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Cannes '12, Day Four: Bootleggers, transsexuals and falsely accused pedophiles, oh my!

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One of the dangers of gorging yourself on four or five films per day is festival fatigue, by which I don’t mean physical exhaustion (though that happens too) but rather a certain involuntary weariness in the face of so much exacting, challenging, or otherwise “difficult” art cinema. Toss me something popcorn-ready in this context and I’m liable to overreact, out of sheer gratitude for having been conventionally entertained. Leastways, that’s my excuse for being higher than a lot of other folks here on Lawless, a thoroughly familiar—but flavorful and rousing—shoot-’em-up set among Prohibition bootleggers. Written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, it’s nearly as brutal as their previous collaboration, The Proposition, and claims to be inspired by the true exploits of three brothers, played here by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke. If you’ve seen even a handful of Tommy-gun movies, however, everything that happens here will feel preordained, right down to the sniveling local sheriff who’s helpless in the face of both our criminal anti-heroes and the psychopathic lawman in from Chicago.

It was when Guy Pearce showed up as the psychopath, nearly unrecognizable with middle-parted, slicked-back hair and barely visible eyebrows, that I mostly surrendered myself to the gory hokum. He and Hardy, whose Warrior-thick neck juts incongruously from a proto-Cosby sweater, square off as mutually indestructible badasses, with LaBeouf as the wimp in the middle who must prove himself; there’s a brass-knuckle beatdown, a horrifically explicit throat-slitting, a hailfire of bullets, and the hilariously ominous question “Have you met Howard?” Cave’s screenwriting still lags a long way behind his songwriting, but he’s developing a facility for terse period dialogue, and he provides Hillcoat with ample opportunity to indulge in pleasantly ludicrous, testosterone-fueled mayhem. I just wish the two of them had tried a bit harder to make the female characters—a stripper-turned-barmaid hot for Hardy (Jessica Chastain) and a saintly preacher’s daughter romanced by LaBeouf (Mia Wasikowska)—more than mere dude accessories. I believe those two women can act, if you let them. Grade: B-


Needless to say, the Hollywood respite was short-lived (though there’s more to come in days ahead). Yesterday’s other Competition title, The Hunt, reverted to punishing, singleminded form… though it looks deceptively charming at the outset, as a kindergarten teacher played by Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in Casino Royale) graciously, expertly deflects the harmless crush of one little girl, the daughter of his best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen). Very small children don’t always understand the import of what they say, however, and a moment of passing anger at having a gift returned inspires this adorable moppet to inadvertently accuse Mikkelsen of sexual abuse. Her tentative attempts to retract the statement (“I said something silly, he didn’t do anything”) fall on predictably deaf ears, and Mikkelsen instantly becomes the town pariah, cold-cocked while shopping at the local market and ducking rocks thrown through his windows at home. Furthermore, when the school’s parents are given a list of possible abuse symptoms (nightmares, erratic behavior, etc.), other kids start remembering having been touched inappropriately.

Director Thomas Vinterberg is no stranger to this sort of emotional hysteria, having made his name with The Celebration, which pivots on a similar accusation made by an adult child years after the fact. And after a decade of ill-conceived experiments like It’s All About Love and Dear Wendy, it’s good to see him back in quasi-Dogme mode, focusing on intimate behavioral details in a heightened but fundamentally naturalistic setting. But while The Hunt is very well made, it’s also exactly what you’d expect, given its subject matter. There’s no suggestion that Mikkelson might be guilty, nor any other complication—he’s a pure, noble victim, and the film merely observes sorrowfully as his life falls apart, with special emphasis on the destruction of his closest friendship. Also, while false accusations of sexual abuse no doubt still happen, the lynch-mob mentality depicted here feels several decades out of date—I’m not sure that something like the McMartin Preschool witch hunt (which unfolded from 1983-1990) could gain that degree of traction today. The Hunt is a “problem picture” in which the problem feels neither urgent nor especially new. It’s as if Vinterberg had made a powerful movie earnestly warning us about the potential health risks of smoking cigarettes. Grade: C+


Speaking of cigarettes, endless assloads of them are smoked in Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s nearly three-hour transsexual romance. Already leery of the epic running time, despite having enjoyed both of Dolan’s previous, much shorter films (Heartbeats and the still-unreleased-in-the-U.S. I Killed My Mother), I was further dismayed to discover that the title character is played by Melvil Poupaud (Time To Leave, Broken English), one of my least favorite French actors. But while he’s sometimes smugly insufferable here, especially after he starts strutting around in short skirts and high heels, Suzanne Clément’s ferocious performance as his long-suffering, totally straight girlfriend serves as a bracing tonic. Set for no immediately discernible reason in the ’90s (when Dolan, who’s only 23, was a little kid), the film covers a turbulent decade in this odd couple’s relationship, beginning just before Laurence’s abrupt confession that he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body and continuing through their lengthy breakup and her dull marriage to a guy who prefers trousers. And it’s just too damn much, frankly. Dolan’s penchant for visual fabulousness intermittently thrills—at one point, a literal flood douses Clément as she’s sitting quietly in her tastefully appointed living room, feeling miserable and alone—and the very fact that he treats this long-term, on-and-off affair like any other, with the usual gamut of frustrations and competing agendas, is plenty laudable. But there’s not even close to three hours of engrossing material here, and the superlative moments (including a restaurant outburst that rivals I Killed My Mother’s powerhouse, applause-inspiring Big Scene) wind up adrift in a  vast sea of Poupaud-heavy indulgence. I suspect the film is so long mostly because Dolan thought that might get him a Competition berth; since he wound up in Un Certain Regard again anyway, odds are he’ll calm back down. Grade: C+

Tomorrow: The best film I’ve seen here so far—a surprising departure from a controversial director. And possibly the second best as well, given that I’m heading now to the new Abbas Kiarostami picture.