Another year, as Mike Leigh would dryly note. The closing ceremony for Cannes 2010 is still about 35 minutes away as I write this, but last night saw Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha awarded the top prize in Un Certain Regard, courtesy of a jury headed by Claire Denis. I run oddly hot and cold on Hong—“oddly” because he arguably makes more or less the same movie every time, spinning endless variations on male fecklessness—but Hahaha mostly worked for me, thanks in part to what qualifies for him as a radical structural shift. Rather than the usual bifurcated narrative, in which the second half of the film repeats the first with slightly different characters and/or details, this new one gets all D.W. Griffith on our ass and actually intercuts two separate stories, which are being swapped by a couple of film-industry colleagues over what sounds like the contents of an entire liquor cabinet. (The frequent present-day interludes—they recur at roughly five-minute intervals—are depicted entirely via stills and voiceover, and each one concludes with a toast and the clinking of glasses; I expected an epilogue set in the emergency ward.) Each man tells the tale of a recent trip to the same city, involving in both cases the awkward series of romantic entanglements in which Hong specializes, and it quickly becomes apparent—to us, but never to them—that they’re relating the same incidents from different angles, having nearly crossed paths on a daily basis. This fairly high concept seems to cry out for farce, but Hong, bless him, sticks stubbornly to his own bemused brand of quasi-comedy, with consistently entertaining if ultimately somewhat weightless results. I was especially pleased by how snugly the terrific Korean actress Moon So-ri (Oasis, A Good Lawyer’s Wife) fits into the ensemble alongside various Hong regulars — playing a temple tour guide who’s dating the best pal of Guy #1 while also fending off passive-aggressive come-ons from Guy #2, she gets the mix of incredulous-to-susceptible ratio just right. Grade: B
Awards about to start now, so let me just quickly note that I was pleasantly surprised, in a mild sort of way, by the two Competition films I caught up with today during the repeat screenings. Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chongqing Blues, about a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown after learning that the son he abandoned 15 years earlier took hostages in a mall and was killed by the police, deftly avoids the cheap pathos you might expect from that scenario, instead watching dispassionately as the protag trudges all over town asking what happened and getting doors repeatedly slammed in his face. (Had I seen this earlier, Wang Xueqi would have received my vote for Best Actor.) And while the controversial Outside the Law, which depicts a remarkably ugly side of the struggle for Algerian independence, amounts to facile retroactive propaganda, it still works reasonably well as a straight-ahead gangster flick once it finally gets rolling, suggesting that director Rachid Bouchareb may be one of those arthouse staples who’d be better off in Hollywood. Grade for both: B-
Okay, here we go. It’s all over as you read this, but I’ll be typing my reactions as the winners are announced, watching (like some of you) on a TV screen, as journalists aren’t invited to the big show.
• Camera d’Or (for best debut feature) goes to Ano Bisiesto, a Mexican film which played in the Fortnight. (Films across all sections, including those that aren’t technically part of the Cannes Festival, are eligible for this prize.) I don’t know anybody who saw it. Program synopsis suggests it’s heavily erotic, which is okay by me.
• Jury Prize (which amounts to third place when awarded to a film): A Screaming Man, the movie from Chad that I dismissed alongside the entirety of African cinema. Even allowing for my sad inability to appreciate what is arguably a very different mode of dramaturgy, I really think that Screaming Man is a particularly weak specimen, leaning ludicrously hard on its lead actor’s weathered face in lieu of plausible behavior.
• Best Director: Mathieu Amalric, On Tour. A reasonable choice, since this was among the better films in Competition this year (though that’s not saying much). Its virtues aren’t particularly formal, but Amalric demonstrates a keen sense of rhythm and managed to work around some raw, undisciplined talent.
• Best Screenplay: Lee Chang-dong, Poetry. Hey, I got one right! Though the movie called Poetry was kind of a gimme, apart from the category’s general unpredictability.
• Best Actress: Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy. I’m amazed they had the fortitude to give this prize to the actress who appears on this year’s official festival poster—makes the prize seem a bit like a faît accompli. Though Certified Copy was my favorite film in the festival, I must say I wasn’t blown away by Binoche’s performance—she’s quite good, as ever, but I could see the sweat from time to time, especially in the latter half.
• Best Actor: tie, Javier Bardem, Biutiful and Elio Germano, La Nostra Vita. Bardem was a foregone conclusion, but Germano is a shocker—apart from the hilariously over-the-top scene in which he bellows the lyrics of his and his dead wife’s favorite song at her funeral service, the film’s bizarrely so-what screenplay doesn’t really give him much to do. He fared much better in My Brother Was An Only Child, Luchetti’s previous film.
• Grand Prix (unofficial second place): Of Gods & Men. Damn, I had this pegged for the Palme. So close. Along with Uncle Boonmee (which the jury is apparently gonna ignore—criminal, really), this film seems to be the favorite of the most aggressively highbrow critics, despite being fairly unexceptional when it comes to the sort of formal innovation they favor; I can only assume that they’re responding to its ostentatious spirituality. Me, there’s only so much somber piety I can take.
• Palme d’Or: UNCLE BOONMEE FUCKING WINS!!! Truly did not expect that. Wild applause here in the press office, not least from yours truly. This is hands down the most deserving Palme d’Or since I’ve been attending Cannes—the only time that the prize has actually gone to the most audacious and astonishing film in Competition. I may have to weep a little.
And since you certainly don’t want to witness that, I’ll sign off now. Thanks for vicariously experiencing the last two weeks with me. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure. Now for a three-day nap.