Cannes '10: Day One

So far, all anyone can talk about here at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival is that goddamn volcano. Was your flight delayed? How long? My trans-Atlantic took this enormous two-hour parabolic detour over freakin’ Greenland and Iceland—just how big is that ash cloud, anyway? I’ve heard blood-curdling tales of 14-hour layovers and multiple missed connections and (literally) entire novels read between boarding and takeoff, and that’s just me talking to myself in the shower. Everyone’s so relieved to finally be here that I can’t imagine the customary festival grumpiness taking hold, at least for a while; tomorrow morning’s art movie may well suck, but at least it’s not the edited in-flight version of When in Rome, and it won’t be interrupted by the question “chicken or beef?”

What I’m trying to say is that my name is Mike D’Angelo and I’m pleased and exhausted to be the A.V. Club’s Cannes correspondent again this year. Hopefully, some of you have now gotten a bead on my tastes from my biweekly Scenic Routes column; even if you agree with the commenter who declared just the other day that I’m reliably wrong about everything, that’s still information you can use, you know? Just calibrate accordingly. I’ll be filing daily reports through the awards ceremony on May 23rd, trying to see 3-4 movies per day, focusing mostly on the films in what’s known as the “Official Selection.” (Cannes has two semi-affiliated sidebars, the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week, but I tend to wind up seeing most of those films at the Toronto festival four months later, simply because they’ve stopped screening here by the time buzz begins to circulate. I may catch the award-winners at the very end, but right now the only film in either section on my must-see list is legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym.)

Last year’s Competition slate, which included Antichrist, A Prophet, The White Ribbon, and Inglourious Basterds, was widely considered superb, although my own two favorite films from Cannes ’09 came out of nowhere. (Keep an eye out for the Greek black comedy Dogtooth and the French-Canadian melodrama I Killed My Mother in months to come.) This year’s lineup is a little wonkier, in part because a number of highly anticipated films—most notably, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—weren’t ready in time. Still, I’m chomping at the bit for new efforts by Mike Leigh, whose Another Year features practically every actor he’s ever worked with (Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight), and by Thailand’s blissfully oddball Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady), here this year with the intriguingly titled Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. And while I’ve been repeatedly disappointed by Abbas Kiarostami and Takeshi Kitano over the past decade, I can still hope that their return to Competition after so many years also signifies a return to form.

What’s genuinely surprising about Cannes ’10 is how robust the “second-tier” Un Certain Regard section is, at least in terms of recognizable names. (The festival insists every year that UCR isn’t meant as a collection of also-rans; this is the first time since I started attending in 2002 that their claim actually seems plausible in advance.) Jean-Luc Godard reportedly requested a UCR slot for his Film Socialisme—supposedly because he prefers the smaller (but still pretty huge) theater where that section screens—but his eccentricity doesn’t explain the additional presence of such well-known fest-circuit names as Lodge Kerrigan, Hong Sang-soo, and even Romania’s Cristi Puiu, who you’d think would have graduated to Competition after so many critics bemoaned the UCR placement of his wildly acclaimed The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu. I know a number of critics who are more enthused about Un Certain Regard than about the Competition, and that has to be a first.

There’s also a handful of American films, all but one of which are screening “Out of Competition.” (Translation: We don’t expect to win any prizes.) The festival opened yesterday with Ridley Scott’s grimly revisionist Robin Hood, on which I won’t expend a whole lot of energy, since the official A.V. Club review will be up later today; suffice it to say that once you’ve stubbornly excised every popular, crowd-pleasing element from this particular enduring legend, there isn’t much of interest left. Woody Allen, here with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, has a strong recent history at Cannes, which premiered both Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. (More to the point, they passed on Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream.)And while I can’t imagine it’ll actually be any good, there’s certainly an impending-train-wreck fascination in the spectacle of Oliver Stone desperately raiding his back catalog (or is he just being opportunistically topical?) via the further adventures of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Beginning tonight, I won’t be sleeping much either, but Cannes always takes it relatively easy on Day One. Apart from Robin Hood, the only film to screen for the press so far is On Tour, the fourth feature directed by French actor Mathieu Amalric. (He’s probably best known in the U.S. for playing the lead role in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, or perhaps as the villain in Quantum Of Solace.) Amalric’s previous work behind the camera has yet to make it far beyond the French border, perhaps with good reason—the only one I’ve seen, Wimbledon Stage, was diffuse and personal to the point of being completely incoherent. On Tour doesn’t have much of a center, either, apart from a ribald-surrogate-family theme lifted from Boogie Nights, but it’s far more compelling moment to moment. Amalric plays a former French TV producer who decamped to America and got involved with what’s apparently known as the New Burlesque, though it might as well just be called the Post-Feminist Burlesque. (Suggested motto: “They’re our damn tits and we’ll do what we like with ’em!”) Now, some years later, he’s collected five feisty performers for a whirlwind tour of his home country, though it becomes increasingly unclear, as he scampers around provoking confrontations with family members and ex-colleagues, whether his motivation for this enterprise is primarily financial or personal.

Amalric has clearly learned a lot working with such masters of glancing emotion as Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas, and there are a number of individual scenes in On Tour so arresting and exquisite that they could easily veer off into potentially terrific movies of their own. (My favorite is an impromptu flirtation with a gas station cashier that generates more electricity in two or three minutes than Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett manage in more than two hours.) Trouble is, Amalric is so detail-oriented that the big picture tends to escape him, even as he beats “we are fam-i-lee” into the dirt. The film stretches itself thinner and thinner as it goes along, and doesn’t seem to conclude so much as surrender; after a while, it starts to seem as entertainingly flashy as the women’s routines—fizzy, empty calories. Part of the problem may be that Amalric hired real-life burlesque performers (with names like Dirty Martini and Kitten On The Keys) to essentially play themselves, which they do superlatively well onstage but rather ineptly offstage — even their weariest, most casual dialogue gets projected to the very last row, undermining Amalric’s hectic but low-key naturalism. There are people who can be relaxed in front of a movie camera and people who can pull an endless feather boa out of their ass, but apparently there are precious few people who can do both. Grade: B-

Tomorrow: Im Sang-soo’s remake of the awesomely bugfuck 1960 Korean psychodrama The Housemaid; my first experience with an up-and-comer from the Romanian New Wave; and a special treat from the Cannes Market, which screens leftovers from Sundance and Berlin. If you’re feeling impatient, I’ll be posting immediate reactions on my Twitter account, along with ratings on the incomprehensible 100-point scale I use for myself, via which e.g. On Tour’s B- is a 58. Yes, 58/100 is a B minus. Don’t ask, just accept.

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