Cannes '09: Day 11

 

Well, the lineup did look awesome on paper, you must admit. Pity about the actual films, for the most part, but some years simply have no towering masterpiece to offer. Even if most other critics liked Bright Star and A Prophet and The White Ribbon more than I did, I can say with absolute confidence that none of the above will be talked about 20 years from now the way we still talk about Do the Right Thing and sex, lies and videotape, to name just the two most prominent films from Cannes ’89. At best, Antichrist and Enter the Void may earn entries in the New Cult Canon (which I hope will be a book someday).

Ironically, many of you will learn which films in Competition won prizes this year before I do, since I’ll be flying over the Atlantic when the winners are announced this evening (about 1:15 p.m. Eastern time in the U.S.). For the various sidebar sections, however, the awards have already been announced, and I was lucky enough yesterday to catch the winner of both Un Certain Regard and the Directors’ Fortnight, both of which were stronger—in one case much stronger—than anything in the main event this year. So before I offer my picks and predictions for the Palme d’Or and so forth, let me quickly commend those two films (and one additional straggler) to your attention.

Not counting Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, a Berlin title that wasn’t really “in” Cannes, the only truly great film I saw here this year was Dogtooth, the second feature by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Kinetta), which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section. (Second place went to the universally admired Romanian drama Police, Adjective, which I wasn’t able to see; since Toronto Film Festival head Piers Handling was on the UCR jury, I think we can safely assume it’ll turn up there.) The less I tell you about this movie, the better off you’ll be in the event that it finds some sort of U.S. distribution; indeed, I’d encourage you to mentally note the title as a must-see and skip to the next paragraph. For those who must know something more (or already do): Dogtooth takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single house, inhabited by a married couple and their three adult children. (The “kids” look to be in their early twenties.) Though we rarely leave the property, we’re luckier than these nameless (as opposed to unnamed) offspring, who, we gradually come to understand, have never set foot in the outside world, having been indoctrinated and infantilized by Mom and Dad since birth. Lanthimos parcels out the details of this bizarre, self-enclosed world slowly, leaving much unstated and implicit. The opening scene, for instance, shows the kids listening to a tape recording on which their mother defines new vocabulary words for them—“excursion,” they’re informed, means the property of being solid and weighty—and only later do we realize that the words in question are all objects or concepts that imply the existence of life beyond the backyard fence. Films as ostentatiously absurd as this tend to encourage allegorical readings, and you can certainly approach Dogtooth that way; I could even make the case that it’s almost the same film as Haneke’s The White Ribbon, its portrait of incestuous, for-your-own-good despotism reduced from a small village to a single fucked-up family. But where Haneke chooses to punish the audience along with the characters, deliberately stripping his film of anything that might conceivably inspire even fleeting pleasure, Lanthimos makes his mini-fiefdom arresting for its own sake— partly by exaggerating its wanton cruelty until it approaches science fiction, partly by shooting everything from static, disorienting angles that suggest a grotesque parody of conventional domesticity. (Recurring montages of the hideously ugly factory where the father works seem to represent the world these twisted parents believe will corrupt their children’s innocence.) And then, as so often happens in apparently hopeless situations, Sylvester Stallone comes to the rescue. Beyond that, I can say no more. Grade: A-

Way more quickly (I have a plane to catch): I Killed My Mother, the winner of the top prize (and two other awards) in the Directors’ Fortnight, represents an impressive feature debut for 20-year-old Montreal filmmaker Xavier Dolan, who plays the titular “I” in addition to his role behind the camera as writer-director. No literal murder takes place in this energetic character piece, but the relationship between mother (Anne Dorval, superb) and son seethes with enough mutual acrimony, complicated by fleeting bursts of real tenderness, that it’s a wonder neither one of them keels over from sheer exhaustion; at times I was reminded of the duet between Alison Steadman and Jane Horrocks in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet, which is some of the highest praise I can bestow when it comes to magnificently heightened and yet entirely credible parent-child relationships. Grade: B


Finally, I want to put in a reasonably good word for Tsai Ming-liang’s Face, which is mostly getting the critical shit kicked out of it. To be honest, I can understand why: While Tsai’s fixed compositions are typically stunning, this movie makes no sense whatsoever except within the context of its director’s ongoing project, and is fairly cryptic even then. Because it’s set mostly in Paris and features such French icons as Jean-Pierre Léaud, Fanny Ardant, and Jeanne Moreau, most people conclude that it’s Tsai’s tribute to the Nouvelle vague, but that strikes me as something of a red herring, even if his love for French cinema is unquestionably sincere and deeply felt. More than anything else, Face seems to me an oblique requiem for the kind of movie Tsai has been making for his entire career—a style and worldview that seemed to reach its natural conclusion with the extreme nihilism of his best and most despairing picture, 2005’s The Wayward Cloud (also critically reviled). At the time, I wondered aloud where Tsai could go from there, and Face seems to be asking much the same question; that the director himself appears alongside Lee in the final shot almost suggests a passing of the torch, to some degree. (For a long time exclusively an actor in Tsai’s films, Lee is now a filmmaker himself [The Missing, Help Me Eros], and is also playing one here.) It’s a film so personal that it’ll only likely appeal to his most hardcore fans. I’m one of them. Grade: B

Okay, without further ado, here are my personal choices for the Competition prizes, along with my guess for what the jury might actually pick. Because the jury is encouraged to spread the wealth among numerous pictures, I’ll be doing the same. NOTE: All of my guesses will be incorrect, guaranteed. I virtually never get these right (and actually suspect it’s easier to play swami at home when you haven’t seen the actual films).

Palme d’Or

My pick: The Time That Remains. It’s a close call between this and Vincere—the latter is more audacious and vital (for its first half), the former more consistent. That a Palestinian filmmaker has never won the Palme tips the scales in Elia Suleiman’s favor. Also I gave it one more point—70 vs. 69—on the retarded (yes, it is retarded) 100-point scale.

My guess: Wild Grass. Obviously A Prophet is still the front-runner, but I think that film is ultimately too safe and staid for a jury headed by Isabelle Huppert and featuring Asia Argento. Whereas Resnais’ film has the benefit of being both superficially “charming” (sorry, this movie demands all kinds of scare quotes) and totally insane. And while that would mean giving France the top prize two years in a row, Resnais hasn’t had a film in Competition here since 1980, so it’s not like they’re rubber-stamping or anything.

Grand Prix (basically second prize)

My pick: Vincere. See above. If only it didn’t lose steam in the second half.

My guess: A Prophet. See above. Note that Gomorrah got this award last year, and Audiard’s film is similarly cold, exacting and scrupulous.

Director

My pick: Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void. Whatever the faults of this film’s screenplay and performances, it’s inarguably the most visually astonishing film at Cannes this year.

My guess: Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon. They have to give him something, and if I’m positing two other films for the Palme and Grand Prix, this is what’s left. My one (big) reservation is that Haneke won this award for Caché just a few years ago, and I’m guessing Huppert remembers that, if nobody else on the jury does. So they might be disinclined to give him another consolation prize so soon, in which case White Ribbon may win one of the above awards and Resnais or Audiard may wind up here.

Screenplay

My pick: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain, A Prophet. (Since I can’t give it to Up, which screened Out of Competition.) Unlike most of my colleagues, I don’t consider this film much more than a solid, overly familiar genre effort, but its primary strength is in its slow accretion of details, which is the screenwriter’s area of expertise.

My guess: Jane Campion, Bright Star. There’s lots of, y’know, poetry and shit.

Actress

My pick: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Vincere. Mostly because her performance is so outlandishly feral that I’m afraid if I don’t so honor her she may leap out of the screen the next I see this movie and disembowel me with her teeth.

My guess: Katie Jarvis, Fish Tank. I didn’t see anything terribly special in this non-professional teen’s sullen demeanor and bad dancing, but everybody else apparently did.

Actor

My pick: Tahar Rahim, A Prophet. It’s not often a completely unknown actor can carry such a lengthy and complex film entirely on his shoulders. His slow metamorphosis from timid jailhouse newbie to scary badass is wholly credible every step of the way.

My guess: Tahar Rahim, A Prophet. He’s just too obviously awesome.

Jury Prize

I never try to guess these as they tend to be kind of random (they can go to anything from a film to an actor to a technician), so I’ll just say that I hope the jury can find a way to give something to Christoph Waltz, who came out of nowhere and made Inglourious Basterds his own. That opening scene deserves some special award of its own.

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