More than anything else, what I want from the Cannes Film Festival—from the films in Competition, in particular—is to experience something that feels singular, unprecedented, visionary. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean “great,” either (though it’d be nice). Antichrist,for example, was perhaps my least favorite film in last year’s lineup (D+), but I nonetheless “reviewed” it via an open letter to Lars von Trier in which I thanked him, with utter sincerity, for at least trying to shake people’s foundations. Ultimately, whether we do or don’t enjoy a movie pivots on any number of subjective predilections and biases; what goes down in history are those rare, cherishable films that make everybody, no matter their personal opinion, exit the theater looking dazed and uncertain—capable of no more trenchant analysis, at least for the moment, than “Well, that was something.”
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is something and a half. If you’re familiar with Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (affectionately known as “Joe”)—his previous films include Blissfully Yours, Syndromes and a Century and the astounding Tropical Malady—then you’ll surely raise an eyebrow when I say that Uncle Boonmee may be his strangest and most mysterious picture yet, juxtaposing the earthly with the fantastic in a way that induces a nearly continuous trance state. Joe being Joe, Uncle Boonmee’s previous adventures in reincarnation barely figure into the quasi-narrative—I believe we see him as a water buffalo and as a facially disfigured princess who gets drilled by a talking catfish (there’s no time, just move ahead)—but the film as a whole is devoted to limning the porous border separating this world from the next, to mesmerizing effect. This is a film in which a mundane conversation is interrupted by the sudden materialization of Uncle Boonmee’s long-dead wife (an effect handled so subtly that I didn’t notice her until someone onscreen leapt startled from his chair), and just moments later this ongoing ghostly visitation gets almost completely forgotten, as you’re far too busy being freaked out by the appearance of Boonmee’s long-missing son, who is now a deeply unnerving cross between Chewbacca and a Jawa, all shaggy fur and pinpoint red eyes. (The first glimpse of this creature—there’s more than one—will be haunting my nightmares for years, though Joe reportedly based the look on cheesy monsters from the low-budget Thai horror films of his childhood.)
Still, tales of the supernatural aren’t exactly thin on the ground. What makes Uncle Boonmee so captivating is the way that Joe anchors the weirdness in everyday details, like the steps required for the title character’s kidney dialysis (which is initially administered by what I think is a medical student for hire, but gets taken over by the ghost of Boonmee’s wife). Even the film’s primary setting reflects this dichotomy, allowing for gorgeously eerie shots of a ramshackle house nestled in the thick darkness of northeastern Thailand’s jungle. And while parts of the movie are currently inexplicable to me, they’re inexplicable in a way that nonetheless “feels right” (unlike, say, the baffling bits in yesterday’s much less poetic Poetry)—I have no clue why Joe suddenly introduces a still-photo montage of what appear to be behind-the-scenes photos at a key dramatic moment, but some deeply buried region of my consciousness clearly understood, because I had to restrain myself from clapping my hands in what could only be called glee.
Because I’m a left-brain zealot who tends to distrust anything I don’t fully comprehend, I can’t yet give myself fully to Uncle Boonmee. (Tropical Malady is my favorite of his films in large part because it’s the one for which I can construct an intelligible thesis, though I’m also just partial to his animist-jungle mode—the more talking animals, the better.) It may take another viewing for me to feel as if I have a handle on what Joe’s up to, and my grade may go up or down (more likely up) accordingly. But there’s no denying that the movie’s sui generis mundane grandeur makes everything else in this year’s Competition—including Certified Copy, as much as I loved it—look thin and paltry by comparison. Ordinary. It’s been a long wait, but someone finally added the extra-. Very tentative grade: B+
Let me emphasize again, however, that extraordinary doesn’t automatically mean good. Case in point: Lodge Kerrigan’s inscrutable Rebecca H. (Return To The Dogs), playing in Un Certain Regard, which resembles no other film I’ve ever seen in a way that frankly made me want to claw my face off. In all honesty, I have zero idea what Kerrigan meant to accomplish with this doodle (it runs just 75 minutes), in which French actors Géraldine Pailhas and Pascal Greggory play characters in an unconventional Grace Slick biopic, as well as themselves as actors starring in an unconventional Grace Slick biopic (called Somebody to Love) directed by Lodge Kerrigan (appearing as himself—it’s probably ideal to see Rebecca H. at a film festival where he’ll introduce it), as well as their no-this-time-for-real selves (maybe) starring as actors in the previous film within the even more previous film (suck it, Charlie Kaufman!), as well as remote camera subjects who could just as easily be either the characters or the “actors” or the actors, since their only function is to be followed surveillance-style along the streets of Paris for minutes at a time as if they were in a Lodge Kerrigan movie, which of course they are, though who knows which one. Fans of this tediously self-reflexive exercise claim that it’s intended as auto-critique, but it seems a little premature for someone who’s only made three moderately interesting features (Clean, Shaven; Claire Dolan; Keane) to devote the fourth to puckish navel-gazing. In any case, absent any trace of wit or real complexity, much less any sense of why Kerrigan chose Grace Slick as his biographical MacGuffin, Rebecca H. will have trouble justifying its existence on any level…though I’d still rather have seen it in Competition than something like The Princess of Montpensier. Grade: D
Not much time left before I have to run over to the Espace Miramar and take a look at the grand prize winner in Critics’ Week, so in brief: Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, does an amazingly zingy job of laying out the convoluted CIA-leak scandal, serving as a welcome reminder that director Doug Liman, who’s been wasting his energy on vapid Hollywood crap like Jumper,was once at the helm of a movie very aptly titled Go. Once Plame’s cover is blown, however, the film gets busy turning both her and (especially) her husband into Great American Martyrs, which means that fast-paced Beltway machinations are replaced by lofty speeches in which we’re exhorted to “demand that truth!” Penn becomes insufferable—never give that guy a soapbox—and Watts, while adequate, is no match for Vera Farmiga’s awesomely blunt turn as Plame in Rod Lurie’s little-seen Nothing But The Truth.Grade: C+
Still, Fair Game is both more entertaining and less didactic than Ken Loach’s Route Irish, in which Mark Womack, apparently the shoutingest actor in England, bellows his way through a lackluster suspense plot involving a dead man’s cell phone that contains video footage of a cover-up in Iraq. (The film concerns private security contractors rather than the military, but that just seems like a token effort to do something slightly different—it could just have easily been soldiers.) As it turns out, the protagonist, who’s convinced that his best friend’s death was no accident, is meant to be unsympathetic—if you learn nothing else from this film, you’ll damn well learn that information extracted via torture isn’t always reliable—but while an unexpectedly bleak ending provides a welcome sting, it can’t remotely compensate for all the high-decibel tedium along the way. Seriously, this guy makes 24’s Jack Bauer (“WHERE ARE THE FILES! TELL ME! [gunshot wound to thigh] WHERE ARE THE FILES!”) look like freakin’ Jeeves. If you decide to see this one, bring earplugs. Grade: C
Tomorrow: Predictions for Sunday’s awards, plus a few stray films. Winding down.