After surviving the gynocidal assault of Antichrist—and its combative press conference, in which Lars von Trier declared himself to be the greatest filmmaker in the world and coldly reminded the press corps that they were his invited guests rather than vice versa—critics were apparently in the right frame of mind for Ken Loach’s atypically lighthearted Looking for Eric, in which a stressed-out Manchester postal worker (newcomer Steve Evets) receives cryptic advice on life and love from retired soccer legend Eric Cantona. Judging from the warm, affectionate laughter with which this largely European crowd greeted Cantona’s every appearance, I can only imagine that this must be what Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam would have been like had Humphrey Bogart still been around to tweak his own image; for those of us meeting this footballer for the first time, however, he’s basically just a bearded French dude who can’t act, the impressive introductory montage of some of his most memorable goals for Manchester United notwithstanding. And while Loach and his regular screenwriter, Paul Laverty, demonstrate a capable comic touch in the film’s first half, which mostly concerns the postman’s hesitant attempt to reconnect with the ex-wife he abandoned decades earlier, they can only stifle their social-realist natures for so long. Enter a gun, a local psychopath, a phalanx of improbably abusive cops, and much improvised screaming and shouting, all culminating in a ludicrous feel-good climax involving the siege of the psychopath’s home by dozens of middle-aged postal workers wearing Eric Cantona masks. After sweating blood with such films as Land and Freedom, My Name Is Joe and The Wind That Shakes the Barley (which won the Palme d’Or only three years ago), Loach has earned the right to make a cute, harmless crowdpleaser, but it’s destined to be a career footnote at best. Grade: C+
Thankfully, today’s other Competition entry turned out to be far more audacious, especially considering its potentially dry subject matter. Italy’s Marco Bellocchio made a huge splash with his debut feature, 1965’s Fist in His Pocket, and has been working steadily ever since, but his recent films, which include My Mother’s Smile and Good Morning, Night, have struck me as a tad stodgy and abstruse. So when his latest effort, Vincere, introduced Benito Mussolini right off the bat, I confess that I inwardly groaned, steeling myself for another dull, dutiful biopic. Whereupon the 70-year-old Bellocchio unleashed an aural and visual assault so dizzying and unrelenting that it more or less recapitulates the birth of Fascism in cinematic form. Mundane film-critic adjectives like “operatic” and “expressionistic” fail to convey the vivid sense of being steamrolled in your seat by the first hour’s nunchuck intertitles (I swear one nearly took my head off), speed-demon pace, shrieking violins and silent-era performances. As Mussolini, Filippo Timi evinces the fearless bravado of the young Nicolas Cage, which makes it startling to see him repeatedly upstaged by Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s astonishingly feral work as Ida Dalser, who was allegedly Il Duce’s first wife and the mother of his first-born son. As it turns out, Vincere is ultimately an exposé that laments the way these two innocents were first tossed aside and then, when Dalser refused to go away quietly, institutionalized, which is a bit like making an entire movie about how Pol Pot used to smack his wife around. And when the film’s agenda finally crystallizes—the second hour sticks exclusively with Dalser and her son, viewing Mussolini only via archival footage (which is a bit disorienting, since Timi looks nothing like him)—Bellocchio’s formal ingenuity largely subsides as well, though Mezzogiorno remains mesmerizingly larger than life. Maybe I’m just a sucker for any historical drama that doesn’t go plod plod plod, but so far Vincere is easily my favorite film in Competition this year, despite being one of my least anticipated. And if Fish Tank’s fine but unremarkable Katie Jarvis beats Mezzogiorno for Best Actress, I’m breaking out some actual nunchuks. Grade: B
And now for something completely awesome. (Finally!) I haven’t attended the Berlin Film Festival since 2001, but one of the nice things about Cannes is that virtually all of the major Berlin titles screen in the Market, allowing one to play catch-up on days when the main festival’s sidebar pickings look relatively slim. I’d heard mixed things about François Ozon’s Ricky, about a flying baby (no kidding), but couldn’t resist taking a look for myself; while I appreciated Ozon’s matter-of-fact approach to such a fantastic premise, the movie ultimately makes no damn emotional sense. I left shrugging. (C+, if you’re wondering.) But Everyone Else, the second feature from Germany’s Maren Ade, pretty much wiped the floor with me, to the point where I was grateful that nobody else stuck around for the closing credits, so that I didn’t need to hide my surprised tears. Ade’s little-seen debut, The Forest for the Trees—a singleminded “horror film” (not literally) about a lonely young woman with zero comprehension of social boundaries; look for it on DVD from Film Movement—had knocked me for a loop a few years ago, but I was still unprepared for this razor-sharp dissection of a relationship in crisis, which somehow manages to be at once plotless and gorgeously structured, its theme emerging slowly and taking on additional heft with each successive, apparently rambling scene. Birgit Minichmayr (Downfall, Falling) and Lars Eidinger (who I’d never seen before) play a couple so intent on avoiding bourgeois cliché that they effectively choloroform any hint of genuine affection; without pounding you over the head, Ade makes a case for the importance of kitsch in romance, for the need to embrace with your lover the same gestures and platitudes that so nauseate you when you see them indulged by others. And yet the film is way thornier than that, contradicting itself in fascinating ways at every turn. (Both actors are stupendous.) Ade is clearly a major new voice in world cinema; I expect to see her at Cannes many times in future, and not in the Market, either. Grade: A-
Tomorrow: Alain Resnais, Pedro Almodóvar, and the directorial debut by the writers of Bad Santa.