By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Photo by Guy Ferrandis
"WHERE IS THE RECTUM?!" AS AN ABSURDIST cri du cinéma and a possible festival metaphor, it was hard to beat this line plucked from Gaspar Noé's scandal-seeking Cannes competition entry, Irréversible. More shocking for its intellectual puerility than for its violence -- which includes a much-vaunted nine-minute anal rape -- the hotly anticipated follow-up to the French filmmaker's I Stand Alone attracted a capacity crowd for its premiere press screening. By my estimate, the no-lube assault lasts closer to five minutes, with the vigorous foot stomping visited on the prostrate, sobbing victim (played by Monica Bellucci, an Italian actress of alpine hauteur and décolletage) sucking up another four. Calculated, like its predecessor, to shock, Irréversible is an anatomy of vengeance, in reverse. It opens with a swooping camera and an act of madness -- one man crushes another's head to pulp -- then moves backward past the rape, past the party that preceded it, past some afternoon coitus, back back back, before ending with the victim's idyllic morning. Following Kubrick, Noé initially hoped to make a sexually explicit film with a real couple. Bellucci and her boyfriend, actor Vincent Cassel, demurred, however, which is how the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema landed on the more banally familiar conceit of a male-driven rape-revenge fantasy.
Noé's one (endlessly repeated) idea is that "Time destroys everything," but at Cannes, time was on the critic's side. The festival began with one down note after another, first from Mike Leigh, whose working-class dirge All or Nothing showed the filmmaker close to his indulgent nadir, then from Atom Egoyan, whose crushingly sincere anti-epic about the Armenian genocide, Ararat, was punctuated by moments of unintended comedy. Both films were disappointments but, as with most of what screens at Cannes, warranted more than instantaneous dismissal. Such dismissal, however, is as much a reflexive habit of the festival critic as the compulsion to take positions on directors, the state of the art and the opinions of everyone else crowding the halls outside the screening rooms. The biggest casualties of such position taking tend to be films that are less extreme in both form and content, work that doesn't rate as instant masterpiece or as grand folly, but falls into the gray zone between. Leisurely paced films tend to fare particularly badly, as does work from "undiscovered" (or at least unsanctioned) national cinemas -- which explains how Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours (from Thailand) and Carlos Reygadas' Japón (from Mexico), two of the festival's best entries, slipped under the radar.
Deeply moving and scattershot droll, Blissfully Yours follows two Thai women and a Burmese man into a lush forest where, together and alone, they find relief from grinding factory work, immigrant exploitation and the lonely miseries of everyday life. Before his first press screening, the 31-year-old director, who studied architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago and whose first feature was the documentary Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), warned the meager audience that his film was about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and not to expect too much. What he didn't say was how, with its languid pacing and poetic sense of quiet and gesture, Blissfully Yours would eventually uncover a world of hope, possibility and bliss at the crossroads of human connection and aesthetic achievement. Nearly as hushed and unhurried, Japón traces a would-be suicide into the remote Mexican countryside, where the order of things, the ebb and flow of the natural world, dovetails beautifully with the director's gift for sweeping landscape. At once modest and monumental (it was shot in CinemaScope), Japón is both a religious allegory and a self-conscious expression of artistic hubris that reveals its mysteries -- and its ambitions -- in a final devastating image that brought one public audience to its feet.
GIVEN THE WOES ON PARADE AT FILM FESTIVALS, where tears flow as freely as stage blood, it's not surprising that critics tend to embrace comedies like baby blankets. Aki Kaurismäki's charming if slight The Man Without a Past became an immediate favorite (it ended up winning second prize), and while critics were split when it came to Paul Thomas Anderson's lazy riff on an Adam Sandler comedy, Punch-Drunk Love, the film was quickly crowned a conceptual coup. (Anderson shared the director's prize with Im Kwon-Taek, whose bawdy Chihwaseonrecounts the life of the 19th-century Korean painter Jang Seung Up.) Conversely, while it's smart to make critics laugh, it can be deadly when a filmmaker seems to be taking himself, or his art, too seriously. This year, the festival's undisputed whipping boy was French director Olivier Assayas, whose interesting if opaque Demonlover was eagerly damned as much for its aspirations as for its flaws. Set in the upper reaches of the video-game business, Assayas' film is a story about power, its moral depths and its glossy surfaces, in which the narrative matters less, and often makes less sense, than the director's expressionistic visual style. One of the film's unforgettable moments: Chloë Sevigny, naked, dry-humping a bed while bathed in the pulsing light of the video game she's playing.
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