When Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Fast Food Nation screened here a few years back, I ended my review by noting that the film’s climactic slaughterhouse scene, clearly intended to inspire revulsion, had instead sent me straight to the McDonald’s located just a short walk from the Palais (Cannes’ enormous festival complex). Which was the truth, but not nearly as significant as I implied, since I was probably headed to Les Arches d’Or anyway. French dining is fantastic if you have a couple of hours to devote to the meal, but until last year I hadn’t found any local cuisine that serves the needs of the harried, on-deadline journalist—something you can wolf down quickly between screenings. (At the Toronto fest, for example, street-vendor hot links are my circle’s pseudo-meal of choice.)
Then I discovered the kebab-frites. (Not sure if that’s the proper name, but there is a website at kebab-frites.com.) Sick of McDonald’s, I stopped randomly at a small café off the Croisette and pointed to a picture of what looked like a chicken sandwich of some kind on their menu, also asking for fries (frites—as Steve Martin once said, it’s like those French have a different word for everything). A few minutes later, the sandwich arrived, but no fries. My mangled attempt to inquire as to their whereabouts provoked only a puzzled look from the counter dude, who pointed at my still conspicuously frite-less plate. Long story short, the fries were in the sandwich. Which turns out to be the greatest idea ever, at least for those of us with unapologetic junk palates. I have no idea why a tortilla filled with grilled chicken, hot sauce, and fries tastes so much better than eating the same sandwich and fries separately, but trust me, it does. Now all we need to do is figure out a way to bring this item to the U.S. without alerting KFC, home of the Famous Bowl and the Double Down, as they’ll take the idea way over the top and add not just fries to the sandwich but also corn on the cob, 16 oz. of soda, a bunch of napkins, and your receipt.
Of course, this is all irrelevant, since I may never eat again after seeing Outrage,Takeshi Kitano’s first yakuza flick in a decade. Emerging from a creative wilderness that involved a great deal of bizarre self-reflection—little-seen pictures like Takeshis’ (2005) and Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007) rank among the weirdest movies ever made by a brand-name auteur—Kitano has apparently decided to see what happens if he strips his signature genre exercise of everything save for its most crowd-pleasing element, viz. abrupt, gory violence. To that end, Outrage introduces a convoluted, virtually incomprehensible plot involving various rival families, then proceeds to spend the better part of two hours annihilating its entire ensemble cast, one by one (with occasional group massacres). For a while, the sheer absurdity of all the over-the-top carnage makes for fine black comedy; Kitano’s deadpan style wreaks big laughs from morning-after shots of gangsters sitting somberly in elaborate post-surgical gear (they usually wind up dead before recuperating), and once the audience catches on, just a view of a dentist’s office or the question “How many tongues do you have?” produces nervous titters. By mid-film, however, the endless parade of functionally anonymous deaths becomes monotonous, numbing, even dull—which was precisely the point, I believe, of Alan Clarke’s short feature Elephant,but there’s no indication here that Kitano intends any sort of statement about modern desensitivity. (Also, Elephant was only 40 minutes long.) What made Kitano’s early yakuza films memorable was their droll juxtaposition of cruelty and some diametrically opposed quality—frivolity in Sonatine, tenderness in Hana-Bi (Fireworks). Cruelty alone, Outrage conclusively demonstrates, amounts to an aesthetic dead end. Grade: C+
Moving just a little bit westward from Japan to China, but a world away in sensibility, brings us to I Wish I Knew, the latest state-of-my-nation report from Jia Zhang-ke. Given Jia’s stature among the egghead set—his Platform and Still Life placed 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in Cinematheque Ontario’s poll of the best films of the last decade—many were surprised that his latest wound up in Un Certain Regard rather than Competition, but they’ll be less so after they see the film, which is perhaps his least ambitious and his most scattershot. Like 24 City,it’s a documentary-fiction hybrid (more doc than fic this time), consisting primarily of interviews in which subjects sit comfortably and reminisce about their past—specifically, in this case, about their memories of Shanghai in the years just before and after the Cultural Revolution. Between anecdotes, actress Zhao Tao silently wanders across the modern-day city in shots that are frequently even more gorgeous than she is, which is saying a lot. As far as I could tell, there are no fake interviews (as there were in 24 City), but this collection of just-folks seemed to me much less compelling than Jia’s last; the most interesting recollections come from film-industry figures like director Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Flowers of Shanghai) and actress Wei Wei (the 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town), in part because this allows Jia to compare footage of Shanghai past to his own depiction of Shanghai present. Still, I couldn’t for the life of me work out Jia’s organizing principle, if any, and a graph of my interest level throughout the film’s 138 minutes would look mighty familiar to any seismologist. Why exactly did Jia want to make this film, even? Punchline’s obvious, right? Grade: C+
I’ve seen two additional Competition films since my last report, but have precious little to say about either of them, as they both bored me into a stupor. They’re getting respectful reviews elsewhere, though, so I figure I should at least let you know they exist. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man, about an elderly pool attendant in Chad who (in an inciting incident I just didn’t buy) sells out his son to the army in order to regain his job, probably falls into my longstanding blind spot regarding African cinema, which never seems to be able to transcend “worthy” in my eyes. Haroun’s widescreen compositions are sharp and evocative, but he has a regrettable tendency to slowly track into his protagonist’s sorrowful face whenever he thinks the film needs a shot of emotion, and it was hard for me not to imagine how much more urgent and purposeful this scenario might have been in the hands of, say, the Dardennes. As for Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier, adapted from the 1662 novel by Madame de La Fayette, I confess that I more or less checked out right at the jump, when the film opened with one of those historical-context scrolls that I’d thought Monty Python had killed forever decades ago. (“1568. It is a time of great strife in Europe,” le blah blah blah.) Others seem to be responding (albeit with more respect than passion), but for me the entire lengthy film was on costume-drama autopilot, with none of the wit and fire that (for example) Jacques Rivette brought to his adaptation of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais. We can only hope that this year’s Competition slate was back-loaded. Both films: C
Tomorrow: Looks more promising. Alejandro González Iñárritu has divorced his former screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, so we have reason to hope that his Biutiful won’t be yet another dopey exercise in fractured chronology. Also, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami teams up with Juliette Binoche, and Stephen Frears adapts a popular English comic strip. And then there’s Godard. That should start an argument.