Cannes 2012, Day Six: Alain Resnais does his Prairie Home Companion, and amateur sleuths comb obsessively through The Shining

So we’ve reached the festival’s midpoint now, and it seems as if Haneke’s Amour is the only real consensus masterwork thus far, with Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills also widely acclaimed but a bit more divisive. As far as my own favorites (besides Amour) are concerned, folks here tend to run either hot or cold on Moonrise Kingdom, and I’m surprised, looking at today’s reviews, to see a fair amount of very polite disdain for Alain Resnais’ lovely, elegiac You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, which may or may not turn to be his final film. (He turns 90 in a couple of weeks.) Not since Altman went out with A Prairie Home Companion has a director fashioned such a natural swan song, assembling most of his regular actors (Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Lambert Wilson, etc.) to play themselves in a structural hall of mirrors that allows him to implicitly hand the torch to the next generation.

At the outset, each actor receives an identical phone call informing them that a (fictional) playwright friend has just died, and that they’ve been requested to attend the reading of his will. Upon arrival at his home, they’re shown a videotaped message in which the deceased asks them to view videotaped rehearsal footage of a new theater company that wants to produce his play Eurydice (an actual 1941 play by Jean Anouilh that updates the Orpheus myth). As they sit watching very young actors playing roles they once inhabited themselves, the ensemble gradually, almost involuntarily joins in—at first just reciting lines along with the onscreen cast from their seats, then standing and engaging in a full-fledged performance on magical greenscreen sets. What’s more, multiple actors had in the past played the same roles, so at times we’re watching a scene performed simultaneously by as many as six different people, with Resnais fluidly cutting among both different actors and separate media.

The sticking point for many appears to be Eurydice itself, though I found Anouilh’s pragmatic take on the nature of romantic love eloquent and bracing. Admittedly, Resnais has trouble sustaining his ambitious conceit for the entire running time, and the film’s second half comes closer to being a straightforward theatrical adaptation, concentrating mostly on Arditi and Azéma as Orpheus and Eurydice. But the sight of mostly middle-aged (and older) actors performing roles intended for the blush of youth; the intense emotion with which Resnais’ stable relives their work with an artist who’s just passed away; the tension between the theatrical and the cinematic (a longtime Resnais obsession) as refracted through the juxtaposition of Resnais’ classical mise-en-scène with the rehearsal footage’s more modern, freewheeling visual style (the latter having been shot entirely separately by Bruno Podalydès)…it all unmistakably suggests a fond farewell, providing the source material with a deeply moving extra-textual undercurrent. That Resnais gives one of the young actors the final shot speaks volumes. Grade: B+

Nearly as venerable, having made his initial splash with Kes in 1969, Britain’s Ken Loach makes his umpteenth appearance in Competition this year with The Angels’ Share, and I’m setting the odds for it winning the Palme d’Or at everything-I-possess-in-the-world-to-1. Which is not to say that it’s bad, mind—just that it’s the most cheerfully weightless picture to be selected in ages, to the point where I can readily imagine a Hollywood remake starring, say, Zac Efron. That said, it’s the Glaswegian specificity that makes this contrived heist comedy mildly enjoyable; like many Loach films, it’s subtitled in English despite being spoken in English, so impenetrably coarse and colorful is the dialogue. Newcomer Paul Brannigan isn’t the revelation that Martin Compston was in Loach’s Sweet Sixteen a decade back, but he holds the screen ably as Robbie, a troubled kid with the equivalent of two strikes in Scotland’s prison system, who as the film begins is handed 300 hours of community service. Struggling to stay on the right side of the law for the sake of his girlfriend and infant son, but unable to duck a blood feud with a gang of ruffians, he winds up, through a series of events too belabored to recount here, becoming a whisky connoisseur and teaming up with three fellow community-service miscreants to steal a cask of the rarest and most valuable spirit in the world, in the hope of starting a new life elsewhere with the proceeds. All preposterous, of course, and we’re talking here about a movie that e.g. sets a road-trip montage to the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” as if nobody ever thought of that before, but there are plenty of laughs, a host of vivid performances, and some genuinely fascinating details about the world of real alcohol snobs (as distinct from poseurs like Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways). A real-life “Master of the Quaich,” Charlie MacLean, makes such a strong, immensely likeable impression in a brief but pivotal turn that I’d happily watch a feature-length documentary about the guy. Grade: B-

I was also eager to watch a feature-length documentary about various folks’ bizarre theories regarding what Stanley Kubrick was really up to when he made The Shining, and Room 237,playing in the Fortnight after premiering at Sundance earlier this year,delivered the sincere insanity I’d hoped for and then some. Obsessively examining the movie frame-by-frame, searching for clues hidden in production design or the Overlook Hotel’s floor plan, five amateur sleuths proffer five different interpretations, ranging from Holocaust allegory to Kubrick’s winking confession that he helped fake the Apollo moon landings. None of this is even remotely persuasive, and some of the alleged clues, like a background poster of a skier claimed to be a minotaur, are outright laughable. Doesn’t matter, though, as Room 237 isn’t so much about the theories as about our relationship with cinema itself, and the way the medium offers endless possibilities to the viewer depending on what you choose as your focal point. I do wish that director Rodney Ascher had structured the film so that each interviewee (each of whom is heard but never seen—a brilliant decision even if it was budget-imposed) got his/her own discrete section, rather than juggling their respective theories as they relate to various nebulous topics. And it might have been heady to draw a comparison to the many people who spend their days constructing painstaking, out-to-lunch photographic arguments that no planes hit the World Trade Center or the Pentagon (to say nothing of the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film). But I’ll never be able to watch The Shining again without wondering about that impossible window, or noticing the Calumet baking powder can sitting incongruously on a shelf in what’s clearly the wrong place. And Jack Nicholson truly is reading a copy of Playgirl in the Overlook lobby in one scene—that’s for real. What the hell is up with that? Grade: B-

Tomorrow: Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) reteams with Brad Pitt for the pungent crime flick Killing Them Softly,plus a Takashi Miike musical and the long-awaited feature-length return of Léos Carax, last seen in 1999 with POLA X.

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