Ready for the ol’ good news/bad news routine? The good news is that we’re only two days into the festival and I’ve already seen what’s certain to be one of the year’s very best films—a bona-fide, rattle-your-nerves stunner. The bad news is that, um, well, that particular motion picture isn’t actually “in” Cannes, technically, per se. Alongside its umpteen official sections, Cannes also hosts a gigantic market, in which literally hundreds of pictures are screened for potential acquisition; every year, I wind up blowing off a few unappetizing-looking titles in favor of big-buzz leftovers from Sundance and Berlin. But since Noel Murray has already tackled the movie that blew my mind (he gave it an A), I’ll save that for a (probably longish) postscript and turn my attention first to a couple of actual Cannes titles—both of which, I should note before you scroll down to the bottom of the page, feature plenty of casual, full-frontal nudity.
Sadly, the sex isn’t the only thing that’s explicit in Im Sang-soo’s perverse remake of the 1960 Korean classic The Housemaid, a movie that was plenty perverse to begin with. The original film (which you can watch for free at MUBI, formerly The Auteurs) set what must at that time have been a new standard for bugfuck psychodrama, depicting its title character as a voracious, amoral hellcat with a penchant for seducing the boss, terrorizing the kids and furtively eyeing a handy jar of rat poison in the cupboard. I couldn’t wait to see what Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress prize here three years ago for Secret Sunshine, would do with this dynamic, deranged role, never suspecting that the answer would be: nothing. Apparently determined to make the story his own, Im (whose previous films include A Good Lawyer’s Wife and The President’s Last Bang) has reimagined it so completely that his remake seems to have shot in OppositeScope. Once a sexual predator, the housemaid has been transformed into a passive, infantilized victim, at the mercy of a family so ostentatiously wealthy that their living-room fireplace has an aspect ratio twice as wide as the movie itself. Every destructive act, instead of being perpetrated by her, is now inflicted upon her, all in service of a painfully blunt treatise on the dangers of class warfare. (“I know you barely even see me as human,” she tells her monotonously arrogant employers, in case the message somehow escaped us.) It’s as if Hollywood were to remake Fatal Attraction, only this time, the other woman goes away quietly after a few passionate trysts, perfectly happy to be ignored, whereupon the husband and wife team up and spend the rest of the movie tormenting and stalking her, just for fun. What exactly would be the point of that, you ask? Good question. Grade: C
Over in Un Certain Regard, up-and-coming Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean takes that very scenario—your basic, no-frills extramarital meltdown—and manages to breathe a certain amount of new life into it, using nothing more than three fine actors and a lot of patient observation. Tuesday, After Christmas opens with a lengthy, static shot of a man and woman lying naked in bed, spent and happy, utterly comfortable in each other’s presence. Needless to say, they aren’t married. To each other, that is—the next scene introduces us to the man’s perfectly pleasant (but older and less playful) wife, as the two shop for their daughter’s Christmas gift. We then meet the daughter, a spunky pre-teen who needs braces, and would you care to guess who might happen to be her orthodontist? (Did I mention that the post-coital goofiness included the woman berating the man for letting cigarette tar stain his teeth?) The dramatic beats that follow are straight out of the Affairs Destroy Everybody handbook—guilt, jealousy, recriminations, the Big Confession, etc.—but Muntean, letting his camera gaze and gaze (there can’t be more than 20 or 25 shots in the entire film), gives his superb cast the freedom to locate numerous moments of painful awkwardness and razor-sharp intimacy, which make this overly familiar narrative feel somewhat less banal. And while the film doesn’t shy away from confrontation—the Big Confession scene is a corker, difficult to watch—it’s at its most indelible when its trio of love-addled characters are at their most quietly vulnerable, as when the mistress is forced to explain the advantages of orthodonture to the still-clueless wife through a tight mask of barely concealed agitation. I’d like to see Muntean strive for more originality in future, but he’s unquestionably a talent to watch. Grade: B
Okay, enough dutiful deflection. Today’s aforementioned jawdropper was Winter’s Bone,richly deserving winner of the Grand Jury Prize (fiction division) at Sundance this year. I’d heard good things about Debra Granik’s previous film, Down to the Bone (she’s got a thing for either phallic symbolism or calcium),but I was still wholly unprepared for the almost freakish assurance of this sophomore effort, which establishes a dogged yet otherworldly atmosphere in the opening titles and then somehow manages to sustain that tricky mood right through the poignant final shot. And just as Down to the Bone singlehandedly jump-started Vera Farmiga’s career, I suspect that Winter’s Bone marks the beginning of a long-term love affair between discerning moviegoers and Ms. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a 17-year-old desperately trying to find her father before he skips bail and the bond company seizes the family’s ramshackle house. If that sounds like generic Sundance miserabilism, it’s because you haven’t yet experienced this film’s thrilling amalgam of uninflected naturalism (visual) and bold stylization (verbal). Shot entirely in Missouri, Winter’s Bone turns the Ozarks into a science-fiction landscape, artfully blending the familiar, the esoteric (for those of us in major urban areas) and the flat-out bizarre; it may sound like an odd point of comparison, but I found myself thinking more than once of Rian Johnson’s Brick, which imposed the insularity and argot of hard-boiled detective fiction onto a high-school campus. Granik achieves a similar feat of cognitive dissonance in a less overtly gimmicky context, and Lawrence turns in a performance so steely and yet so heartbreaking that maintaining an intellectual distance soon becomes impossible. I wish Cannes luck matching this one, frankly. Grade: A-
Tomorrow: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, with a confirmed cameo by Charlie Sheen; another freakin’ Romanian picture, this time from the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; and, well, we’ll see if I can talk myself into giving Japanese horrormeister Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) one more chance. I’ve been underwhelmed so far.