There’s a tiny part of me that dreads coming to Cannes every year, and it’s because of days like today. Not that I much mind sitting through four or five interesting failures, though that can start to get a tad demoralizing after a while. As Theodore Sturgeon once accurately observed, 90% of everything is crap, and that’s as true at Cannes as it is everywhere else on the planet; I’m perfectly happy if just one or two movies knock me on my ass each year, and there’s still plenty of time for that to happen. No, what bothers me is the certain knowledge that back at home, everyone who’s seeing my barrage of B-’s and C+’s is writing me off as an irredeemable crank, and that it’ll be months (at least) before they see the films for themselves and—much more frequently than not, though Scott Tobias will deny it—concede that I was at least within spitting distance of correct.
As it happens, three of the five disappointments I’ve experienced since my last report fall into a personal blind spot involving movies that merely regurgitate real-life characters and/or events. So instead of my usual in-the-order-seen rundown, let me tackle those first, with a blanket disclaimer that fans of biopics and historical re-creations may not concur.
(1) Lifestyles of the Dead and Famous. Given her bizarre auteurist take on Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady—not remotely successful, to my mind, but certainly distinctive—the most surprising thing about Jane Campion’s Bright Star, which recounts the doomed romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, is how utterly BBC-conventional it is. Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) coughs up a storm as the consumptive Romantic poet; Abbie Cornish (Somersault) alternates between fierce and frail as the tale and 21st-century post-feminism demand, and the film as a whole is handsome, intelligent and tasteful to a fault, with no trace of the neo-Gothic fervor that made The Piano such a singular period drama. (There’s plenty of breathless poetry recitation, though, if that turns you on.) I confess that I started tuning out as soon as Fanny opened a copy of Endymion and promptly swooned at its opening line. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but a thing of plodding inevitability is just two hours of my time amiably wasted. Grade: C+
(2) Death to the Wiki-movie. None of the characters in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, adapted from the memoir by key organizer Elliot Tiber, is especially famous, but the story of the concert itself passed into legend long ago, which means that you’re just sitting there waiting for Max Yasgur to show up (hey, it’s Eugene Levy!), for the roads into Bethel to be jammed by barefoot hippies, for heavy rains to turn Yasgur’s field into a giant mud pit, and, inevitably, for Lee to employ the same split-screen effect that Scorsese and Schoonmaker used when editing Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock. Check, check, check, check, and check please. Daily Show correspondent Demetri Martin makes little impression as Tiber, and the rest of the cast tends to indulge stale ‘60s stereotypes, although British thesp Imelda Staunton has some testy fun as Tiber’s Russian-immigrant mom. It’s the kind of movie in which you know the acid just kicked in because the background suddenly goes all smeary-psychedelic (really? again?), and in which we’re prompted to chortle with retroactive knowingness at e.g. one promoter’s assurance that an upcoming free Rolling Stones concert will surely be a nonstop groovy lovefest. (I guess it counts as subtlety that he doesn’t actually say the word “Altamont.”) Harmless enough, but I expect a lot more from Lee and Schamus, even after Hulk. Grade: C+
(3) What, was there no phone book handy? Michel Gondry’s aunt Suzette, an elderly retired schoolteacher, seems to be a very nice lady, but I have no idea why he or the Cannes selection committee imagined that Thorn in the Heart would be of interest to anyone outside of Gondry’s immediate family. The title raises expectations of angst a-plenty, but the tone throughout is one of warm regard; you could make a documentary about some random octogenarian plucked off the street and have a good shot at stumbling onto a more eventful and interesting life than Suzette’s, frankly. (I myself have an aunt who became a Carmelite nun as a teenager, left the order some years later, and now lives a mysterioso crypto-lesbian existence in which nobody knows where her money comes from or whether the women she lives with and brings on family vacations are her lovers or what. True story. Now accepting offers.) Be ready for impassioned defenses of this glorified home movie from rabid humanists who believe that nothing is more worthy of our attention than the banal details of an utterly nondescript life, i.e. that “we all have a fascinating story to tell.” No. We don’t. Most people are dull from cradle to grave. THAT’S WHY MANKIND INVENTED ENTERTAINMENT. Grade: D
I didn’t much like Tetro, either, but at least it’s a genuine work of imagination, albeit one indebted to the overheated Oedipal dramas that were all the rage on Broadway when Francis Ford Coppola (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, for the first time since The Conversation) was an impressionable youth. Shot in stunningly gorgeous black-and-white (save for occasional color flashbacks), it tells the labored story of two brothers (Vincent Gallo and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) living in the cold shadow of their father, a world-renowned conductor (Klaus Maria Brandauer). How much you can roll with this deliberate throwback largely depends on how sick you are of artists working out their pathetic daddy issues; as you may have inferred, how sick I am of that = unto death. Youth Without Youth may have been messier and more risible (though the climactic twist here is pretty damn dumb), but I’ll take its dazzingly surreal middle third over this film’s endless declamatory hooey. Was it William Goldman or David Mamet who claimed that “great cinematography” is just a code phrase meaning “the script stunk”? Tetro should win the Best Cinematography Oscar in a walk. Grade: C+
Even scary French actress Marina de Van let me down today. Don’t Look Back, her second film behind the camera (and one of my most anticipated films of the festival), screws up everything that her gut-wrenching debut, In My Skin, got miraculously right. A big part of what made the earlier film so intensely disturbing is that its heroine’s descent into obsessive self-mutilation (bring the kids!) has no apparent cause, no glib Psych 101 explanation. Don’t Look Back boasts an equally arresting premise: A professional biographer attempting her first novel (Sophie Marceau) first sees objects in her house in different places than she’s always remembered them, then watches in horror as her husband and two children turn into different people altogether, and then herself turns into Monica Bellucci (obviously an upgrade, but never mind). This time, however, a traumatic and reductive incident from Marceau/Bellucci’s past is to blame—hence the title—which makes the entire film feel like the laborious setup for a dopey Twilight Zone twist. And where In My Skin was clinically detached and matter-of-fact, Don’t Look Back leans hard on a conventionally atonal musical score and cheap shock cuts, as well as some dubious special effects. (At one point the protagonist’s face is half Marceau and half Bellucci, which was clearly intended to be creepy but made half my audience bust out laughing.) That I can easily imagine an American remake is perhaps most damning of all. Grade: C
Tomorrow: those nutty Koreans Hong Sang-soo and Bong Joon-ho, plus Filipino newcomer Brillante Mendoza. At least one of those has gotta be a winner, right?