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“It’s very intense, someof the films are very long, and some of them are very weird,” observed the British screenwriter and novelist Hanif Kureshi of his experience serving on the 2009 Cannes Film Festival competition jury. “I saw things I’ve never seen in my life in some of these films,” he added during the annual closing-night press conference, perhaps flashing back on Best Actress winner Charlotte Gainsbourg’s act of clitoral mutilation midway through Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, or the large CGI penis that penetrates an equally photorealistic vaginal canal in the final minutes of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, the penultimate competition title to screen for the press and the one that symbolically brought Cannes 2009 — if not cinema itself — to an apocalyptic close.
The grandest folly of a festival in which it was often difficult to parse the radical from the ridiculous, Noé’s self-proclaimed “psychedelic melodrama” arrived 15 minutes longer than the published 150-minute running time, leading to widespread speculation that the Cannes version was in fact “unfinished” — a generous designation for a film that should never have been started in the first place. Set in a neon-drenched, nocturnal Tokyo that one British critic aptly likened to a very expensive screen saver, Noé’s film opens with an extended hallucinogenic trip experienced by Oscar (monosyllabic nonprofessional actor Nathaniel Brown), an American ex-pat drug dealer who, like most of the film’s thoroughly repellent characters, harbors no higher ambition in life than to get high. (“Everyone who has a real job is a slave,” he assures us, speaking, one suspects, for the director himself.) Tweaking the subjective camera gimmick of the 1947 film noir Lady in the Lake, Noé literally shows us things through Oscar’s eyes, with intermittent frames of black meant to represent the blinking of the character’s eyelids. Then, around the 25-minute mark, Oscar takes a bullet to the chest, watches his entire stultifying life flash before his eyes like an acid-laced version of A Christmas Carol, and spends the rest of the movie as a disembodied spirit floating through the Tokyo skies, where he serves as a sort of guardian angel to the slutty, go-go dancer sister (Pax De La Huerta) with whom, in life, he enjoyed a pseudo-incestuous bond.
As in his previous film, the reverse chronological rape and revenge yarn Irreversible, Noé keeps his camera on an endlessly roving, pirouetting crane, pausing just long enough to linger on extreme close-ups of a bullet wound, a lactating breast and an aborted fetus before Oscar finally finds himself all the way back inside his mother’s womb (where Noé, too, seems eager to return). The illusion is supposed to be one of perpetual motion, yet so monotonous is Noé’s grunge eye candy that one instead feels something closer to atrophy. Yet in Cannes, where no empty provocation is without its perverse defenders, there were some (including, rumor had it, at least one jury member) who praised Into the Void as a work of visual virtuosity, perhaps agreeing with the movie’s zonked-out protagonist that “dying would be the ultimate trip, you know?”
Far more authentically trippy was the latest film by Last Year at Marienbad director Alain Resnais, a filmmaker who’s been bending cinematic time and space since Noé was indeed still an embryo, and who, at 86, delivered his most freely associative dada mindfuck since the 1968 time-travel opus Je t’aime, je t’aime. Adapted from Christian Gailly’s novel The Incident, Resnais’ Wild Grass playfully follows the fate-altering ripples triggered by a seemingly ordinary purse snatching. The purse belongs to Marguerite (Resnais regular Sabine Azema), a dentist who moonlights as an aviatrix; its partial contents are retrieved by Georges (André Dussollier), a man for whom time — as evidenced by a broken watch — has begun to stand still. The unexpected find introduces an element of adventure into Georges’ staid existence, and as he attempts to arrange a rendezvous with Marguerite, his growing infatuation with this mystery woman, whom he knows only from her wallet photos expresses itself in ways that straddle the line between romantic infatuation and psychotic obsession. And things only get weirder from there.
Where Noé labors to induce the feeling of an altered state, Resnais (who received a deserved career achievement prize from the Cannes jury) effortlessly pulls us into a lucid, luxuriant dream, as his characters move towards their unpredictable destinies under the glowing, impressionistic gaze of cinematographer Eric Gautier’s widescreen camera work. The music, by X Files composer Mark Snow, is jazz, and so is the movie itself. Moment by moment, no film in Cannes conveyed such an elating sense of creative freedom — something often associated with youth, but which Resnais, like those other great old men of the cinema Clint Eastwood and Manoel de Oliveira, suggests is the provenance of the aged.
The continuing initiative of Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Fremaux to invite more genre films onto the festival’s main stage this year resulted in the return of Old Boy director Park Chan-wook with Thirst, an anything-goes vampire melodrama, leaden with overtones both psychosexual and religious (the film’s subtitle reads “... for this is my blood”), that runs out of ideas well before the end of its egregious 133 minutes. (Still, Park’s revisionist take on Zola’s Thérèse Raquin proved outré enough to earn a special prize from the Isabelle Huppert–headed jury.) Meanwhile, tucked away in Cannes’ noncompetitive sidebar of midnight screenings, Sam Raimi’s vastly more enjoyable Drag Me to Hell delivered a screwball horror romp for our lean economic times, with Alison Lohman’s bank loan officer suffering the wrath of an old Gypsy hag after denying the woman an extension on her mortgage. The following 90-odd minutes find Raimi gleefully at play at the top of his gross-out game and taking obvious pleasure at his momentary reprieve from the weight of a certain comic book franchise.
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