ENTRE LES MURS (France, dir. Laurent Cantet)
GOMORRA (Italy, director. Matteo Garrone)
Prize of the 61st Festival de Cannes ex-aequo
Catherine Deneuve for UN CONTE DE NOËL (France, dir.Arnaud Despuechin)
Clint Eastwood for THE EXCHANGE (USA)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan for ÜÇ MAYMUN (Three Monkeys/Turkey)
IL DIVO (Italy, dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Best Performance for an Actor
Benicio Del Toro for CHE (USA, dir.Steven Soderbergh)
Best Performance for an Actress
Sandra Corveloni for LINHA DE PASSE (Brazil, dir. Walter Salles)
LORNA'S SILENCE by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium)
Le Prix Vulcain de l’Artiste-Technicien
Luca Bigazzi and Angelo Raguseo for the cinematography and sound of IL DIVO (Italy, Paolo Sorrentino).
Palme d'Or: Short Film
MEGATRON (Romania, dir. Marian Crisan)
Jury Prize: Short Film
JERRYCAN (Australia, dir.by Julius Avery)
CAMERA D'OR (for a first feature film)
HUNGER (UK, dir. Steve McQueen; shown in Un Certain Regard)
Special Mention, Caméra d'Or
VSE UMRUT A JA OSTANUS (They will die all but me) (Russia, dir.Valeria Gaï GUERMANIKA; shown in International Critics'Week)
UN CERTAIN REGARD
TULPAN (Kazakstan, dir. Sergey Dvortsevoy
TOKYO SONATA (Japan, dir. Kurosawa Kiyoshi)
Heart Throb Jury Prize
WOLKE 9 (Germanym, dir. Andreas Drese)
The Knockout of Un Certain Regard
TYSON (USA, dir.James Toback)
Prize of Hope
JOHNNY MAD DOG (France/Liberia, dir.Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
DAY 11 May 24
With a jury presided over by Sean Penn, and consisting of five directors and four actors (under the artistic direction of Thierry Frémaux, Cannes has happily abandoned its old habit of ornamenting juries with press-worthy but film-innocent personalities from other fields) there was unprecedented majority agreement that these were the right awards. The only film whose originality and execution seemed to have been neglected was the Israeli WALTZ WITH BASHIR – but juries are always a shade bewildered by animation, even a film as serious as this. And the special “Prize of the 61st Jury” looked like a special little courtesy gift to two Cannes icons, Clint Eastwood and Cathérine Deneuve.
For inexplicable reasons, it seems to happen more often than not that the Cannes Palme d’Or goes to a film shown late in the festival; and this was the case this year, with the award to Laurent Cantet’s ENTRE LES MURS, shown on the final day. In earlier films (Ressources Humaines, Emploi de Temps) Cantet (born 1961) has shown his special concern with social issues. ENTRE LES MURS is an inside view of a year in the life of a school in the multi-cultural 20th arrondissement of Paris. It is based on François Bégaudeau’s autobiographical novel of a teacher’s experience and self-doubts: Begaudeau collaborated on the script with Cantet and his regular scenarist Robin Campillo, and himself plays the main role. The 14-year-olds in the film are all non-actors and pupils in the same school (though the film was shot in another school. The children prepared in workshops, and Cantet shot throughout with three cameras: the result is a convincing neo-documentary atmosphere, strongly tied by the vital and convoluted dynamics between students, teachers and parents. It provided a good finale to an appreciably better-than-usual festival programme.
TULPAN Sergei Dvortsevoi was one of the rarest festival phenomena – a film which kept the huge press audience in their seats throughout the end titles, and afterwards applauding for minutes on end so that the astonished Kazak crew and actors could not leave the theatre: and even when they did they were surrounded by minutes more by the ecstatic viewers. It is a film of which the mere description can give no idea of its unique poetic magic. The story is plain. Young Asa returns from his naval service to become a shepherd like the rest of his family on the endless, bleak, flat “Hunger Steppes”. But first he must marry, and the only prospect is Tulpan – who gives her name to the film, though she is never actually seen on the screen. Tulpan wants none of him because she says he has big ears (but so does Prince Charles of England, he consoles himself). He persists, vainly, as he joins his family in their hard life and canvas tent home. Dvortsevoi, who has made a number of well-regarded documentaries before embarking on this, his first feature film, does not offer a static ethnographic study of a vanishing way of life. Asa (a wonderfully vital performance by Ashkat Kuchinchirekov) represents a generation on the move – even if they do not know whither, and may well end up looking for meagre jobs on the streets of the faraway city of Chimkent. As a sailor he has seen a wider world, and may never wholly settle back into this one.
The shooting of the film in this bleak and distant desert must have been a great challenge, but Dvortsevoi and his brilliant woman cinematographer Jula Dylewska. Their most remarkable scenes involve the births of two lambs, when the animals and the shepherds helping them in their labour enter an odd unwilling union. Entering wholly into the wilderness existence, the city actors bravely give mouth-to-mouth assistance to the bloody little newborns.
In SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK the award-winning writer Charlie Kaufman (born 1958; earlier scripts include Being John Malkovich, does not entirely bring off his first feature as director, a whimsical, comical-philosophic exercise about a theatre director whose life and health are fast disintegrating. Confronted by the transience of life, he constructs a theatrical spectacle in a vast New York warehouse, continually improvising the frustrations of his own life and reflections of the follies of the city. The ambitions are undeniable: the exectution simply comes unstitched.
Cannes’ loyalty to its veterans, accepting their films into competition apparently unseen, does not always work out kindly. Wim Wenders, the German wunderkind of the 70s has made only one passable film in the past 20 years (the documentary Buena Vista Social Club) and nothing is retrieved by the pretentious and dim (if showily photographed) PALERMO SHOOTING. A high-powered photographer tries to escape the pressure by fleeing to Palermo, but there finds himself at the receiving end of pot-shots from a mysterious archer – who turns out to be Death in the person of a shaven-headed Denis Hopper. The foolishness is compounded by the embarrassing dedication “to the memory of Ingmar and Michaelangeo”.
Certainly the most inventive film of the festival is Paolo Sorrentino’s IL DIVO (which has also the fuller title of IL DIVO: LA STRAORDINARIA VITA DI GIULIO ANDREOTTI). This is an extraordinary, thinly veiled exposé of a man who has been a figure in Italian politics for more than six decades (he remains to this day a life senator) and whose Christian Democrat party ruled Italy as a virtual one-party system for 44 years until his seventh government was brought down by a trial involving head-on accusations of corruption and Mafia connections. The trial brought a wave of suicides (another nice montage in Sorrentino’s film) though Andreotti, “Il Divo Giulio”, managed, after a series of trials, verdicts and appeals, to avoid permanent sentence.
Sorrentino begins his film with a fast and ferocious montage, annotated with captions and driven by a battering rock theme, chronicling all the sudden violent deaths of bankers, politicians, judges and others whose demise has always been to the advantage of the Andreotti scheme. Then Andreotti is introduced, played by Toni Servillo, transformed by Vittorio Sodano’s virtuoso make-up into a wonderful caricature of this man whose personal style was always to remain expressionless and imperturbable. Only once, in a moment of personal confession, does the voice rise and the mask fall away, to reveal the side that won him the nickname “Beelzebub”. For the most part he scuttles about like a hard-skinned insect, the centre of a formalistic “court” choreography that looks as if it was inspired by the stylisation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1920 film The Oyster Princess.
The film has obviously greater significance for Italian audiences, closer to the names and history; but it inspires wider reflections on the kind of machinery and morality of politics that Andreotti and his like have bequeathed, not just in Italy, to the 21st century. The name of Berlusconi turns up from time to time significantly in the Andreotti saga. The 89-year old Andreotti responded to the film in characteristically taciturn manner: “I wonder why they did not wait five years, until I was dead?”
Atom Egoyan’s ADORATION had its admirers, but more jaded critics felt it was at heart an old Bette Davies melodrama, updated, disguised and eventually fogged by the elaborations of contemporary technology and the terror of Terror. A schoolboy, Simon (played by the very personable and experienced young actor Devon Bostick), has grown up believing the version of his parents’ car-crash death fed him by his bigoted old grandfather, who hated his Lebanese son-in-law, Simon’s father. In school he is fascinated by the story read by an eccentric teacher (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan’s wife and regular actress) about an Arab terrorist who planted a bomb in the luggage of his pregnant girl-friend en route to Israel. Encouraged by the teacher, Simon adopts the story as a special literary project, and begins to identify it as his own parent’s experience. The confusion in his mind between fact and fiction grows as his story spreads across internet chat-rooms, provoking heated debate on far too many aspects of the affair. To complicate things, there is also his nice but troubled Canadian uncle and a precious violin which figured in his parents’ love affair but may now be the key to family solvency. Everything arrives at a denouement involving a degree of coincidence at which even a Bette Davis melodrama might have faltered. Apart from its excess of trails and complications, the film’s biggest weakness is Khanjian’s character of the teacher, an eccentric, interfering woman, given to bizarre disguises and long speeches, and quite properly sacked from her school for her interference (eventually explained) in her pupil’s intimate life.
In Philippe Garrel’s LA FRONTIERE DE L’AUBE we are even deeper in old Hollywood melodrama. A ,photographer (Louis Garrel, the director’s pretty but not very expressive son) is seduced into an affair with a talented, unstable, alcoholic-inclined and married actress (Laura Smet, daughter of Nathalie Baye and Johnny Halliday, and herself just out of rehab). Their affair is interrupted by the return from Hollywood of the actress’s husband; and when her lover declines to return to her, she ends up in mental hospital and suicide. A year on, the young man is about to be married, when the dead actress’s ghost starts appearing in mirrors, luring him to join her. Which he achieves by defenestration. Smet is sufficiently unappealing and overbearing to impart a misogynistic air to the whole proceedings, rather stylishly shot, at least, in nostalgic black and white. Very roughly treated by press and public, the film got more laughs than Woody Allen.
Whether accidentally or not, Steven Soderbergh’s CHE marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. Dying at 39 he was sanctified as an iconic 20th century hero. How differently would we have seen him had he survived to be a 21st century octogenarian? The film itself, the most anticipated event of the festival, is a bit of a puzzle. What for instance did the film-makers intend to achieve, and what will they now do with their completed mammoth? The film is clearly still unfinished, without titles and with occasional roughly-executed digital intertitles. Planned in two separate episodes, THE ARGENTINE and GUERRILLA, in Cannes it was shown in its entirety, running some twenty minutes over four hours, and with an intermission during which the press audience were handed sandwiches, candy and bottles of water to keep them going. The first part is based on Che Guevara’s book “The Cuban Revolutionary War” and is shot in wide screen; the second part realises Guevara’s “Bolivian Diary”, and shrinks to a ratio of 1:1.85 and images that seem less brilliant. Soderbergh is his own (excellent) director of photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews.
In this state it is clearly quite unshowable in any normal commercial situation. It is a pure chronicle, recreating innumerable incidents, without any imposed dramatic form or attraction for an uncommited audience. Nor is there any overt attitude towards the protagonist, upon whose own view and account of history it is essentially based. Inevitably (in respect of a hyper-active lifetime, four hours is already a very brief summation) the account is selective. Neither Che’s personal life, as doctor, husband, father and intellectual, nor the darker aspects of his political career (like the post-revolutionary executions in Cuba) enter into the story. We have a sense of his physical presence from the appearance and performance of Benicio del Toro; we feel his battle with acute asthma, as he struggles for breath in the midst of action. Yet we do not have the sense of a complete character, or a coherent motivation in this frantically active life.
ARGENTINA has a fairly complex time structure as we see incidents leading up to Che’s first meeting with Fidel Castro and their growing and eventually complex relationship; and the progress and defiant success of the Cuban Revolution. The film ends at the moment of victory in 1959: we never see Havana. While ARGENTINA is the record of revolutionary triumph, GUERRILLA is the downward spiral of failure and death. Seven years after having voluntarily split from Cuba and Castro in 1959, Che failed to ignite a revolution in Mozambique, and in 1966 moved on to Bolivia, hoping to bring Marxist revolution to the mainland Latin American countries. With difficult terrain, a resistant population, lack of support from the Communist party, and American-backed regimes in power, the movement was doomed. Che’s foreign-recruited guerrilla forces dwindled, and finally in 1967 he was captured and shot (the film refrains from any hint of the political background of the assassination and the possibility of American involvement). In contrast to the first part, this second is strictly linear. The curious result is an extended succession of individual campaigning experiences, quite without structure apart from the titles which number the days, as they toil on beyond 300. On screen, Che loses his central place and vibrancy. The result is really rather dull.
Cannes would not be Cannes without a film by Clint Eastwood. This year’s contribution mysteriously changed its title, only days before the festival from, The Changeling to THE EXCHANGE – which seems no improvement in marketing terms. The story appears to be based on real historical incidents: in 1928 a working single mother (Angelina Joly) comes home to find her small son is missing. The Los Angeles police, amidst favourable publicity which they badly need, return the child – except that it is the wrong boy, despite his own protestations that he is the missing son. Aided by a campaigning local radio evangelist (John Malkovich), fighting the corruption of the police force, she persists in her demand to have the situation righted and her own son sought. Ferociously determined not to be outfaced, the police oppose her, and eventually have her committed to an equally corrupt and primitive mental hospital. Intentional or not, the story has eerie echoes of contemporary American perversion of justice under the guise of “the war on Terror”: Eastwood is not a notable liberal, but he is an undoubted humanist. Angelino Joly is a serious and able actress, but always handicapped by her looks and celebrity: no decent woman of the 20s could have got away with those enormous, crimson-painted lips.
JOHNNY MAD DOG is produced by the actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz, whose films have been much concerned with the plight of the underprivileged young in Paris, and directed by Jean-Stéphand Sauvaire, making his first feature-length work after a series of shorts and documentaries, of similar socio-political concern. Shot in Liberia, the film is a truly and properly horrifying portrayal of child soldiers in the country’s recent civil conflicts. It provides a distressing psychological observation of the way in which the childhood sense of game takes over the brutal instruments of war. These children dress in fantastic carnival garb (fairy wings, a wedding dress) and never articulate except in wild screams. They bully and kill mindlessly and aimlessly, their targets as likely to be friends as vaguely identified enemies. With most of the actors recreating their own very recent experiences the film is as distressing as it is compulsive. The positive and reassuring note is that as a result, the Johnny Mad Dog Foundation has been set up to help rehabilitate the children involved in the production
The gifted and unpredictable Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo has skilfully and profitably re-edited DELTA since its premiere at the Hungarian Film Week in February, and it is now a great deal more compelling and coherent. Till now his films have mostly concentrated on troubled urban young: his new film has a rural setting, in the unspoiled stretches of the Danube Delta. The screenplay is written in collaboration with the (generally expatriate) critic and scholar Yvette Biro, and juxtaposes somewhat melancholy meditation on the calm beauty of nature with a story of the evil and malice of men. The protagonist is a taciturn man who returns to his village and develops an incestuous love for his half-sister. Seeking escape (the young woman is raped by her step-father) the two silently and laboriously build themselves a retreat at the end of a pier, but all their hope and labour is brought to a tragic end by the malevolence of their primitive neighbours. It is demanding viewing, probably confined to festival audiences.
The event was certainly unprecedented: the celebration of the centenary of a film-maker with the presence and the very active participation of the honoree himself. Manoel de Oliveira achieves his hundredth birthday in December, and has currently one film in production and another in pre-production. In the near eighteen years since he was 82 not a year has gone by without his completing one or sometimes two films, all bearing his distinctive mark; and he shows no signs of slowing down. He received his honorary Palme d’Or with wry humour: “I must say that it is very gratifying to receive a Palme d’Or ….. finally”. It was astonishing to hear such a contemporary figure recalling that in his first film-going years, the big influences were Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder, and that his first ambition was to be a comic (he became a racing car driver instead, before returning to his natural vocation). The celebration of this invigorating life closed with a screening of his poetic 1930 documentary, DOURO, reminding us that, apart from all else, de Oliveira is the last surviving film-maker who started his career in silent films.
The most remarkable aspect of Terence Davies’ OF TIME AND THE CITY, firmly rooted in his native Liverpool and concentrated upon his very private, exasperated love and sorrow for his own city and country and times, is how powerful and instant is its appeal (as the Cannes screening proved) to a wholly cosmopolitan audience. The film is a poetic, allusive documentary in the manner of Humphrey Jennings, of whom Davies admits to being a passionate admirer. Wonderful old footage of the streets and people of Liverpool at moments over the last sixty years jostles with Davies’ own vision of the city today. The sound-track juxtaposes grand musical themes and the nostalgia of half-remembered pop (“The Folks Who Live in the Hill” over the saddest of working-class tenements); evocative fragments of English poetry, some of it his own, recited in the director’s distinctive breathy voice (and recalling Jennings’ Words for Battle). Davies slides easily from the grandiose to the comic and camp and sharply satirical – he’s not keen on the Royals, and the Beatles are only en passant. A precious rarity today, this film – made with little money but with love and passion and art – is one to treasure and see again and again.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes are Cannes stars, having twice won the Palme d’Or, with Rosetta (1999) and L’Enfant (2005), and it was inevitable that their latest work, LE SILENCE DE LORNA, would be selected for competition. In the event it did not make the same impact as the earlier films. Instead of the local underprivileged, who have been their characters till now, their heroine is an Albanian immigrant in Liége (even a new locale: their previous films have all been set in their Belgian hometown Seraing). Having snatched citizenship by a marriage of convenience to a pitiful junkie (Jeremie Rénier, a Dardennes regular), she needs to lose him, by death or divorce, so that she in turn can offer well-recompensed marriage and nationality to a rich Russian mobster. Meanwhile she and her Albanian boyfriend, count their savings in the hope of opening a snack-bar. With a compelling performance by the young Kosovan actress Arta Dobroshi, it is hard to know just why the twists and turns of Lorna’s fate remain so uninvolving – maybe it is indeed because they are too many and too complex. The Dardennes style has changed towards greater formality, with the use of a much less mobile 35mm camera.
Immigration is understandably a dominant theme in current cinema. While the Dardennes characteristically show generous sympathy towards the immigrant plight, Francesco Munzi’s IL RESTO DELLA NOTTE (THE REST OF THE NIGHT) – shown in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs - plays fair and square into the hands of Italian xenophobia and centre-right migrant policies. A young Romanian maid (played by Laura Vasiliu, from last year’s Cannes Palme d’or winner Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days) works for a well-heeled family but is sacked when the neurotic wife suspects her of stealing some valuable ear-rings. The girl retreats to the Romanian immigrant community, living in squalor on the outskirts of (apparently) Turin. Even though Munzi suggests that they are re-shaped by their predicament, the Romanians are without exception (unless the youngest and most vulnerable) shown as wholly negative characters – larcenous, drug-addictive, violent and personifying all the other migrant myths. The opening of the story briefly suggests that the immigrants are exploited and misused by their over-privileged, selfish hosts; but quite soon it is the hosts who are the victims. And, yes (not to spoil the story too much), the mistress’s suspicions were justified.
Italy won no more credit from Marco Tullio Giordano’s SANGUEPAZZO (AN ITALIAN HISTORY), inexplicably shown in the official selection, though out of competition. The subject of this biopic was promising enough: now almost entirely forgotten, the actor Osvaldo Valenti was a fascinating figure in the otherwise depressed Italian cinema of the thirties and war-time years, with his unashamed histrionism and an always sinister and sadistic edge to his characters. He did some of his best work with Alessandro Blasetti, though his most memorable role was as Pirandello’s Enrico IV in Giorgio Pastina’s adaptation. Leading a reckless private life with his mistress, the actress Luisa Ferida, he was too closely associated with the fascist establishment, and he and the pregnant Ferida were executed in the street by partisans on 30 April 1945. Valenti was 39 (Luca Zingaretti looks older in the role). The story has great possibilities, but they are mostly missed by Giordano’s rambling and often incomprehensibly constructed screenplay.
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL had the remarkable effect of turning the would-be cynical and sophisticated Cannes crowd into pudding-heads. They fought at the barricades to get into a film that they would be able to see quite calmly in any commercial cinema a few days on; and inside (reinforced, certainly, by hordes of lucky and cleverly recruited local teenagers) whooped in hysterical joy at every gag. The Indiana Jones series does not only sell by the billion dollars; it is part of world folklore, and you would no more dare criticise an Indiana Jones picture than you would attack Easter or Halloween.
Nineteen years have passed since the last film in the series, and twenty-seven since the first. Generations have grown up since, and Harrison Ford has advanced to pensionable age; but it made no difference to the unqualified joy of the film’s reception in Cannes, just as it is guaranteed everywhere else in the coming months. Ford, to be fair, is still pretty game, and skilfully integrated stunt-men make him look even gamer. Karen Allen, from Raiders of the Lost Ark, returns, to establish that she and Indiana have always been in love and that maybe he even fathered her raw but spirited son (Shia LeBeouf) who volunteers as Indiana’s side-kick and looks as if he is being tried out as successor for uncounted sequels to come.
It really doesn’t matter (dare it be said) that the new film does not have half the skill or spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or nearly as coherent a narrative. Indiana Jones, quietly passing his days teaching archaeology in a university (the date Is 1957) falls foul both of the FBI and of a Soviet military force led by a high-ranking scientist (Cate Blanchett, with a poor Russian accent, and looking like a prettier Rosa Klebb). It turns out that the lady is expert in things paranormal, and needs Indiana to lead her to a mystical skull, which if it can be reunited with its fellows in some ancient, dark-hidden South American temple, will impart secrets of mind control which will give the USSR unprecedented powers …. If it sounds like incomprehensible nonsense, that it is because it is, but that is hardly important. Whatever its inconsequentialities, the story is the trigger for non-stop action and spectacle, leavened by quite funny dialogue. Somewhere on the way the story acquires a creepy British double-agent (Ray Winstone) and the obligatory crazed professor rescued from the wilderness (John Hurt). Spielberg is an old film buff, and the origins of the best visual effects – the triple waterfall, the breakneck chases in which people leap from one fast-moving vehicle to another – come straight from old Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton slapstick comedy. Which is no bad provenance. The subterranean temple, too, brings back every mummy fantasy remembered from all our childhoods.
Matteo Garrone’s GOMORRA, based on the hugely successful documentary novel by Roberto Saviano, is different from most organised crime films in dealing not with the godfathers, but with the humble foot-soldiers (at once instruments and victims) of the Neapolitan Camorra. Saviano explains, in a note on the film, how pervasive is the influence of Italian organised crime, “one of the strongholds of the economy in Europe with business estimated at 150 billion euros per year …. Over the past 30 years the Camorra alone has murdered 4,000 people, more than any other criminal organisation or terrorist group …. The Camorra doesn’t only earn money through illegal drug or arms trafficking or through the ‘protection’ racket, but by doing business in such sectors as construction, tourism, textiles, transport, fuel, distribution, food, supermarkets, restaurants, shops, cinemas and banking. The immense earnings generated by these illegal activities are then reinvested in numerous legal activities that extend well beyond national borders, from Taiwan to Aberdeen. The Camorra has even bought shares in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers in New York City.”
The script – the work of six writers including Garrone – is more successful than Walter Salles’ LINHA DE PASSE at keeping track of five personal stories: 13-year-old Totó (a winningly natural performance by Salvatore Abruzzese) already drawn lethally into gang warfare; Marco and Ciro, a couple of loud late teenagers who suicidally think they can take their own criminal initiatives, regardless of the Dons; a master tailor whose collaboration with Chinese illegal labour does not go down well with his Mafia employers; Franco, a young graduate who discovers the lethal horrors that are being committed by the Mafia-led illegal toxic waste disposal business by which he is employed, and Don Ciro, a small-time cashier scurrying round making payments to the families of imprisoned Camorra.
At considerable risk Garrone filmed in the actual locations of the Camorra (Saviano is at all times under police protection). “The raw material I had to work on was so visually powerful that I merely filmed it in as straightforward a way as possible, as if I were a passerby who happened to find myself there by chance”. This underestimates the fine judgment and skill in this impressive film.
In LINHA DE PASSE, Walter Salles is reunited with the co-director of his 1996 film A Foreign Land, Daniela Thomas, and with the young protagonist of his 1998 Central Station, Vinicius de Oliveira, now 23 years old, for a new look at issues of life for the poor majority in Brazil, a decade on. Salles explains “In a country with soaring unemployment rates, soccer, religion or crime forge possible escape routes. Many youngsters flirt with criminality, but the vast majority refuses to follow this path. They are rarely the subject of films. This thematic unbalance has shaped a biased impression of our reality”. He follows the fortunes of one family, a middle-aged single mother, and her four sons – a wannabe footballer who has left it too late, a motor-cycle messenger, a gas station attendant fortified by religions, and the youngest, the odd-kid-out who obsessively searches for his black father.
Following the very divergent life and challenges of this extended group, each part of his own community, Salles and Thomas have given themselves a structural problem which they do not entirely overcome. The overwhelming impression of chaos and confusion accurately reflects the sense of daily urban life, but makes it hard to engage dramatically with the individual characters, attractive as they are in all their brave inadequacy. The proof of this lost-in-a-crowd problem is that the personality who in the end stands out from the rest is the little black brother, simply from his distinctions of physique and age. Salles diagnoses a pervading problem of Brazilian society as the absence of the father; and Sandra Corveloni is quietly admirable as the unwilling matriarch of this brood.
It is hard to know how SERBIS, conceived by the Philippine director Brillante Mendoza, came to be selected for competition. Annoyingly filmed, with endlessly wobbling hand-held camera and a sound-track overwhelmed (realism is no justification) by full-volume street noise, it describes the daily tribulations of a family-run porn cinema, called “Family”, in a provincial town. While the extended family cope with their economic, emotional and sexual problems, the cinema provides a market-place and more for gay hustlers, who enthusiastically service their clients in the stalls and staircases. Few films are without some small compensation: here the actress Gino Pareno gives moments of touching dignity to the family’s bruised matriarch.
If you are a very old habitué of Cannes – so old as to remember the classic 60s and 70s – you get a little nervous when you find yourself thinking that in the 21st century the art of the film is not what it was in the days when a festival programme would regularly include the latest Bunuel, Fellini, Visconti, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Ray and maybe a John Ford. Is this just senile nostalgia maybe? Well, no. Along comes Ceylan’s THE THREE MONKEYS or, today, Woody Allen’s VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, and here are films like they used to be, fresh, original, well-wrought - from a different world from the violent Far Eastern techno-thrillers, turgid sociological-themed melodramas and other production-line entertainments that now engage critical attention.
Woody Allen’s film is not by any means one of his major works, but it still unmistakeably reveals a consummate artist, confident in style and technique, and acutely perceptive of the foibles of the human heart – or at least the human heart as it beats in urban America. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are prototypical, eager young graduates, arriving in Europe in vague pursuit of their post-graduate studies. Vicky is engaged to be married; Christina is still eagerly searching for emotional fulfilment. When they are abruptly propositioned for a romantic threesome by a boldly seductive young Barcelona bohemian, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) they are cast into a stormy ocean of sensuality and emotion. Their amorous involvements and sentimental confusions are compounded when Vicky’s sweetly boring fiancé arrives intent on a Spanish wedding; and Juan Antonio’s gifted but violently volatile ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) re-enters the scene. Allen knowingly uses Barcelona and all the tourist clichés for his purposes; and his actors are shrewdly cast and faultless. In particular Bardem and Penelope Cruz – who is fast developing into an actress on the Magnani scale – are a great comic duo.
In the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, Daniel Leconte’s C’EST DUR ÊTRE AIMÉ PAR DES CONS (IT’S TOUGH TO BE LOVED BY JERKS) provides an acid and intelligent post-mortem on the action brought by French Muslim organisations against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for reprinting the notorious Danish caricatures of Mahomet, along with new ones of its own (the film’s title is the caption to the Hebdo cover cartoon showing the prophet holding his head in exasperation at the follies of his supporters. Forbidden (at the request of the prosecution) to shoot in the court-room, Leconte extensively records reports and statements of participants as they congregate in the court waiting room. Defence lawyers and witnesses (including philosophers, journalists and film-makers) are a good deal more persuasive then the few quarrelsome spokesmen for the prosecution. Politicians are not always predictable: Chirac, on the point of a state visit to Saudi Arabia, favours the trial; Sarkozy writes in vigorous support of the defence; Segolène Royal is derided for her feeble stand. In the summing up, the defence triumphantly wins the day by parading Charlie Hebdo’s unsparing and often bawdy lampoons on the shortcomings of numerous religions, above all Christianity, demonstrating persuasively that the Muslim supporters demand not fair balance but special treatment. Perhaps only the French are ever so passionate in defence of freedom of speech.
The British director Thomas Clay (born 1979) wins a lot of sympathetic attention for the enthusiastic cinephilia demonstrated in his films, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael and now SOI COWBOY (the title is the name of Bangkok’s red light district). His proud claim of the dominant influence of Michaelangelo Antonioni carries pretension a shade too far: SOI COWBOY is an undigested hotch-potch of tributes to his favourite directors from Béla Tarr to David Lynch. The film (shown in the “Un Certain Regard” sidebar) is in two ill-assorted parts: the first an attenuated observation of a gross young European film director and his pregnant Thai paramour; the second a violent portrait of the Bangkok vice and gang world, with somewhat enigmatic links between the two. Much more easily watchable (and already set for a Hollywood remake by Warners) is THE CHASER, the feature debut of the South Korean director Na Hong-Jin. The script is interesting – confrontation of a maverick ex-cop and a psychotic serial killer of prostitutes - but clunky in construction and at over two hours seriously in need of trimming. Na compensates by the non-stop dynamism of his direction and his odd-ball characters.
THE THREE MONKEYS is a near-perfect film, directed by the most authoritative director yet to have emerged from Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who came to prominence in 1997 with Small Town, and was at Cannes in 2003 with Uzak and in 2006 with the less successful Seasons. Writing of his new film, he explains, “Dealing with the qualities of our inner world which cannot be formulated rationally and trying to comprehend it has always been the foremost reason for me in making films” Here he has only four characters and a minimal story. To save the reputation of a minor politician, his chauffeur takes blame for a fatal traffic accident, and serves a gaol sentence in exchange for a handsome financial recompense to set his family on its feet. In his absence his student son gets into bad company, while his wife embarks on an affair with the politician. Ceylan observes the effects of this situation on the four characters: man, wife and sensitive grown-up son and, marginally, the politician. The ending is violent and ironic, but till then Ceylan is concerned with elusive inner feelings, whose exterior signs are observed by a uniquely acute vision of human behaviour. Actors (the husband is played by a popular folk singer, Yavuz Bingol) are always outstanding under Ceylan’s direction.
HUNGER is a major success from Britain, produced by Channel 4 in collaboration with Northern Ireland Screen, the Irish Broadcasting Commission and the Wales Creative IP Fund. Steve McQueen, already a distinguished artist in other fields and a Turner Prize winner, now makes an impressive debut as narrative director. His subject is the events surrounding the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze Prison which resulted in the death of 26-year-old Bobby Sands and nine other Republican prisoners. McQueen and his writer Enda Walsh are concerned with the nobility of sacrificing the body in defence of a principle – in this case in protest against a British Government which confused oppressive intransigence with the notion of political righteousness. McQueen’s integrity, honesty and belief are unquestionable. Unsparingly, he depicts the degradation and atrocities inflicted upon prisoners who would not deny their belief, the indignity of the blanket protest and the nauseous “dirty protest”. He stops the film for an unbroken, 22-minute shot in which a Catholic priest argues with Bobby Sands about the morality of his action. Hardly less challenging is the long-held shot in which a lone guard progresses down a corridor, swilling the flood of urine and excrement oozing out of the cells, and from time to time, in frustrated malice, sweeping it back under the doors. This is a work of dedication in its concern to expose the dark sides of past history, at a time when sanctimonious regimes continue to condone the most primitive atrocities under the guise of “war on terror”. Typical of the dedication was the closing down of production for two and a half months to permit the actor Michael Fassbender to starve in preparation for the final scenes of Sands’s death: he achieves a horrifying degree of emaciation. Quite apart from this physical sacrifice, Fassbender’s performance constitutes a strong competitor for the Best Actor prize, and is certainly compensation for the poor fellow’s last major role as the romantic lead in François Ozon’s best-forgotten 2007 period piece ANGEL
It is invigorating to witness (in the side-bar Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) the return of Jerzy Skolimowski, now 70, one of the brightest stars of the Polish New Wave of the 1960s and a director who has never made a film that was not original and interesting. FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA is his first film for 17 years, and his first to be made in his native country since 1966. The film is concentrated, challenging and the work of an undoubted author. The story is of a simple-minded hospital employee, who one day witnesses the rape of a young nurse, and thereafter becomes innocently obsessed with her. On four nights he breaks into her cottage, just to watch her, and pay small, strange homages. Inevitably he is discovered and accused of the never-solved rape. Mostly shot in near-darkness, and complex in structure, with flash-forwards to the eventual trial, it requires close concentration, but Skolimowski – and in particular the near-solo performance of Artur Steranko - merits it
LEONERA, by the Argentinian Pablo Trapera never engages the emotions with a story that would only depend for success on a high emotional response. A young woman awakens one day to find herself covered in blood, her lover dead and a young man who is the lover of both of them, badly wounded by stabbing. Arrested and imprisoned (apparently for four or five years before a sketchy trial) she gives birth and raises her baby in prison. And the story goes on to an improbably conclusion. Perhaps the besetting weakness is a chllly and mechanical central performance by Martina Gusman
The biggest challenge for any festival director is finding the right opening film – not too heavy because the audience will be packed with stars and political dignitaries of short attention spans; but at the same time with a suitable appearance of serious intent. Cannes’ director Thierry Frémaux did not succeed this year. Three weeks before the festival there was still no film in place, and the eventual choice was BLINDNESS. On paper it looked all right. The Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles is known for a couple of good films, including the 2002 CITY OF GOD; and the film is adapted from the stunning best-selling novel by the Brazilian Nobel Prize author Jose Saramago, who had till Meirelles been cautious about permitting screen adaptation of his book. The story imagines a near future world which is suddenly struck by a plague of sudden and total blindness. Saramago’s story is an examination of the machinery of social and individual moral break-down under such strain. Despite occasional philosophical voice-over interpolations by a sonorous Danny Glover, Don McKellar’s script does not really catch Saramago’s point. One has the feeling too that Meirelles is not at ease directing English-speaking actors. Julianne Moore, as the only sighted person in the virtual prison into which the afflicted are herded does bravely, and Gael Garcia Bernal is unrecognisable but striking as a criminal entrepreneur who takes dictatorial control of the community. For the rest the performances have the characteristic look of run-of-the-mill Canadian dramatic films, which always leave the final impression that all the best actors have long ago fled to Hollywood.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR, by contrast, is a wholly original and striking film, which totally achieves its intended effect. It is an evidently autobiographical reflection by the director Ari Folman on his unwilling role, as a young soldier, in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982, which led to the dismissal of Ariel Sharon from his then post as Israel’s Minister of Defence. Folman made the film in response to his realisation that the trauma had resulted in the erasure of his memory of the times, and four years’ work on the film was “a major psychological unpheaval … I figured out it could only be done in animation with fantastic drawings. War is so surreal and memory so tricky that I thought I had better go all along the memory journey with the help of very fine illustrators.”
The film opens with a brilliantly executed nightmare of wild dogs with glowing eyes, the realisation of a recurrent nightmare of one of Ari’s old army friends, whose military role was to shoot the enemy’s watch-dogs. This revelation inspires Ari to embark on a series of reunions with his former army friends, now variously established in domestic and civil life, who, more or less reluctantly, share his exploration of the suppressed past. The effect of representing these witnesses as animated figures, while speaking with their own voices, is quite unexpected: they emerge as more-than-real people, who speak to us with a greater purity and directness than any normal acted performance or documentary interview could acheive. The representation of these interviewees is naturalistic, but distinguished by a vitality that speaks of original animation rather than the more mechanical effect of “rotoscope”. With the recreations of war, the director of animation Yoni Goodman rises to surreal images that often achieve extraordinary power. As a wholly original film concept, WALTZ WITH BASHIR was a rare and promising send-off for the 61st Cannes Film Festival.