I’ve always wondered to what extent Thierry Fremaux (Cannes’ chief programmer) and his team can intuit which Competition films are most likely to be warmly received, and whether they devise the schedule with a particular critical rhythm in mind. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that in each of the last two years, after three days of titles that inspired rampant shrugging, the 8:30 a.m. screening on Day Four produced a sudden frontrunner. Last year, the insta-favorite was Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, which eventually won the Grand Jury Prize (second place); yesterday, Mike Leigh’s Another Yearearned the grateful, sustained applause of the weary press corps. Leigh’s film now leads Screen International’s annual critics’ poll by a wide margin (average rating: 3.3 stars out of 4; its closest competitor managed a mediocre 2.2), and I think it’s safe to assume that various awards, further high-profile festival slots, and a moderately successful U.S. release are in its future. Without question, Another Year is currently the toast of Cannes 2010.
So, of course, I found it mildly disappointing. That’s why they call me The Wet Blanket.
The problem, in my admittedly minority opinion, is that Leigh has recently started bending his characters to a predetermined theme, rather than allowing a fairly amorphous (but nonetheless resonant) theme to emerge organically from a collection of vivid characters. Happy-Go-Lucky seemed designed to upbraid us for our initial negative reaction to its relentlessly chirpy heroine, and Another Year, right from its stand-alone prologue (featuring Imelda “Vera Drake” Staunton, who then vanishes from the film), functions as a cautionary treatise on the unbearable misery of growing old alone. Of the moderate ensemble, only long-married Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), who have each other to lean on, seem remotely stable and content. (Their son stays on an even keel, too, but he’s only 30, and even he visibly perks up when he lands a new girlfriend midway through the year-long narrative.) Everybody in this model couple’s orbit, by alarming contrast, is a putrid cesspool of loneliness, and the movie ultimately does little more than observe these doomed specimens with measured pity. Most excruciating by far is Gerri’s coworker Mary (Lesley Manville), a middle-aged chatterbox whose desperation and neediness roll off of her in thick, congealed waves; Manville will very likely win this year’s Best Actress award, but I found her performance overly broad, telegraphing emotions that even really damaged people instinctively work to conceal. Like every Leigh movie, Another Year abounds in cherishable moments—I especially enjoyed Karina Fernandez’s goofy turn as the son’s girlfriend, who’s given to bursts of exaggerated pantomime—but the dolour gets laid on a little thick here for my taste, and Leigh’s choice to conclude the film by fading to black on an image of terrible sadness feels like a strange kind of rebuke. Okay, Mike, I’m depressed. Grade: B-
I felt depressed at the end of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, too, but only because it’s always a bit sad to see Woody Allen in slapdash, shoot-the-first-draft mode. His latest effort finds him back in London once again, engineering a series of hapless romantic entanglements designed to demonstrate his proposition—inarguable, really—that human beings are self-deceptive to the core, preferring comforting lies to the bleak, bitter truth. By the same token, though, most of us would rather see a movie featuring memorable characters and compelling situations than endure a lecture on the human condition, and Tall Dark Stranger comes up woefully short in the former category, stranding its able cast (Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Josh Brolin, Antonio Banderas) in hackneyed variations on bits from previous Woody Allen movies. When Hopkins, terrified of growing old, dumps his wife and takes up with a bubbly young bimbo (Lucy Punch), only to become frustrated by her ignorance of Ibsen (“those ghosts weren’t even scary!”) and beg to return home, you may find yourself wondering whether Woody even bothered to rewrite his dialogue from Husbands and Wives; when an omniscient narrator tells us in carefully modulated prose what various characters are thinking, you’ll certainly appreciate how much more elegantly Woody used that device just two years ago in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Only once, very late in the going, does Tall Dark Stranger threaten to generate something approaching real drama, as Watts, who’s been happily enabling her dotty mother’s reliance on a fortune teller (hence the title, though the “tall dark stranger” also represents Death), discovers that the medium’s fake pronouncements have squelched a hefty parental loan Watts needs to launch her own art gallery. But it’s just a cute bit of Alanis-style irony, quickly rendered as forgettable as everything else. Grade: C+
Thankfully, two robust, maniacally inventive movies about horny adolescents came along to salvage the day. To say that Xavier Dolan’s sophomore effort lives up to expectations won’t mean much to most of you, since his terrific debut, I Killed My Mother, which swept the awards in the Directors’ Fortnight here last year, has yet to open in the States. So just trust me: This French-Canadian kid (he turned 21 in March) is a born filmmaker, with the potential for greatness once he manages to shake off his many influences and develop a style of his own. Saddled with the lame English-language title Heartbeats—the French title is Les amours imaginaires, or Imaginary Loves—Dolan’s new film, from a narrative standpoint, is a nearly threadbare tale of unrequited love: boy (Dolan) and girl (Monia Chokri) meet hunk (Niels Schneider); both fall for him instantaneously; a pointed rivalry ensues (boy and girl are best friends); hunk remains oblivious and uninterested. But Dolan, plundering world cinema’s entire bag of tricks, makes this familiar tale sing, depicting his characters’ romantic obsession in gorgeous Wong Kar-wai-esque slo-mo and offsetting their lack of self-awareness with Woody Allen-esque direct-camera interviews featuring various people who otherwise play no role in the story. (These interviews are themselves worth the price of admission: “And I thought, if somebody died every time I hit ‘refresh,’ there would be nobody left on the planet, fuck.”) In the end, Heartbeats—man, it’s painful to even type that—feels a bit too thin and derivative for its own good, but it’s still hugely refreshing, given the insane degree to which art cinema is now ruled by what one might call The New Austerity (cf. Aurora, Day Two), to see somebody exploring the medium’s lush, seductive, expressionistic possibilities with such unbridled enthusiasm. Also, Louis Garrel is in this movie, but the movie ends seconds after he appears, which is how all movies featuring Louis Garrel should work. Grade: B
Even more hilariously entranced with the confused longing of the young, hip and largely gay is Gregg Araki’s appropriately titled Kaboom, playing in Cannes’ tiny Midnight section. After achieving a measure of mainstream respectability with Mysterious Skin and some cult success with Smiley Face, both based on other people’s material, Araki has now re-embraced the ludicrously overheated, unapologetically salacious shock comedies he made back in the ’90s—which didn’t sound to me like a promising development, since I found those films (Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere)tiresomely frenetic. Turns out maturity + technical skill + deliberate regression = awesome. To describe this movie’s insane plot, which involves prophetic nightmares and telepathic witches and creepy animal masks and world-dominating doomsday cults and attempts at auto-fellatio, would be an exercise in futility, and beside the point in any case. What matters is that Araki’s young actors are now as talented as they are preposterously beautiful, and that his comic touch has become remarkably nimble—there’s an exhilarating confidence here that was entirely absent from his work prior to Mysterious Skin, and it allows him to throw away lines and gags that he’d previously feel compelled to beat into the dirt. (One great running bit involves a smash-cut from some horrific or bizarre flashback to the character relating it, who then dismisses everything we just saw with a split-second “whatever” eye-roll before just forging ahead.) Kaboom isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, at least to judge from the screening I attended (which wasn’t at midnight, alas), but it’s the kind of movie that finds you massaging your jaw afterward because it hurts from 90 straight minutes of grinning like an idiot. And if it starts to seem towards the end like maybe the film is getting too caught up in its increasingly ridonkulous plot, to the detriment of its free-floating exploration of hormone-addled anxiety, all I can say is: have faith. Araki knows what he’s doing. Grade: B+
Tomorrow: Takeshi Kitano’s first flat-out yakuza flick in a decade and the latest state-of-my-nation report from China’s Jia Zhang-ke. Plus maybe some thoughts on the kebab-frites, a meal item that needs to come to America immediately.