Cannes '09: Day Nine

 

Scrambling to write up yesterday’s films during a brief window between screenings—a window that’s so brief because the movie I just saw ran nearly three hours. Almost every film in Competition this year is needlessly long, frankly, which has reduced most of the press corps to zombies here in the home stretch. Certainly there’s no good reason why In the Beginning, which received this year’s coveted slot reserved for a little-known French director (Xavier Giannoli), needed to feel potentially endless, especially since the real-life story that inspired it, for all its huh-fancy-that appeal, has a fairly obvious trajectory. François Cluzet plays a petty thief and grifter, fresh out of prison, who stumbles into an economically depressed town in the north of France and pulls what’s intended to be one small scam involving the resale of construction equipment, only to be mistaken by the populace as an advance man for the giant firm that abandoned work on a new highway a couple of years earlier. When desperate local businesses start offering him advance cash kickbacks in exchange for contracts, the dude can’t resist, going deeper and deeper into character until he’s got people actually laying asphalt. I found Cluzet a bit too squirrelly as the everyman hero of Tell No One, but that quality serves him extremely well here in a more ethically ambiguous role, and he’s nicely supported by the unimonikered actress Soko as a struggling hotel maid who becomes his personal assistant and by the great Emmanuelle Devos as the town’s gullible (and randy) mayor. It’s a solid, absorbing account of a genuinely remarkable tale, but it just plain overstays its welcome at two-and-a-half hours; there are only so many variations on the internal struggle between avarice and compassion that a movie as conventional as this one can spin. Grade: B-

For true expertise regarding the fine art of repetition, look no further than Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, whose first feature since 2002, The Time That Remains, edges out Vincere as my favorite film in Competition this year (with only two left to see at this writing). Like his previous film, Divine Intervention, it’s a grim comedy structured as a series of deadpan blackout sketches, many of which recur with slight variations—in the exact same way as, say, the MacGruber bits on Saturday Night Live. In the context of daily life in an occupied country (from Suleiman’s perspective, at least), however, that approach proves remarkably bracing. As usual, Suleiman plays a version of himself, speaking no dialogue and wearing a baleful Buster Keaton expression; this time, however, he’s paying tribute to his parents, and so the film begins in 1948 just after the creation of Israel and then spends time in the ’70s and ’80s (with child actors playing “Suleiman” as a boy and teenager) before jumping ahead to the present day. And where Divine Intervention ultimately got a bit heavy-handed, ending on the overly symbolic image of a pressure cooker about to explode, The Time That Remains, while often bitter and never less than sorrowful, sticks mostly to brilliant sight gags, my personal favorite being the enormous Israeli tank that struggles to keep its primary gun on a Palestinian dude who’s pacing back and forth while having a totally mundane cell-phone conversation. (It also features Cannes 2009’s single best line: “This is my son. He’s fucked every mother in the village. I fucked his mother.”) On the one hand, seven years is too long to have waited for another singular work by this unique filmmaker; on the other hand, the fact that he could make almost exactly the same film seven years later is itself cause for sorrow. Grade: B, leaning heavily toward B+ (This is why I use the retarded 100-point system.)

Crud, I have to go stand in line for the next movie (which at least runs under two hours). Very quickly: A Town Called Panic is a feature-length version of a popular French stop-motion comedy series involving plastic children’s toys called Indian, Cowboy and Horse. And like most feature-length adaptations of short comedy bits, it mostly demonstrates that some things work best at 5-10 minutes and out, even as the movie still makes you intermittently laugh your ass off. I nearly had a hernia during the first ten minutes, then became gradually, slightly disenchanted over the succeeding hour or so. But with its deliberately amateurish vibe and its squeaky voice work, it’s clearly not for every taste; I kept having to move my head to see the screen past the steady stream of people walking out. If you want a sense of what it’s like, take a look. Grade: B-

Tomorrow: Terry Gilliam! Gaspar Noé! Sam Raimi! Is this Cannes or Fantastic Fest?