Looking at the comments for previous posts, I’m a little disheartened by how much emphasis y’all are placing on the letter grades. Not that I’m anti-grade, by any means—it’s often helpful to have a quick, easily digestible summation of whether a critic ultimately wound up feeling more Yea or Nay. In the long run, though, thumbnail quantifications amount to not much more than a catalogue of personal taste, and they don’t necessarily reflect what’s actually important. I liked The Kid With a Bike much more than Melancholia, for example, giving the former a B and the latter a C. Yet if you could only see one of those films, for some bizarre reason, I’d recommend Von Trier’s without hesitation. That it doesn’t really work is just my own opinion, however strongly held (and, I hope, carefully reasoned); that it’s one of the year’s most singular cinematic achievements is practically inarguable. And I’m already wavering, actually. A friend argues that the movie isn’t really about depression but about the uselessness of ritual, and he makes an intriguing case; I’m now eager to see it again with that interpretation in mind.
(I suppose I should at least briefly mention the controversy involving Von Trier’s press conference, at which he declared himself a Nazi and expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler, for which remarks the festival has now apparently banned him for life. On the one hand, that people would take anything Von Trier says at face value suggests that they haven’t been paying attention over the past quarter-century. Contextually, it seems obvious that he was mostly kidding around—though the “I understand Hitler” bit was very likely sincere, in the same way that Bill Maher’s “staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly” was sincere. On the other hand, both were unquestionably boneheaded comments to make while seated in front of a microphone and a video camera. Never, ever trust the media with anything remotely inflammatory.)
Anyway. Hopefully, then, the fact that I haven’t yet been blown away by anything in Competition (apart from the first hour of The Tree of Life) hasn’t created the impression that Cannes 2011 has been kind of a bust. It’s unreasonable to demand great films from a festival, especially since nobody can remotely agree on what constitutes greatness; all I ever ask is that the filmmakers at least try. In that sense, I’m anything but disappointed. Even movies I didn’t much like—Sleeping Beauty, Michael, Outside Satan—demonstrate a clarity of vision worth grappling with. My only real complaint is that Gerardo Naranjo’s superb Miss Bala was relegated to Un Certain Regard—given its genre-inflected fuel-efficiency, it could have used the imprimatur of a Competition slot to persuade pundits to take a look underneath the hood. (I’m getting my automotive metaphors out of the way before tonight’s screening of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.)
Consider, by way of example, the collective pricking of ears and arching of eyebrows when Takashi Miike’s name turned up in the Competition lineup. Miike’s gonzo efforts have assaulted the fest circuit for over a decade, and at least one, Gozu, appeared in the Director’s Fortnight here. But he’s finally gotten the big nod for Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece Harakiri (which itself won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1963, taking second place to Visconti’s The Leopard). Like the original, it’s a methodical, often downright somber tale of honor codes gone awry, depicting the repercussions of a horrific incident in which a starving ronin gets his “suicide bluff” called. Weary of a wave of beggars seeking to inspire pity and a handout by asking for a suitably proud spot to commit seppuku, officials at the House of Ii force one poor fellow to go through with it,even when they see that his sword is made of bamboo. The next ronin to turn up with the same request, however, has other ideas.
It’s been 20 years or so since I saw Kobayashi’s version of this story, but I vividly remember being transfixed from start to finish. Miike’s remake, on the other hand, begins arrestingly and ends explosively (though the finale seems to have been lifted wholesale from Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 film The Sword of Doom), but gets bogged down in an extended flashback that takes up the film’s entire midsection. In the original film, this material (which, I’m told by folks who’ve seen the ’62 version more recently than I have, was heavily intercut with the present-day story) felt dramatically vital; here, it seems not just flaccid but superfluous, to the point where you wonder why it couldn’t have been condensed into a single line of dialogue. (It’s as if, instead of Vader saying “I am your father,” Empire cut at that instant to an hour-long flashback encompassing the key plot elements of Revenge of the Sith.) It doesn’t help that Miike shot Hara-Kiri in 3-D, which as usual accomplishes nothing save for making the action look as if it’s taking place during a partial eclipse of the sun. I’m happy to see him get some high-class recognition after toiling for so long in the grubby margins, but calling this unrepresentative of his work is an understatement. Grade: C+
Over in Un Certain Regard, where you usually find the genre exercises, Korea’s Na Hong-jin follows up his acclaimed The Chaser with a nearly identical exercise in bloodsport called The Murderer. (Its original title translates as The Yellow Sea, which has instant geographical resonance for an Asian audience.) This time, Ha Jung-woo plays the antihero and Kim Yun-seok is the homicidal badass, although we really never encounter anybody with even a smidgen of conventional morality. Weighed down by gambling debts, Ha agrees to travel from China to Seoul and kill some random dude for money, but gets double-crossed by Kim, who eventually takes hatchet in hand and gets in on the carnage himself. The plot gets increasingly convoluted from there, but it doesn’t much matter, as the film — clearly made for a much bigger budget than The Chaser — is little more than a feature-length audition reel for Hollywood studios. And it just might work: Na stages automotive destruction with the same degree of choppy incoherence as Michael Bay, shooting everything from ten different angles and then juxtaposing all of them in under five seconds, the better to create a nonstop sensation of visual assault. Obviously, there’s a market for this sort of thing, but I’m not sure what it’s doing outside of the Market here at Cannes. Grade: C+
Tomorrow: Speaking of foreign directors gunning for Hollywood gigs, here comes Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn with Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. Also, Pedro Almodóvar indulges his more outrageous side once again with The Skin I Live In, while Hong Sang-soo presumably does what he always does.