Clothilde received a message bearing bad news: the screening had been cancelled to make way for a surprise preview of George Lucas’ latest production. We were both in despair: our only chance to see Holy Motors in Cannes – an unmissable part of this year’s festival experience – had been scuppered, and at the hands of one of the true enemies of the cinema at that! As we moped in front of the Palais, too dejected to take in any of the alternative films on offer, a fresh piece of news saw a sudden reversal in our fortunes. The fury of disappointed attendees had led to the Carax being reinstated, with Lucas, in turn, being bumped! Our pulses racing, we immediately dashed over to the Salle du 60ème, and thankfully made it into the screening. Such is Cannes, and the only thing that could have been more befitting of the festival was if the film had been irredeemably dreadful.
But, thankfully, this was not the case. Watching Holy Motors was indeed a breathtaking experience, unlike anything else on offer at the festival. Denis Lavant inevitably stars as Monsieur Oscar, who spends the duration of the film being driven around in a limo by Édith Scob, to a number of surreal “appointments”. The conceit allows Carax to structure the film around a series of self-contained episodes, in which Lavant, successively, plays an old beggar-woman, an artist performing acrobatic sex in a 3D motion-capture studio, the gregarious clochard Merde – reprised from Carax’s contribution to Tokyo! (2008) – who kidnaps the Eva Mendes-incarnated supermodel Kay-M, a severe father who upbraids his young daughter for not being sociable enough at a party, and an old lover of Kylie Minogue, who reunites with her in the derelict surrounds of the abandoned Samaritaine department store on the right bank of the Seine. Each of the episodes is delirious, bizarre, and yet often touching, with the spectator given an emotional buffeting from the abrupt shifts in tone and endless surprises, the least of which is Kylie Minogue’s acting ability (at least for those of us who grew up in Australia in the 1980s). Perhaps where the film is most let down, however, is in its opening and closing segments. The prologue, showing a cinema audience with its eyes shut before cutting to Carax himself finding a path through a forest of trees painted on his hotel room wall, drips with heavy-handed symbolism, while the conclusion, with M. Oscar returning to his family, all played by trained chimpanzees, is fatuous.
At this point, however, the fine line between refreshing eccentricity and wilful obtuseness returns with a cut back to the limo, which heads back to its garage after a hard day’s work and cheerily converses with its fellow automobiles. In a bizarre coincidence, Carax thus seemed to be responding directly to the question raised in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis as to where all the limousines that roam Manhattan by day go when night falls. In adapting Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, the Canadian director clearly has the present economic crisis in his sights. Robert Pattinson, fresh from the Twilight series, plays a vampiric venture capitalist still in his 20s, who spends most of the film cooped up in his customised stretch in search of a haircut, having various culinary, sexual and medical experiences on the way while his company loses hundreds of millions in currency exchange speculations gone awry, before he encounters a wrathful former employee incarnated by a growling Paul Giamatti. In spite of resonances in the film with Occupy Wall Street, Cronenberg retains the bitter cynicism of DeLillo’s text, which is so totalising as to be, in the end, collusive with late capitalism. Seemingly heedless of the political optimism engendered by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the growing unrest in Europe, the film still bears the odour of the defeatist 1990s (which was clearly the context for the original novel). (2)
Compared to the high profiles of Haneke and Cronenberg, Loznitsa is a lesser known force on the festival circuit, but after the remarkable archival documentaries Blokada (Blockade, 2006) and Predstavelenie (Review, 2008), and his feature debut Schastye Moe (My Joy, 2010), V Tumane (In the Fog) should cement his status as one of the most promising newer talents in world cinema. This dense, opaque but uncannily elevating film has an unerring capacity to immerse the spectator in its sombre mood, much like the titular mist which envelopes the screen at its conclusion. Loznitsa thus proves to be the one Russian filmmaker most capable of continuing the tradition of Tarkovsky, German and early Sokurov (certainly more so than late Sokurov), an affinity which is underlined by the placid, meandering long-takes which dominate the film’s visual structure. As with his previous work, the tragedies of Russia’s tumultuous history leave their unmistakable imprint on In the Fog: here the film’s setting is Belarus under German occupation during World War II. In an ironic act of cruelty, its main character, Sushenia, is let off by the Germans after an act of sabotage on a railway line, for which all his companions were hanged. This apparently merciful deed in fact leads everyone in his village, his wife included, to suspect Sushenia of collaboration, leading him to seek an escape into the surrounding gloomy woods. In terms of offering a serious interrogation of the human condition and the murkiness of ethical boundaries, In the Fog was the most assured rival for Haneke’s crown.
Fellow Eastern European Cristian Mungiu was also returning to Cannes with a sophomore feature, Dupa dealuri (Beyond the Hills). 4 Luni, 3 Septamâni si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) picked up the Palme d’Or here in 2007, and in doing so spectacularly consolidated the Romanian New Wave. The hype around this movement has largely died down in the five years since then, and Mungiu followed the devastating 4-3-2 with the featherweight anthology Amintiri din Epoca de Aur (Tales of the Golden Age, 2009) but his new effort is a strong return to form, and shifts the political tone from the overt denunciation of 4-3-2 to a more allegorical, allusive sphere. The film focuses on two girls, both in their early 20s, who, having grown up in the same orphanage, seem to have had a romantic past with one another. Alina later visits Voichita, who has taken up residence in a convent in a bout-du-monde part of rural Romania. Shocked at Voichita’s newfound piety, Alina feels distinctly out of place in the tyrannical atmosphere reigning over the remote cloister, but in order to be with Voichita (an amour fou which is mostly one-way), Alina resolves to join her religious calling. With her rebelliousness continuing unabated, however, the nuns, under the iron-fisted rule of the parish priest, are convinced she is possessed, and perform a violent exorcism on the young woman. At two and a half hours, Beyond the Hills is a slow-burning film, but the protracted build-up serves to bolster the emotional punch of the film’s intense ending. With its icy photography and handheld camerawork, Mungiu’s film is shot in typical Romanian New Wave style, and certain scenes (the litany of sins, the police interrogation) may well lead Beyond the Hills to be seen as both a summation and an exemplary instance of the movement’s aesthetic tendencies.
Two other films in the Competition warrant unswerving admiration. The appearance of a Hong Sang-soo film in Cannes has become as reliable as the seasons, and with Da-reun na-ra-e-suh (In Another Country), he gives us one of the highlights of the festival. Here the Korean presents us with a collection of three short narratives, connected by the bridging structure of a young film student writing stories to stave off boredom. All three segments feature the same actors, playing the same constellation of characters, in the same setting, but with modulations to the narrative events on each occasion. Isabelle Huppert is Anne, a French filmmaker on holidays alone on the Korean seaside, who has a series of subtle romantic run-ins with a male filmmaker known to her from the festival circuit, as well as, more improbably, a lifeguard on duty at the beach. In spite of Hong’s persistent bridling at the comparison, his film is unmistakably Rohmerian in its deft marivaudage, but his exploration of the concept of multiple identities and scenarios, and his governing narrative structure of repetition and variation, patently distinguish his work from the French master.
The presence of Huppert in both films may invite comparisons between Hong’s and Haneke’s efforts, but a greater resonance with In Another Country comes in the form of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies: Liebe (Paradise: Love), which also looks at Western tourists in distant lands. Those familiar with Seidl’s work in Models (1999) Hundstage (Dog Days, 2001), or Import/Export (2007) will know what to expect from the mordant Austrian, who here opens a prospective trilogy on Third World tourism with the tale of Theresa, a fat, middle-aged Austrian woman who leaves her teenage daughter at home in order to travel to a tropical resort in Kenya. After initial reluctance, and wariness towards the mercenary intentions of the pestering Kenyans she comes into contact with, Theresa proceeds to sleep with a series of young black men, who after the initial courtship all seek financial assistance from her. Seidl’s thematic concerns with Western privilege, self-satisfaction, and the commodification of human relationships, is continued in this work, and while he trades on the grotesquerie of the visual imbalance between the sleek bodies of the African men and Theresa’s flabby, pallid physique in starkly shot sex scenes, the film is undeniably engrossing, as we watch Theresa sink deeper and deeper into ignominy. The nadir of this is reached on her birthday night, when she and her three friends are unable to tease an erection out of the willing gigolo they hired, but the only effect this seems to have is to harden her into a callous treatment of the men she exploits.
The title of Resnais’ latest film, and quite possibly the last in the career of the 90-year-old, suggested a sequel to his first feature, Hiroshima mon amour. Vous n’avez encore rien vu (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet) did indeed take the form of a swansong, but in a very different way. Although the film does not start promisingly – with its blockbusteresque title sequence overbearingly scored by Mark Snow’s orchestral music – Resnais proceeds to develop an innovative scenographic apparatus, based on the interplay between three distinct levels of diegetic reality. Theatre director Antoine d’Anthac’s death is announced, and his final testament requires his favourite actors from past stagings of Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice (which was, incredibly, seen by Resnais in 1938) to assemble in his villa. A roll-call of high profile French actors – Sabine Azéma, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli and Pierre Arditi – thus gather to watch a video of a new performance of the play by a contemporary theatre company (a hackneyed attempt at avant-garde dramaturgy which was actually directed by Bruno Podalydés), before they themselves take to spontaneously acting out the roles, allowing Resnais to switch between the new staging, the actors gathered in the villa, and digitally-crafted realistic backdrops for the play’s action.
There are two types of filmmakers: those who are directors of actors and those who are creators of images. Vous n’avez encore rien vu, peculiar, uneven, and far from Resnais’ best film, nonetheless underlines the fact that, in his ability to combine adept acting performances with a taste for formal experimentation, he is one of the rare figures in film history to have successfully synthesised the two qualities. As his protean œuvre attests, Resnais is, in many ways, the complete filmmaker.
The rest of the Competition, however, was patchy, if not downright abysmal. After the gritty realism of both Gomorra (2008) and Un Prophète (2009), Matteo Garrone and Jacques Audiard came to Cannes with the more lightweight vehicles Reality and De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone), respectively. While the latter was touted as a coronation moment for Audiard – which was, to a certain degree, confirmed by the box office success for its immediate French release – in fact it is much weaker than his previous film, and does not even stand comparison to earlier work such as Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, 1996) and De battre mon cœur s’est arreté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005). Centring on the unlikely relationship between the shiftless, pugnacious father Ali van Versch and the bourgeois whale trainer Marie, who is wheelchair-bound after her legs are bitten off by an orca (a spiteful cousin of Free Willy’s eponymous hero, perhaps), the film is primarily let down by its storyline, which, derived from a collection of short stories, is overwrought, disjointed and veers into melodrama. With Reality, meanwhile, Garrone turns his Mezzogiorno eye to the theme of celebrity, as fishmonger Luciano becomes gradually more deluded in his obsession with becoming a contestant on Grande Fratello. A film which had the potential to be a piercing satire of the effect of Berlusconism on Italian society – especially in its suggested parallels between reality television and organised religion – is deflated by the overly nostalgic, even patronising depiction of the quirky Neapolitan community at its centre, a shortcoming not overcome by the charisma of prisoner-cum-actor Aniello Arena in the main role.
Of the American films in the competition, only Mud by Jeff Nichols was of any particular interest, but even in this case it was a significant drop from the quality of Take Shelter, one of the surprise packages of last year’s festival. Whereas the former film’s exploration of the place of paranoia in the American psyche gave it unexpected depth, Mud is comparatively superficial in its treatment of a riverboat community on the Mississippi, and its main achievement was to not make me viscerally hate Matthew McConaughey (as the titular Mud). Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was typically whimsical (although its immediate international release rendered a Cannes screening rather perfunctory), Killing Them Softly and Lawless seemed to drown in their antipodean directors’ penchant for excessive violence, while Walter Salles’ On the Road was remarkable only for being such an uninspired adaptation of an inspired original text. Is there any director in the world more ill-suited for grappling with the tempestuous world of Kerouac’s tale? In most films, there is at least something to grab one’s attention, an actor’s expression, a camera angle, a lighting effect which is in some way capable of stimulating the spectator. But here the director has attained the rare distinction of yielding a feature-length film which, from start to finish, is absolutely and unequivocally devoid of interest; that Salles was able to do so with Kerouac’s landmark novel is a truly astonishing feat of mundanity.
But On the Road was far from the low-point of the Competition, and, really, what else were we expecting from the Brazilian? When it comes to the work of someone of Abbas Kiarostami’s stature, however, the disappointment of a film as poor as Like Someone in Love is made all the more bitter. After his weak Tuscan jaunt in Copie conforme (Certified Copy, 2010), Kiarostami now shifts to Tokyo, to follow a curiously Platonic liaison between Watanabe, a retired sociology professor, and Akiko, a young prostitute he has hired for the night. When the venerable Watanabe drives Akiko to her campus the next morning, her boyfriend assumes he is her grandfather, and in typical Kiarostami fashion, they then live out the roles assigned to them. Certain formal tropes from Kiarostami’s œuvre recur in this film – the long, circuitous car-rides, the experimentation with shot/reverse-shot scene construction – and there is a genuinely emotional scene where Akiko listens to a litany of phone messages from a dejected grandmother. But these are smothered by crass photography and a shallow, vacuous storyline (as well as, according to Japanese critics, spectacularly bad acting performances – though it is impossible for me to judge this). The film is a nadir for the Iranian. After making masterpiece upon masterpiece in the 1990s, a superlative run of films whose uninterrupted mastery has few parallels in the history of the cinema (Hitchcock in the 1950s, Godard in the 1960s…), Kiarostami has not made a truly great film since 2002’s Ten: and has since then either confined himself to experimental work (Five , Correspondences , Shirin ), or the lackadaisical trifles of his last two films. Does this mark the onset of decadence for the maestro, where he tours the world Woody Allen-style, sending back bland postcards to his diminishing band of supporters? The fact that his next production is slated for Apuglia suggests so, and can only make us cry at the ignoble decline of a great artist.
In contrast to Kiarostami, I have always been more guarded about the work of Carlos Reygadas. Certainly, films such as Japòn  and Stellet Lijcht [Silent Light, 2007] were thematically provocative and visually arresting, but doubts as to the extent of Reygadas’ talents have always persisted in my mind, as his films have borne the traces of being derivative of the work of others (above all with Stellet Lijcht’s re-treading of Dreyer) and a hollow, faux profundity. These doubts were only confirmed by the execrable Post tenebras lux. I try to withhold from branding a film pretentious – a label which is invariably a pretext for philistinic critical laziness – but here, I must conclude, such an epithet is deserved. The film’s crepuscular opening is beautiful, as a girl frolics in the mud with a pack of dogs, but excessively Grandrieux-esque, and what ensues, elusively depicting the embittered marriage of a bourgeois couple with two young children, is self-indulgent, replete with gratuitous literary references, sprinkled with unwarrantedly provocative scenes and weighed down by grating allegory. A strange ripple effect is used on most of the shots for no apparent reason (other than Reygadas’ excitement at finding a new tool on Final Cut Pro, perhaps), and the cameo of a glowing red devil-creature – a childhood dream according to the filmmaker – smacks of being lifted straight out of Weerasethakul. Had this devil appeared once, it could have been a forgivable quirk, but that Reygadas chooses to book-end the film with the scene gives the figure a leaden, overtly-signalled symbolism, which is quickly followed by the most preposterous moment of the film, when a man standing alone in a field tears off his own head with his bare hands. A common response to Post tenebras lux by bemused festival attendees was to express a vague desire to catch a second screening, in case there was an underlying meaning to the film which could justify the motley asininity on display, but it will be a long time before I want to subject myself to this invidious experience again.
A number of out of competition screenings also provided the forum for well-established filmmakers to showcase new, but distinctly sub-par, works. Bertolucci’s Io e te (Me and You), his first film since 2003’s The Dreamers, was ably made, but its portrayal of two half-siblings, the teenaged loner Lorenzo and his troubled older sister Olivia, who for different reasons seek refuge in the family’s basement, is of crushingly low ambition, in spite of the suggestions of incestuous relations (in various directions) which would anchor it in the filmmaker’s broader œuvre. Far from evincing its status as the mature work of one of the luminaries of European modernist cinema, the film has the air of a tame debut effort by a fresh-faced film-school graduate. Without Bertolucci’s name, Io e te would be fated to play at Italian Film Festivals intent on providing a pleasant night out for middle-aged people with no taste in film. Even with his name…
Dario Argento, meanwhile, graced the Croisette with possibly the worst film that has ever screened at Cannes. To what extent Dracula 3D is deliberately bad is an open question, but it still leaves us scratching our heads as to what motivates Argento to embark on these projects in the first place. Surely you can do better, Dario! As it is, the only possible selling point for the film is the opportunity to see a continuous parade of 3D breasts – but this alone was not enough to prevent me from joining the stampedes exiting from the Salle Buñuel during the film’s only press screening. Weerasethakul’s work occupies the opposite end of the taste spectrum, but his one-hour mini-DV bagatelle Mekong Hotel will not be counted among his greatest films. Combining a documentary on the flooding of the Mekong Delta with a subtly suggested vampire story, the film fits into Weerasethakul’s preoccupation with mysticism, folk-legends and reincarnation, but it is (self-consciously) merely a sketch outline of a more ambitious work, and the screening was marred by the omnipresence of an irritating guitar refrain provided by a friend of the filmmaker (although apparently problems with the sound mix were at least partly to blame for this).
While the Competition’s stock in trade is the name auteur, the strength of Un Certain Regard’s programming lies in its ability to unearth new talents. The two young filmmakers who scooped up the prizes this year, however, failed to overly impress me. Michel Franco’s Despues de Lucia (After Lucia) was, frankly, a bizarre choice for the jury prize, as nothing in particular set this tale of high school bullying in the webcam era apart from its competition, while Beth Zeitlin’s Caméra d’or for Beasts of the Southern Wild was to be expected on the back of its triumph at Sundance, but the appeal of its energetic take on post-Katrina (and practically post-apocalyptic) Louisiana seemed to rest largely on the charms of Quvenzhané Wallis, playing the six-year-old gamine Hushpuppy. A far stronger and more courageous work, in my opinion, was the Bosnian Aida Begic’s Djeca (Children of Sarajevo). The devout Rahima takes care of her orphaned younger brother, and strives to keep him from the clutches of officious social workers, while working a menial job in a restaurant kitchen, but a run-in with the government minister responsible for the country’s corrupt privatisation process leads to her downfall. Introducing the film, Begic confessed to wanting to show a brighter picture of her home country, but fidelity to the truth of Bosnia’s situation prevented her from doing so, and the young director’s unvarnished depiction of social decay, cyclical violence and government criminality is of remarkable bravery, especially when so many figures in more comfortable positions choose to skirt around these same issues.
Outside of this, the delights of Un Certain Regard this year came from more established quarters. In Student, Omirbayev presented a contemporary Kazakh take on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which with its elliptical shot construction, understated performances and use of devices such as off-screen sound came close to the perfection of Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), and offered a denunciation of the post-Soviet kleptocracy on par with Begic’s virulence. Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s Le Grand Soir also stripped back the façade of modern capitalism, but their tool was anarchic comedy, and their setting was the strip mall wasteland of outer Bordeaux, with frustrated mattress salesman Jean-Pierre joining the outcast lifestyle of his aging punk brother Benoît (aka Not). A hit with the predominantly French public attending the screening, the spotlight-grabbing filmmakers used the platform to personally threaten jury-members into giving them the main prize, and went on to break the record for longest standing ovation at the festival (six minutes and three seconds) by doing a striptease to goad the audience into applauding.
Continuing his historical overview of modern Japan with 11:25 jiketsu no hi: Mishima Yukio to wakamono-tachi (11/25: The Day Mishima Chose his Own Fate), Wakamatsu once more tackles the 1960s era of student radicalisation. But he does so this time from the opposite vantage point of United Red Army (2007), focusing instead on the response of the extreme right, and, in particular the act of hara kiri committed by controversial novelist Yukio Mishima in 1970. Wakamatsu offers a reliably piercing psychological account of those involved in high-stakes political movements, but here he is rather let down by the film’s visual style, whose high-key lighting and beige sets give it the air of a daytime soap opera more than anything else. Xavier Dolan, meanwhile, was one of the youngest filmmakers present at Cannes, but with Laurence Anyways he is striding the Croisette for the third time. Stories of a tumultuous shoot (with Louis Garrel abandoning the production, to be replaced in the starring role by Melvil Poupaud), and the prospect of a 165-minute running time prepared me for the worst, particularly in view of the considerable backlash against his work after the precipitous acclaim given to his first two films. Some of Dolan’s more annoying stylistic quirks were in evidence once again (the slow-motion walks to camera, the incongruously loud bursts of pop music, the sophomoric attempts at visual poetry) but in the end the film is a sensitive look, played out over the course of the 1990s, at the emotional repercussions of a Quebec high-school teacher’s shock decision to become a woman.
After Frédéric Boyer’s controversial ousting from his position as director of the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, significant attention was placed on the selection of former critic Eduard Waintrop, in his first year in charge. Indeed, the minimalist arthouse proclivities of Boyer were eclipsed by a more eclectic line-up, from a programmer who had declared to Cahiers du cinéma that his major interest was “genre cinema from distant nations”. Thus we were graced with the 5-hour Bollywood gangster-epic Gangs of Wasseypur, the Korean anime Dwae-ji-ui wang (The King of Pigs), the Chinese period film Dangerous Liaisons, and British horror-comedy Sightseers (well, Britain can seem strangely distant in the eyes of a Parisian). But the two films which were far and away the highlights of the selection were both of Chilean origin: Pablo Larraín’s No and Raúl Ruiz’s La noche de enfrente. In the former, Gael Garcia Bernal plays René Saavedra, a real-life advertising executive hired by the opposition forces when Pinochet offers them a token television campaign in the lead-up to the 1988 referendum on the continuation of his rule. While the traditional forces of the left insist on emphasising the crimes of the dictatorship and conventional forms of political struggle,
Saavedra transforms the campaign into a feel-good message of rainbow-coloured consumerist bliss, and, in spite of the Pinochet camp’s routine intimidation tactics, the opposition resoundingly wins. Larraín convincingly charts the Pyrrhic victory involved in the left’s abandonment of its core principles and acquiescence with mediatised spectacle, a message bolstered by the film’s cyclical structure, concluding with Saavedra’s return to his old job, where he spruiks the same hollow platitudes he did in the beginning, as if nothing has changed. But the most remarkable aspect of the work is Larrain’s use of U-matic video, which gives the film a cinema povera feel, and allows him to seamlessly insert archival footage from the period, as well as gleefully revelling in the beauty of over-exposed flare when the handheld camera is pointed at a light source.
Similarly, Ruiz managed to capture an unexpected beauty from video, eliciting a warm, creamy look from his digital camerawork. La noche de enfrente is the third film to be released in the year since Ruiz’s death, and there is apparently one more in the offing. Dead, the Chilean veteran is more prolific than pretty much every living filmmaker, as befits someone whose life yielded more than 100 films. And could there have been a more fitting tribute to his œuvre than this beguiling, enigmatic film? Its loose, interlocking narrative, focussing on Don Celso, his mentor, French poet and high school teacher Jean Giono – who moves to Antofogasta due to the city’s name – and a smattering of the eccentric townsfolk, who number Beethoven and Long John Silver among them, is sprinkled with typically Ruizian surrealist humour and delivered in deadpan fashion.
The Semaine de la Critique, with its strict policy of only screening the work of first- or second-time filmmakers, always seems to be the last on the priority-list of even the most assiduous Cannes-goer, and so it was with me. I missed main prize winner Aqui y alla (Here and There), and so can not pass comment on the film, while neither of the two films from the selection which I did catch, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing’s soft directorial debut Au galop and the rather more experimental Bulgarian film Sofia’s Last Ambulance, were substantial enough for me to seek out more of Charles Tesson’s program. Where the former Cahiers writer did score a coup, however, was in the closing night screening of two short films, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker, following the slow-motion gait of a Buddhist monk through the bustling streets of Hong Kong, and João Pedro Rodrigues’ Manha de Santo António (Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day), which transforms the early-morning return commutes of party-goers into a strangely sedated zombie film
So it is that I come to the end of my festival report, which almost instils as much melancholy in me as the end of the festival itself. Cannes on the final weekend of the festival has a strange, seedy feeling, not too dissimilar to Rodrigues’ film. The market stalls have packed up, the journalists and industry figures have jetted back to their homelands. The buzz of film premieres has died down, the excitement of celebrity sightings subsided. The red carpets are soiled from a fortnight’s worth of trampling, and the few stragglers who are left behind are coping with a festival hangover which seems as if it will endure until next year’s opening night, knowing full well that, in 10 days, they have seen the vast majority of decent films which will come out over the course of the next 12 months.
And as I look back over what I’ve written, I am shocked at the vituperative tone of some of my judgements – which were already tempered from the vitriol of my initial notes. Almost as if to compensate for the giddy praise heaped on some films, I have been uncharacteristically savage towards others. The millions of dollars poured into these productions, the painstaking labour of vast crews, helmed by a director inhumanly dedicated to their artistic vision, all this has been dismissed by me, in the space of a few lines, on the basis of an inattentive viewing squeezed into an unrealistically hectic schedule. Ah! The petulance of the critic! Ah! The cruelty of Cannes!
Cannes Film Festival
16-27 May 2012
Festival website: http://www.festival-cannes.fr/
- Curiously, Cronenberg was joined at Cannes by his son Brandon, presenting his debut Antiviral in Un Certain Regard, and the two even held a joint press conference. But on the evidence at hand the younger Cronenberg still has a way to go before emulating his father’s talents, in spite of the fact that his glacial film was so un-Oedipal as to be a near-remake of Videodrome.