By this time, news should be out everywhere that Cannes this year was a special vintage. Not only did most of the selected “usual suspects” outdo themselves in big and unexpected ways — or, like Alain Resnais, find new resources and verve which, frankly, we didn’t know they had in them — but it is also a measure of how shockingly strong this year was that the fest still had room for very good fare in the 20-film Un Certain Regard sidebar, from Israeli first-timer Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open to the wonderful Colombian entry The Wind Journeys by Ciro Guerra, in which an itinerant accordion player crosses the country from contest to contest — surprising challenges like saxophonists’ bouts in 1930’s Kansas City, or present-day rappers’ gabfests.
Two other sideshow attractions glaringly stuck out alongside strong but classical competition narratives like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet and Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating Inglorious Basterds. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen movies with systems of their own, worlds of their own, which you enter only as you go along (remember Hal Hartley? Remember the first Kiarostami?). Of course, systems often become patterns, and even when directors are strong and talented (like Almodovar), people tend to resent spotting the patterns. Nevertheless, it remains a nice feeling to be completely surprised by a film.
Of the two, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (which won the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature) will clearly be the critical darling and is sure to grab a few festival audience awards awards as well. This teen story of the Australian outback is not only directed and acted by Aboriginal artists, but life on the res as we know it through film has never been like this. (The Last Wave, it ain’t.) First of all, there is the unnerving way the people in Thornton’s film have of expressing their grief or rage through multiple applications of the bludgeon. Life and death rites are punctuated by savage shellackings — as iss, more understandably, young Samsom’s exasperation at the truly lame ska music his brothers play day and night.
Thornton’s film may seem 20 minutes too long, when it could end like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and leave us stricken for life, with gasoline-sniffer Samson going back to his plastic bottle to cry under his blanket. But then, we are so glad to see Delilah returning on crutches after being mowed down by a car, somehow empowered in the face of so much injustice, so much poverty. It isn’t a happy ending exactly, but it warms the heart, which is no small blessing in a film world that sometimes seems to have nothing left to praise but stone-boring real-time car travel and the cutting up of rogue prostitutes in basements to harden up fledging Filipino policemen.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, which won the top prize of the five-person Un Certain Regard jury headed by Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino, will prove more problematic to some. It’s a funny Greek film, for starters — and when was the last time you laughed with, not at, a Greek movie? Dogtooth is the work of a young man with a very twisted sense of humor. His cast is equally, marvelously deranged, and mostly young as well. They look like a normal family at first. It starts with language tapes, and at first it will all be Greek to you. But wait: The tapes appear to have been made by the parents themselves, under whose protective guidance words like twat are given the meaning “bedside table lamp.” Zombies are little yellow flowers; and you don’t even want to know what cats mean to these kids who live in a Mon Oncle Modern compound completely cut off from the outside world. Lanthimos’ film is, in some ways, a hilarious version of Arturo Ripstein’s 1973 film Castle of Purity, with the same strict father sequestrating his brood in order to protect it from the world’s evil. There is a lot of sex — not necessarily natural — and the story is far from perfect, but the moment when the chestiest daughter knocks out her dogtooth (to hasten her deliverance) with a barbell has to be the most original and striking image of the wondrous, plentiful 2009 Cannes Film Festival.