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Cannes '09: Anticipatory Salivation


I am not supposed to be here.

Howdy all. My name is Mike D'Angelo, and I'll be reporting daily from this year's Cannes Film Festival, which we can only hope will be half as mindblowingly awesome as it looks on paper. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, frankly. Usually, it works like this: Sometime in late February or early March, Variety and the other trades float a bunch of potential Cannes titles, based on which major directors are known to have films in post-production. Invariably, it's a list to make any cinephile's heart start pounding double-time...and invariably, half of those films don't actually show up. Until this year, that is, when all of them showed up. Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar, Ang Lee, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, Park Chan-wook, Gaspar Noé, Tsai Ming-liang, Johnnie To, Jane Campion (for the first time since The Piano), Alain Resnais (for the first time since 1980's Mon Oncle d'Amérique!)...there's more, actually, quite a lot more, but I need a moment to wipe the drool off my shirt.

Needless to say, not all of these films will be masterpieces, or even necessarily watchable. But every single day for the next two weeks brings a potential masterpiece, and often more than one. In truth, I will most likely function as your regular dose of cold water, as I'm a notorious hardass who almost never gives an A-, much less a flat A*. (I've been attending Cannes since 2002—with the exception of last year, which see below—and my only A to date is Dogville.) Oh yes, there will be blood. Right now, though, everything is unseen and pristine, pure possibility. And every film that survives the disillusionment gauntlet should make you very excited indeed.

(* For those of you familiar with my work: No, I will not be infecting this fine upstanding journalistic enterprise with the retarded 100-point rating scale. The curious and masochistic will find those ratings on my personal site, but I'll be using the AVC's good old letter grades hereabouts. )

Just how did I land this plum gig, some of you may be wondering? Therein lies a pretty amazing tale. Though I've never before written for the A.V. Club, I've been a professional film critic for the past dozen years, primarily for Time Out New York and Esquire. When the economy tanked last year, however, so did much of my profession, as you may have heard. I'll spare you the sob story—suffice it to say that last year I decided I couldn't afford to attend Cannes, and didn't. Nor could I even remotely afford it this year. Back in January, however, in a blog post explaining why I wouldn't be at Sundance, I parenthetically mentioned that I was considering launching a hey-guys-send-me-to-Cannes fund, the idea being that faithful readers could donate whatever tiny sum (I suggested $10) that they felt my reports from the festival would be worth to them.

In all honesty, I never expected anything to come of this goofy idea—it was a total whim on my part. But people quickly responded, and I was able to find a site that would allow me to collect pledges without actually charging anyone unless I reached a predetermined goal amount. I put that page up late one night, went to sleep, and awoke the next morning hoping to find maybe $50 or $60 to get things rolling. (Stupidly, I didn't even think to seed it myself.) Instead, I found about $750. Overnight. I had the full two grand in a week, and no sooner had I reached the goal than Scott Tobias, who knows a good deal when he sees one (and who has been my partner in crime at the Toronto festival for almost a decade) (and whose ass I regularly kick in the late-night poker games there, and let's just see if this parenthetical survives his editorial blade)—anyway, Scott quickly offered to make me the AVC's first-ever Cannes correspondent. So if you enjoy the next couple of weeks, thank the numerous generous folks—every one of whom I love dearly—who willingly coughed up a few bucks in this crap economy to make my presence here possible. Also, I promised to cite anyone who gave me at least $50 by name; this introductory post is brought to you by Mr. Oge Bozyigit.

Okay, so let me quickly break the festival down for those of you unfamiliar with its various sections, to which I'll be referring frequently in days to come.

COMPETITION: Reserved for the heavyweights, viz. pretty much everyone I mentioned above. This year's lineup is the most auteur-driven in recent memory; of the 20 directors vying for the Palme d'Or, only one—Spain's Isabel Coixet (Elegy)—hasn't been in Competition before. Two Competition films generally screen for the press each day, one in the early morning and another in the evening; these are the titles that'll be getting most of my attention. Personally, I'm most excited about the Von Trier, if only because when I first heard that his next film would be called Antichrist I assumed that was just a really good joke, and then laughed harder still when I discovered that it's for real. And I have two weeks to steel myself for Gaspar Noé's sure-to-be-harrowingEnter the Void, screening on the penultimate day; I still vividly remember the mass exodus Irreversible inspired seven years ago on my first trip to the Croisette.

UN CERTAIN REGARD: Festival honcho Thierry Fremaux swears up and down that UCR is not the minor leagues, but everybody knows otherwise; it's mostly populated by directorial debuts (competing for the Camera d'Or, for best first film) and lesser efforts by name auteurs. This year, however, Competition is so jam-packed that some pretty major filmmakers can be found in this section, including Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows), Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) and even previous Palme d'Or winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), though he's just one part of a Romanian omnibus film. And you never know when an unheralded effort like 2005's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu may emerge from UCR to blow everybody (except me) away.

(Quick aside: I actually walked out of Lazarescuat Cannes that year, though I wound up rewatching it from start to finish at the New York Film Festival later that year, after I'd read all the raves. [Still didn't like it, but I have an issue with movies that just depict some wretched soul being mercilessly trampled by an unforgiving System.] And I'll surely walk out of some films this year, though they won't be films by anyone you've heard of. I give movies by unknown directors two reels, or about 35-40 minutes, to grab me; if I'm not impressed/engaged by that point I give up and move on. Life is too short—did I mention that I was at the Toronto Film Festival on 11 Sept. 2001, and for days thereafter?—and the vast majority of films I've walked out on have never been heard from again. In all likelihood I won't even mention these, but if you happen to check my personal site and see the "W/O" designation, that's what that means.)

OUT OF COMPETITION: Self-explanatory, really. E-ticket items that were deemed unsuitable for the main event, for whatever reason. The big guns this year are Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which you probably know is the film Heath Ledger was shooting when he died (his role was taken over by Johnny Depp, Jude Law andColin Farrell, which just goes to show how much actor that dude was), and Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, which had what I gather was a work-in-progress screening at South By Southwest last month. And of course there's Up, the new Pixar joint, which I'll be seeing later today. But I'm most stoked for Don't Look Back, the second film by scary French actress Marina de Van, whose little-seen and nearly unwatchable (in a great way) directorial debut, In My Skin, remains the most potent example of body horror this side of early Cronenberg.

DIRECTOR'S FORTNIGHT: Technically, this is a completely separate festival, similar to Slamdance, that just happens to take place concurrently with the Festival de Cannes, right down the Croisette in the basement of the Noga Hilton hotel. But in fact everybody thinks of it as another Cannes sidebar, and this year it features a number of films that look as if they might have fit comfortably in Competition—most notably Hong Sang-soo's Like You Know It All—which if nothing else sports the best title of any film in the entire lineup—and Francis Ford Coppola's forthcoming Tetro, starring former Cannes whipping boy Vincent Gallo. (The Fortnight will also be showing several Sundance favorites, including Humpday, which I've already seen and can confirm is easily among the year's best films; ignore the lame trailer.)

CRITICS WEEK: Another parallel festival. I don't really know what this is, to be honest; in six years I have yet to see anything they've shown, largely because the theater they use is way the hell somewhere else. I'm pretty sure they focus on first- and second-time directors, and some fine films have premiered in this section over the years—Amores Perros, Duck Season, drama/mex—but if something magical should turn up this year, you'll probably hear about it from Scott or Noel at Toronto. 'Cause by the time I get word of it here, it'll be too late.

THE MARKET: The seedy underbelly of Cannes, pimping everything imaginable, from Berlin prizewinners to direct-to-video (if they're lucky) exploitation knockoffs. Hundreds of films are screened daily, all over the city; there are dozens of tiny screening rooms within the Palais (the main festival complex) devoted solely to the Market. I haven't managed to get hold of this year's massive schedule yet, but if anything intriguing is making a stealthy off-the-record debut—as films like Bong's Memories of Murder and David Gordon Green's Undertow have done in years past—I'll certainly do my best to take a look. (Sometimes they don't admit press.)

PRESS CONFERENCES, PARTIES, BIG DUMB GALA PROMO EVENTS INVOLVING JERRY SEINFELD IN A BEE COSTUME OR WHATEVER: I don't do that shit, sorry. I'm either watching films or writing about them, and there are barely enough hours each day for that plus hasty meals and maybe half a decent night's sleep. If it's celebrity anecdotes or local color you seek, you've come to the wrong place. I may have some nerdy film-critic tales, though.

And away we go. I'll be posting reports daily, but as I'm 6-9 hours ahead of the U.S. they may appear at odd times, often in the middle of the night (which will be morning for me). For immediate reactions, look to my Twitter feed, which I'll try to update immediately after each screening. (I'll file letter grades there as well as my retarded 100-point ratings, so as not to perplex anyone.) And I'll respond to comments as time and press-room access permit, though be forewarned that I'm, uh, argumentative. To say the least.