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Controversy at Cannes: The Headless Woman

Mind games: Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman
Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

“I feel a little ... I don’t feel good.” So says Veronica, the middle-aged upper-middle-class Argentinean woman who suffers a nasty bump on the noggin early on in Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza) and spends the rest of the movie in a semiconscious stupor, a stranger in her own body. Watching Martel’s film, which premiered midway through the 61st Cannes Film Festival, it occurred to me that Veronica’s woozy disorientation was a pretty apt metaphor for Cannes itself, where one can reliably emerge from seeing a near masterpiece only to discover that everyone — or at least the influential industry trade newspapers — has declared the very same movie une catastrophe! That was certainly the case with The Headless Woman, which was the first (though hardly the last) of this year’s competition entries to be greeted with lusty boos at the end of its press screening, putting it in such esteemed past Cannes company as Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and David Cronenberg’s Crash. (In one of those rare alliances of Franco and Anglo sentiments, Martel’s film spent most of Cannes scraping bottom in the daily critics’ polls conducted by the British trade paper Screen International and its Gallic counterpart, Le Film Français.)

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

Mind games: Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman

Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

Martel’s movie — one of the strongest of a very strong festival — opens on a windy stretch of road, where Veronica runs over something with her car, bangs her head on the steering wheel, then drives on a bit farther before pulling over and staggering out into the first drops of a massive rainstorm. From there on, The Headless Woman exists in a concussive state, showing us the world through its protagonist’s highly unreliable eyes as she returns to her everyday routine, not quite sure of where she is or what she’s doing there, and beset by the nagging sensation that what she hit on the road may not have been canine after all. Like Martel’s first two features, La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl, this one is another merciless portrait of self-satisfied stagnation among the privileged elite; the movie’s running joke (admittedly a mordant one) is that Veronica’s family and friends keep assuring her that everything is perfectly fine, even as it becomes obvious that it most certainly is not.

Shooting for the first time in wide screen, Martel effects a sense of spatial and temporal dislocation that is close to the phantasmagoric subconsciousness of a David Lynch or Luis Buñuel. As she films her saucer-eyed, peroxide-blond leading lady (Maria Onetto) from a distance, in and out of focus, reflected in glass, we too begin to feel that we aren’t quite ourselves, that we are sharing in Veronica’s dark, private, waking dream. Most critics, though, were too busy complaining about being confused by the film to realize that this was exactly the point.

Another head-trip movie, greeted with only slightly less venom, was Being John Malkovich and Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, which stars the redoubtable Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director staging a magnum autobiographical opus — a literal Living Theater — inside a cavernous warehouse space. When I interviewed Kaufman a few years ago, around the time of the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he told me with palpable gravity that he feared he had run dry as a writer, and this deeply personal movie about the fear of death — creatively and physically. Kaufman lacks the peppy visual direction and snappy pacing of a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, but I nevertheless enjoyed Synecdoche, New York for its uniquely jaundiced view of the attempt to bring meaning to one’s life through art, and I’d wager that the film will look even better a few months from now, seen apart from the hothouse atmosphere of the world’s most prestigious (but also impatient) film festival.

This is Cannes, after all, where dismissing movies out of hand and storming out of screenings before the end are points of professional pride for some festival vets — as if they had somewhere better to be. In the case of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which lost a not-insignificant portion of its press-screening audience during intermission, that somewhere may have been the nearest bar with a satellite TV, given that the festival was so thoughtless as to schedule the film opposite the European Champions League soccer final between Chelsea and Manchester United. Quel scandale! Even those who saw the filmthrough to the end were hardly unanimous in their assessment. “No doubt it will be back to the drawing board for Che,” opined Variety, touching off a spirited, festival-long debate over whether Che was chef-d’oeuvre or folie de grandeur.

 

To my mind, Soderbergh’s film is neither/nor, perhaps a bit of both, and nothing if not the movie of the year — the one audiences and critics alike seem certain to be digesting and arguing about well into Oscar season (provided, of course, they get a chance to see it). As counterintuitive a bio-pic as I’m Not There, but lacking any easily marketable gimmicks, this two-part collection of scenes from the life of the iconic Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara is as notable for what it manages to include in its four-and-a-half-hour running time as for its structuring absences — namely, all but a few fleeting glimpses of Guevara’s personal life, plus the entire six-year stretch between the end of the Cuban revolution and the start of Che’s ill-fated campaign to direct a sequel in Bolivia.

Simply put, Che is a movie — or two movies — after Guevara’s own heart, in which the rebel leader often recedes into the jungle scape, one more proletariat cog in the Marxist wheel, while the greater cause (represented by long scenes of ideological debate and battlefield strategy) comes to the fore. One part ends in conditional triumph, the other in tragedy; in both, Soderbergh, per Che’s prophetic words, suggests that a revolution succeeds or fails by the will of the people. This is, as my colleague J. Hoberman has already remarked in The Village Voice, resolutely uncommercial stuff. But no matter what you think of Che, it’s hard not to admire Soderbergh for following up the trifecta jackpot of Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen with a movie about violent political upheaval intended for an audience that, at the box office and the polling place, routinely shows its preference for the status quo.

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Is there any plausible scenario by which a 258-minute, Spanish-language Che could have come to Cannes and become the belle of the ball? Or sold to a North American distributor for the $8 to $10 million reportedly being asked by Che’s international sales broker, Wild Bunch? Probably not. What’s disturbing, however, is the number of highly intelligent critics and festival programmers who seemed to take Soderbergh’s — and Martel’s and Kaufman’s — subversion of their expectations as something of a personal affront, and who seemed to crave something altogether more conventional. Less Che, more Ray.

It’s one thing to fault a movie for what it is, or what it sets out to do and falls short of, but at Cannes, many of Che’s most vocal opponents (there were also a few passionate champions) chastised Soderbergh for not making the movie(s) they wanted to see, instead of grappling with the one(s) that he did. Would Che be improved by some discreet trimming, especially in the first half? Probably. Would it be a more successful artistic achievement if it were a single, three-hour film featuring more scenes of Che at home with the wife and kids, or powwowing with Castro down at La Cabaña? I sincerely doubt it.

But even as I write this, five days after seeing Che in its entirety and one day after returning to see the second half again, I am still turning the movie over in my mind — a luxury fewer and fewer critics are able to enjoy in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. The aforementioned Variety review of Che went live on the Internet mere hours after the conclusion of the press screening. In an even more extreme case of jockeying for position, the internet film critic Eric Kohn decided to “live blog” the first Cannes screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — a stream of incoherent plot spoilers and thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgments (“Shia and Cate in a sword fight. Two cars driving side by side. Whoa.”) that the heretofore respectable Web site Indiewire.com sullied itself by publishing. that Indiewire.com editor Eugene Hernandez lent undue credence by publishing on his blog. *

As it happens, my bedside reading during Cannes this year included I Peed On Fellini, a wonderful new memoir by the Australian film critic and former Sydney Film Festival director David Stratton. In one chapter, Stratton reminisces about his friendship with Variety’s late, legendary Paris-based film critic Gene Moskowitz, who, in the 1960s and ’70s would file reviews from Cannes by typing them on a manual typewriter and air-mailing them to New York, where, several weeks later, they would finally appear in print. Technologically speaking, we’ve come a long way since then, but I wonder if the movies — and movie criticism — are any better for it.

 


Amazingly, Che wasn’t the only five-hour pseudo-bio-pic to premiere in Cannes this year. Down the Croisette at the breakaway Directors’ Fortnight fest, Filipino director Raya Martin’s Warholian Now Showing devoted even more screen time (291 minutes) to its chronicle of a Manila girl’s evolution from adolescence into adulthood. Shooting in low-grade video, with a visible tracking problem on the screen for much of the duration, Martin observes his main character (played, at two different ages, by two different actresses) playing hopscotch in the street, lying on a bed, listening to the radio and working a part-time job in a mall DVD shop (where, in a nice bit of kismet, one of her co-workers sports a Che T-shirt). The more mundane the action, the longer Martin is likely to hold on it — a single shot in Now Showing may last for as long as 10 or 20 minutes. This film is probably better suited to gallery spaces than traditional cinemas. In Cannes, where the vectors of art-movie minimalism and Hollywood maximalism collide, a single screening of a movie like this onecan seem like a willful act of defiance: Take that, Indiana Jones!

Purportedly scripted but giving off the impression of old home videos exhumed from an attic grave, Now Showing offered an extreme example of what could be considered Cannes 2008’s defining trend: an aggressive blurring of whatever boundaries remain, in the YouTube/MySpace/Blair Witch era, between documentary and fiction. In the festival’s Official Selection, Israeli director Ari Folman revisited his country’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in Waltz with Bashir, a fully animated “documentary” that combines Waking Life-style interview segments with dynamic, mangalike re-enactments of wartime chaos. Meanwhile, in 24 City, Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s latest bottled message from the front lines of a rapidly modernizing China, actresses Joan Chen and Zhao Tao intermingle liberally (and rather seamlessly) with actual workers from a military-equipment factory about to be razed to make room for a luxury apartment complex. And back in the Fortnight, there was Claire Simon’s superb God’s Offices (Les Bureaux de Dieu), in which the veteran documentary filmmaker (here directing her third narrative feature) dramatizes the goings-on at a Paris family planning clinic, with movie stars (Nathalie Baye, Nicole Garcia, Beatrice Dalle) playing the advisers, nonprofessionals playing the patients, and dialogues adapted from actual counseling sessions Simon observed during her research for the project.

Curiously, a nearly identical docudrama approach was in effect in director Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre les Murs), which became the first French film in more than 20 years — since Maurice Pialat’s Under Satan’s Sun in 1987 — to win the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or. When Pialat accepted the Palme for his controversial adaptation of George Bernanos’ novel, it was amidst a chorus of catcalls and hisses — to which Pialat memorably responded by giving the audience an irreverent hand gesture. With Cantet, it was all smiles and good cheer as the director bounded to the stage with nearly his entire cast, a gaggle of ethnically diverse middle-school nonactors who developed The Class in concert with their director and a ridiculously charismatic schoolteacher/author/ex-punk-band-frontman named François Begaudeau. Begaudeau, whose 2006 memoir inspired the film, makes his acting debut, as a version of himself, in the leading role.

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An inspirational schoolteacher movie stripped of spoon-fed inspiration, The Class begins on the first day of school and ends on the last, in between which it is so uncommonly sharp about the perils and pitfalls of public education that you wince when Cantet’s beautifully sustained verisimilitude buckles a bit under the weight of a third-act dramatic conflict. Still, there is much to be impressed by, including Cantet and veteran screenplay collaborator Robin Campillo’s keen observations of class, race, the politics of language, the asserting of adolescent identity and the classroom as simulacrum of the outside world (which, in keeping with the film’s French title, Between the Walls, we never see after the opening scene). As the son of a public-school educator with some 40 years under her belt, I was moved.


During an amusing closing-night awards ceremony at which Competition jury president Sean Penn more than once seemed to be channeling Jeff Spicoli, the Grand Jury Prize (traditionally seen as Cannes’ “runner-up” award) was bestowed upon Italian director Matteo Garrone’s sprawling modern-day Mafia thriller Gomorra, while the third-place Jury Prize went to another Italian film, Il Divo, for its satirical portrait of 89-year-old Senator, former Prime Minister and supposed Mafia emissary Giulio Andreotti. Brazil’s Sandra Corveloni took home the Best Actress award for her affecting performance as an impoverished mother of four in Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’ otherwise trite Linha de Passe. In one of only two announced unanimous decisions by Penn’s reportedly fractious jury — the other being the Palme d’Or to The Class — Benicio Del Toro was named Best Actor for Che. (Whether that is enough to boost distributor interest in the film, or ease pressures on Soderbergh to prepare an alternate cut, remains to be seen.) Rounding the evening out, three Cannes regulars, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, respectively won the Director and Screenplay awards — Ceylan for his somber morality play Three Monkeys and the Dardennes for Lorna’s Silence, a powerful tale of an Albanian woman working as a pawn in an illegal immigration scheme. Some members of the international press corps groused that neither film was a masterpiece from filmmakers who have led us to expect masterpieces — and besides, didn’t the Dardennes (who won the Palme d’Or in 1999 and 2005 for Rosetta and The Child, respectively) already have enough Cannes prizes? This may seem like sound reasoning, until you consider that, while we critics come to Cannes every year, the jury — which tends to be composed of those people whose job it is to make movies, not to watch them — is forever changing. Had Sean Penn or Natalie Portman ever seen a Dardenne brothers movie before? Discuss among yourselves.

 

When is it better not to win a prize in Cannes than to win one? When you’re Catherine Deneuve and Clint Eastwood — that’s when. Both screen legends (and perpetual Cannes bridesmaids) were awarded special honorary awards by this year’s jury — honors that smacked of career-achievement consolation, no matter Penn’s efforts to stress that they were also recognitions of their recipients’ latest work. (At least, I think that’s what Penn was saying in a rambling introductory speech that begged translation more than any of the evening’s French-language components.) Deneuve’s award was pegged to her regal performance as a disaffected matriarch presiding over a chaotic family reunion in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. Eastwood’s, meanwhile, was for Changeling, a fact-based, 1920s Los Angeles crime story that was the fifth Eastwood-directed film to compete at Cannes and the fifth to leave its maker Palme-less. I wouldn’t disagree that Denueve and Eastwood deserved some sort of acknowledgment: Eastwood’s film, in particular, strikes me as one of his greatest — a harrowing women’s melodrama one minute, a serpentine portrait of city corruption the next, with a tour de force by Angelina Jolie at its center. But having served on a few festival juries myself (including one at Cannes in 2005), I’m generally of the mind that the awarding of ersatz extra prizes only dilutes the value of the legitimate ones. Besides which, this whole business of giving people awards just because you like them, or because they’re overdue ... c’est très Americaine. No wonder a gracious Denueve looked faintly embarrassed as she accepted a golden trinket that all but had “You’re old, you deserve it” emblazoned upon it. Ever the tactful one, Eastwood, though still present in Cannes on closing night, elected not to show up. And that, as they say, was a wrap.

* Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said the the live blogging of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was published on Indiewire. In fact, it was published on the blog of Indiewire.com editor Eugene Hernandez.


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