Apocalypse Maintenant: Last Week at Cannes
“It’s very intense, some of 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.
No invented horrors, however, could compare with the real ones of Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, whose family-porn-theater escapade Serbis upset the delicate sensibilities of more than a few festivalgoers during last year’s edition. This year, Mendoza was back with Kinatay, a considerably darker and more upsetting descent into the underbelly of Manilla, set mostly over the course of one long night in which a young police cadet becomes an accomplice to the murder and mutilation of a debt-addled prostitute. In something like real time, Mendoza shows the woman’s abduction, killing and the hacking up of her corpse, interspersed with many long scenes of the cadet riding around in a darkened van going to and from the scene of the crime.
Singled out by no less a Cannes veteran than Roger Ebert as the worst film ever to screen at the festival, Kinatay (the title is Tagalog for “slaughter”) isn’t pleasant to watch, nor is it intended to be. A jugular piece of agitprop that wouldn’t seem out of place on a grindhouse double bill with the original Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave, the movie wants to rankle audiences at home and abroad by confronting us with the senseless cheapening of human life, which happens daily on the streets of the developing world and too easily passes unnoticed. Mendoza, who was one of the only directors present at Cannes this year to use such explicit violence for a discernible artistic purpose rather than for superficial titillation, seems aghast at the potential brutality of his fellow man, and how those men can wash away their sins with a shower and a change of shirt — sometimes even a police shirt. To that end, he has made a duly aghast film that cannot easily be shaken — a feeling evidently shared by Huppert’s jury, which awarded Mendoza the Best Director prize to the lusty boos of the international press corps. (Defending the decision afterward, jury member Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the winner of last year’s directing prize for Three Monkeys, praised Mendoza’s film as “one of the most powerful, original films in the competition,” while Kureshi acerbically added, “This is not a dating film.”)
Mendoza could also count among his supporters none other than his fellow Cannes competitor Quentin Tarantino, who was seen enthusiastically applauding at the gala screening of Kinatay a few days before his Inglorious Basterds premiered to its own chorus of mixed reviews and general misapprehension. A jaunty World War II romp about a dirty half-dozen American grunts trying to bring an end to the Third Reich, Tarantino’s seventh feature as director was pooh-poohed even by some of its supporters as a frivolous popcorn movie undeserving of the Cannes competition, while others — including some of the same critics who have condemned Hollywood for its steady parade of solemn Holocaust memorials — shook the finger of historical revisionism at the director for daring to make a WWII film in which vengeful Jews exult at scalping Nazis and tattooing swastikas onto survivors’ heads. Still others called the movie a bore, perhaps because Tarantino’s penchant for long dialogue scenes — here taken to new extremes — is fatally out of step with the world’s increasing Twitterization. The one thing everyone could agree on: the show-stopping, star-making performance of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as Basterds’ polyglot Nazi villain Col. Hans Landa. Appropriately, Waltz gave his Best Actor acceptance speech in a free-flowing mix of English, French and German.
Oh, what fools we critics can sometimes be. To these eyes, it seems absurd to condemn Tarantino on the grounds of political incorrectness, given that his film so obviously holds no serious political convictions. Loosely inspired by the same-named 1978 B movie by Italian schlock director Enzo G. Castellari, Basterds is framed as a fable — an opening title card reads “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France” — and, as is usually the case with Tarantino, couches virtually everything in terms of movies themselves. Among the main characters are a theater owner, a projectionist, a soldier turned film star and — yes — even a critic turned soldier (played by Hunger star Michael Fassbender). The head bastard, Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, takes his name from the character actor Aldo Ray, who had two of his best roles in Anthony Mann’s Men in War and Raoul Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead. The mission at hand: the sabotaging of a Nazi propaganda film premiere in occupied France.
At the same time, this smashingly entertaining movie isn’t nearly as superficial as some have claimed. Throughout, Tarantino makes direct and indirect references to the canon of wartime propaganda cinema and the ways in which movies attempt to influence or rewrite the course of history, from German propanda director Leni Riefenstahl and actor Emil Jannings are name-checked, as is French director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 Occupation parable Le Corbeau, while the comically over-the-top Adolph Hitler from the 1949 Stalinist propaganda film The Fall of Berlin seems as much of a model for Tarantino’s own Fuhrer as the more obvious influence of Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator. By the end, it’s clear that Tarantino is manufacturing his own brand of propaganda movie — one in which Jews and Nazis may battle it out to a fiery finish, but it is cinema that emerges triumphant.
While Tarantino was busy romanticizing the downfall of German fascism, Michael Haneke set about exploring its roots in The White Ribbon, a masterful sociological drama that brought the Austrian filmmaker (who previously won Cannes’ Grand Jury Prize for The Piano Teacher and Best Director for Caché) his long-overdue Palme d’Or. The setting is a rural German village during the year lead-up to World War I, where the local schoolteacher (excellent newcomer Christian Friedel) comes to believe that a rash of deadly accidents befalling the townsfolk may be the work of one or more of his eerily withdrawn, stoic pupils. The ribbon of the title, a symbol of innocence and purity, is one that Haneke gradually unravels as the teacher hones in on the ritualistic cycle of domination, submission and humiliation churning beneath the town’s placid Protestant surface. Less conceptual and more novelistic in structure than Caché and the Americanized Funny Games remake, this disturbing, challenging and austerely beautiful film (shot in forbidding black-and-white) methodically works its way through a dense, multi-character narrative while refining the director’s trademark concerns about society’s hidden violence and the evils transmitted from parents to children. As usual in Haneke’s films, guilt is a communal rather than individual affliction, human decency a fragile flame flickering in the gale. For these reasons and more, Haneke has always been too bitter a pill for some audiences to swallow, but The White Ribbon reaffirms him as the leading European filmmaker of his generation. It feels like a classic even as you are watching it for the first time, and is one of the films for which the 2009 Cannes Film Festival deserves to be remembered.
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