Cannes '09: Day Four

 

Well, we have a frontrunner. Jacques Audiard’s epic prison drama A Prophet, which screened early Saturday morning, received the most sustained applause I’ve heard for any film thus far and now sits atop both of the daily trade polls (about which more below). And yet my hunger for something bold and visionary remains unsated. From the moment we’re introduced to Malik El Djebena (played with an impressive mix of vulnerability and flint by newcomer Tahar Rahim), it’s obvious that his six-year stretch will see him gradually metamorphose from terrified new fish to intimidating kingpin—the only real question is what percentage of his soul he’ll surrender along the way. Audiard’s previous films include Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and he continues to be France’s best approximation of a badass genre stylist; an early, exacting sequence in which Malik, who’s chosen to keep to himself rather than stick close to his fellow Muslims, is tapped by the Corsican mob to befriend, seduce and murder a fellow inmate achieves heights of queasy tension unusual even for brutal prison movies. But this is still at bottom an exceedingly familiar tale that over the course of two and a half hours takes on a plodding, somewhat mechanical rhythm, as we watch Malik quietly manipulate a situation to his long-term advantage over and over again. That Malik is an Arab allied with Corsicans (who treat him as a pet at their most welcoming) gives A Prophet some superficial socio-political currency, but Audiard clearly favors a more primitive and personal species of empowerment. After a while, it’s just dominoes falling. Grade: B-

More original and more satisfying, despite having been relegated to the Un Certain Regard ghetto, is Mother, which confirms South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) as one of world cinema’s most versatile and arresting talents. His playfully idiosyncratic touch is evident from the opening shot, in which a 50-something woman (Kim Hye-ja, who I gather is the Korean equivalent of somebody like Marion Ross or Florence Henderson in terms of her established TV persona) stumbles through a field in an apparent daze and then breaks into a tentative dance routine, playing directly to the camera—a bewildering salvo that’ll only seem more disturbing and mysterious by film’s end, when this scene (sort of) recurs in context. In between, Bong explores the furthest reaches of maternal instinct, as this frail bulldog of a mom fights to clear the name of her mentally damaged son, who’s been arrested for the murder of a schoolgirl; both director and actress fully commit themselves to the title character’s lovingly warped psyche, and the atmosphere is Hitchcockian enough to make the film feel a bit like Psycho in reverse. Not only is Mother superior to everything I’ve seen in Competition thus far, but its UCR placement robs Kim of the Best Actress award she so richly deserves; that she never once slips into caricature or begs for easy pathos is miraculous, and I can only imagine how subversive her performance must be for a Korean audience. Alas, I’m pretty sure I napped through a good 15 or 20 minutes in the middle—one of the occupational hazards of the film festival, where you often get only 4-5 hours of sleep—so my grade will have to be tentative, and I’m erring on the side of caution/conservatism. But see this film. Tentative cautious conservative grade: B


Where Bong likes to tackle a new genre every time at bat, his countryman Hong Sang-soo is notorious for making essentially the same movie every time, with increasingly minuscule variations. His latest effort, Like You Know It All, boasts his usual bifurcated structure, in which the film more or less reboots about halfway through, and continues his self-deprecating journey deep up his own ass, focusing upon an arty, commercially unsuccessful film director whose life and work matches Hong’s in almost every detail. I’m generally a fan, and enjoyed Hong’s three previous films (Tale of Cinema, Woman on the Beach, Night and Day—only one of which got even a token U.S. release), but diminishing returns are finally beginning to set in, I’m afraid. For the first time, it feels as if he’s employing his standard tropes simply because he can’t think of anything else to do (and then covering his ass by having his onscreen surrogate admit as much); there isn’t a scene in this film that can’t be traced back to a similar scene in one of his other films. And while I’m all for writing what you know, Hong’s in-jokiness is getting out of control—that it’s not in Competition may well have something to do with the Festival’s reluctance to hand its jury a movie about a filmmaker serving on a festival jury, complete with rib-nudging scenes of the juror in question dozing through every screening. I love this guy to death, but it’s definitely time for him to attempt something new. Grade: C+

And then there’s Kinatay, the latest from Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, which I frankly don’t know what the hell to do with or how to assess. From a strictly formal standpoint, this is perhaps the most audacious film to be shown thus far: excepting a brief prologue and epilogue, it unfolds entirely in near-total darkness, with the actors and action only fleetingly visible via headlights, streetlights, flashlights, etc. Not that you particularly want to see what’s happening, mind you, because it’s non-stop hideous. The story, such as it is, concerns a perfectly nice young man who’s studying to be a cop while also working as a gofer for a local drug ring. To make a little extra scratch—he’s just married the mother of his infant child—he agrees to accompany the gang on an unspecified errand, which turns out to be the abduction, rape and unbelievably gruesome murder of a young woman who’s apparently fallen behind in her payments. (The film’s title has been variously translated as Butchered and Slaughter.) There’s no drama, no moral, no respite and (arguably) no point; like us, our “hero” can only watch in mounting horror and fervently wish himself elsewhere. It’s a singularly grueling experience from which I learned nothing except that I can survive singularly grueling experiences. (By contrast, Gaspar Noé’s even more brutal Irreversible, which had people fleeing the Palais in droves seven years ago, uses its reverse structure to achieve real philosophical weight; it’s the rare film in which nearly unwatchable violence has a genuinely moral purpose.) I admire Kinatay for its uncompromising rigor—the lengthy van ride, which constitutes nearly half the film, is a tour de force—but I can’t bring myself to like it. Grade: C

 

Needless to say, not everyone here shares my ludicrously high standards (or hopeless crankitude, if you prefer). But it’s still been a relatively quiet Cannes thus far, with only three films achieving anything like a consensus of praise. Screen International asks a panel of international critics to rate each Competition film on a scale of zero to four stars; here’s the rundown as of Sunday morning (average ratings):

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard): 3.4

Bright Star (Jane Campion): 3.3

Thirst (Park Chan-wook): 2.4

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold): 2.3

Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee): 2.0

Spring Fever (Lou Ye): 1.6

Le Film Français, which only polls French critics (and also includes some Out of Competition titles), more or less concurs, though their scale is radically different than Screen’s as everything above one star is basically positive to some degree. So only compare the relative ranking, not the actual averages.

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard): 3.40

Up (Pete Docter): 2.69

Bright Star (Jane Campion): 2.40

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold): 2.00

Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee): 1.85

Spring Fever (Lou Ye): 1.71

Thirst (Park Chan-wook): 1.67

Don’t Look Back (Marina de Van): 0.75 (ouch!)

So basically: A Prophet, Up, Bright Star, meh. But I’m not concerned. Of the 20 films in Competition this year, eight were directed by filmmakers who’ve made at least one film I love. And of those eight, not one has yet screened. We’re being lulled into a false sense of security, I suspect.

Tomorrow: Johnnie To, the well-regarded Canadian high-school-shooting drama Polytechnique, and Mr. Lars von Fucking Trier.

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