What responsibility does a critic have to overcome his/her personal biases? The scope of that question is a bit much for a quick blog-post intro, but it’s on my mind this morning all the same, for a couple of reasons. Yesterday’s rundown, in which I dismissed a movie from Chad while copping to a lack of appreciation for African cinema in general, inspired a charge of racism in the comments thread; I was accused, among other crimes, of “self-satisfied parochialism,” by which the dude in question meant that I’m totally cool with my blanket dismissal and wholly uninterested in taking steps that might conceivably reverse it. Which is horseshit. Were I really as complacent as he suggests, I wouldn’t even have bothered to see A Screaming Man, which was the least-attended Competition screening to date by a considerable margin; most of the critics I know blew it off in favor of a horror-comedy about a killer tire (seriously) playing over in Critics’ Week. Instead, I made a good-faith effort and wound up unimpressed, which is the best I can do, really. (I might note that it’s not as if the overall critical response to this film is especially rapturous—in the survey of French critics published in Le Film Français, it currently has a dismal 1.29 average (out of a possible 4), faring even worse than Robin Hood at 1.64.)
On the other hand, sometimes even a good-faith effort seems kind of pointless. The most anticipated screening on Day Six—the most anticipated screening of the entire festival, for many—was the world premiere of Film Socialism, the latest ornery cine-essay from Jean-Luc Godard, by any measure one of the four or five most important filmmakers of all time. At the last minute, I opted to skip it. Partly, that was due to inconvenient timing: I carve out most of the afternoon to write these posts, seeing movies in the morning and at night, and Film Socialism at 4 p.m. would have screwed up my whole routine. But that’s an excuse, frankly. I’d already received the A.V. Club’s blessing to file a bit late yesterday. I didn’t go because I’ve found Godard’s last umpteen films—certainly everything from the past couple of decades—just this side of unwatchable. You could show me ten minutes of footage right now and I doubt I could identify whether it came from Notre Musique or In Praise Of Love or For Ever Mozart or Nouvelle Vague—to me, it’s all one undifferentiated mass of word salad, gnomic epigrams-à-go-go. (Godard’s films from the ’60s are another story entirely.) Since Film Socialism had already been reported to be more of the same, it seemed like an act of masochistic futility to endure it; I had every reason to believe that I’d wind up saying pretty much exactly what I just said. And yet skipping it still feels like dereliction of duty, and I still feel guilty for doing so.
Plus, you never know. After a string of terrific, visually stunning films in the ’80s and ’90s, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami gave up celluloid and spent a decade making cruddy-looking video experiments like 10 and Five; I’d completely given up on him by the time his latest, Certified Copy, was announced for this year’s Competition, and my step into the Debussy theater for its evening press screening was fairly doom-laden. Cut to your jaded correspondent two hours later, choking back tears in his seat. Delicate and mysterious, this is the kind of movie about which it’s best to say relatively little; I’d encourage those of a trusting nature to just resolve to see it as soon as it comes anywhere near you, then skip ahead to the next paragraph. For the rest, I’ll only say that the film begins with an academic, played by first-time actor William Shimell, giving a lecture (genuinely fascinating in its own right) on the value of artistic reproductions—he argues that a masterful forgery or replica has no less worth than the original—and then proceeds to further examine that argument in the headiest and loveliest imaginable way, via the academic’s afternoon excursion with a gallery owner played by Juliette Binoche, who is a total stranger to him, or his wife of 15 years, or neither, or both. I suppose it’s possible to view Certified Copy as an exercise in gamesmanship along the lines of Last Year In Marienbad, but its tone is closer to a philosophical, magical-realist, fiftysomething version of Before Sunset—one in which identity is mutable and emotion is paramount. Best of all, Kiarostami the magnificent imagemaker is back with a vengeance—there are sequences here as stunning in their use of offscreen space as anything he’s done before, coupled with a massive leap forward in his recent fascination with the close-up. (No, it does not date back to Close-Up.) Welcome back, Abbas. I missed you. Grade: A-
British director Stephen Frears’ output has been more consistently inconsistent, but Tamara Drewe, adapted from a comic strip that ran in The Guardian, finds him at his snappiest since, well, The Snapper. With a busy plot and a cast of Dorset characters borrowed from Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, this engaging, energetic lark isn’t so much about the title character (Gemma Arterton), a former ugly duckling who’s just returned to her home town sporting a nose job and plenty of attitude, as about the effect of her presence on the entire populace, which includes a philandering middle-aged popular novelist (Roger Allam) and his long-suffering wife (Tamsin Greig); the shy hunk who dumped Tamara back in the day (Luke Evans); the obnoxious rock star she’s shagging now (Dominic Cooper); two hyperactive teens obsessed with the rock star to the point of near-apoplexy (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie); an American academic writing a book about Hardy (Bill Camp); and a gigantic herd of cows. All those elements come to loggerheads in an agreeably silly way, thanks to the uniformly excellent cast—Barden in particular is a marvel as the more headstrong fangirl, maintaining an exhausting level of solipsistic breathlessness throughout—and, especially, thanks to the film’s precise, staccato comic rhythm, which has been calibrated by Frears, screenwriter Moira Buffini and editor Mick Audsley so that the narrative unfolds with a continual series of tiny, pleasurable jolts. Those allergic to whimsy are advised to steer clear, but everyone else will likely echo the remark I made to a colleague on the way out, one rarely heard at Cannes: “Well, that was fun.” Grade: B
Even though this is my eighth time at Cannes, I had never once before made it over to the Espace Miramar, located about a 15-minute walk down the Croisette, which is where the films in the Critics’ Week sidebar are primarily screened. And I’m not especially eager to return, I have to say, because, frankly, it’s kind of a hole—shoddy projection standards, poor sightlines, uncomfortable seats. But I’m still glad I trekked over for The Myth of the American Sleepover, making an appearance in Critics’ Week after winning the award for best ensemble at South By Southwest a couple of months back. First-time director David Robert Mitchell has indeed collected a remarkable group of kids for his slightly clumsy but hugely endearing high-school nostalgia piece, which plays like a gentler, sweeter version of Dazed and Confused. (When the movie takes place is unclear; there are no signifiers of the present—not one cellphone or iPod—but no obvious signifiers of any particular era in the past, either. Given the story’s essentially timeless nature, I assume this was very much by design.) Scattered across a neighborhood’s worth of summer parties, hangouts, and, yes, sleepovers, various Michigan teens bounce from one awkward flirtation to the next, constantly mindful of their place in the hierarchy—in every introduction, the person’s name is quickly followed by which year of school they’re about to start—and forever uncertain whether to choose caution or adventure. Of the various mini-narratives that unfold (some of which get wrapped up a bit tidily), my favorite involved Scott, a college senior who hears that one of a pair of identical twins used to have a crush on him; after ambushing both girls at an orientation event for their own college-to-be, he spends an entire night trying to figure out which one wants him, all the while insisting that he’s hot for them both…which only repels them, understandably. That tenuous sense of push-pull is the heart of the movie, which starts off ungainly but slowly grows into a modest, gossamer joy. Grade: B+
Tomorrow: Except, hey, wait a minute, did the Wet Blanket actually like everything today? Should we alert the Papacy of a miracle? Well, no. I also saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and was underwhelmed, just as I was underwhelmed by 21 Grams and Babel. But I can’t bring myself to sully today’s unprecedented cavalcade of approval, and tomorrow looks kind of light (Competition films are by Xavier Beauvois and Sergei Loznitsa—yeah, me neither), so I’ll save that one for next time. Also, Sundance favorite Blue Valentine, playing here in Un Certain Regard.