Bodily fluids, bowel movements and dismembered human remains were the dominant design principles as the official competition of this year’s Cannes Film Festival arrived at the halfway point, having begun with the pansexual love quadrangle of Chinese director Lou Ye’s Spring Fever and reaching something of an Act 1 apotheosis with the premiere of Lars von Trier’s patently silly PMS/PTSD horror show, Antichrist.

Von Trier’s film featured the inimitable one-two punch of Willem Dafoe nearly being castrated by cinder block and co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg masturbating like a bitch in heat in the midst of a disenchanted Pacific Northwest forest. In between, British director Andrea Arnold (Red Road) offered up a tedious slice of public-housing nihilism in Fish Tank, whose dejected teenage heroine pisses on the living-room floor of her deadbeat mother’s no-good married boyfriend (Hunger star Michael Fassbender), shortly before kidnapping and nearly murdering said boyfriend’s young daughter. A heavily symbolic white horse also makes several appearances, unhappily tethered by the side of a highway, although in a Cannes that has sometimes felt like a very special episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, I would like to propose Antichrist’s talking fox — and his less verbose but ever-present traveling companions, the deer and the crow — for special jury recognition.

Even Cannes’ more artistically successful offerings have been anything but lighthearted affairs, beginning with French director Jacques Audiard’s brutally intense and often quite brilliant prison drama, A Prophet, which follows an illiterate French-Arab inmate during his six-year odyssey from new kid on the (cell) block to holy underworld kingpin of the title. Along the way, Malik (impressively played by newcomer Tahar Rahim) learns how to read not only books but people, too, much of that education coming at the hands of a merciless but fair-minded Corsican gang leader (the electrifying Niels Arestrup, who was the father in Audiard’s previous The Beat That My Heart Skipped), until the pupil overtakes the master, playing every one of Paris’ rival gangland factions to his own advantage.

Another rise to political preeminence could be found in the competition’s second early dazzler, Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, which observes the power plays of Benito Mussolini from the perspective of his first wife, Ida Dalser (the excellent Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and that of their love child, Benito Albino Mussolini. (Mussolini would go on to deny any relationship to either Dalser or his son, with the two spending much of their respective lives tucked away in asylums.) At 69, age has diminished none of Bellocchio’s sting — he opens his film with Mussolini the young socialist denying the existence of God and climaxes two hours later with the 1929 creation of the Papal State, in between revisiting all of his career-spanning concerns about the many faces of fascism and the hypocrisy of Catholic family values. The through line for Bellocchio is cinema itself, from an early scene in which fighting movie patrons become a sort of living newsreel, to the many archival film clips and propaganda slogans ingeniously worked into the body of the film. The history of 20th-century Italy emerges as a kind of grandly cinematic delusion, and Vincere as a timely cautionary tale about despots who fancy themselves media barons — and vice versa.

More superficial in its thrills, Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To’s Vengeance still manages to bring a surprisingly philosophical dimension to its balletic bloodshed, as a Paris restaurateur (French pop star Johnny Hallyday, in a role originally written for Alain Delon) enlists a trio of Macao hired guns (played by To regulars Anthony Wong, Ka Tung Lam and Suet Lam) to help him avenge the murder of his daughter’s entire family. The catch is that Hallyday, a man with a shadowy past himself (the character’s name, Francis Costello, is a riff on Delon’s Jeff Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic film noir, Le Samouraï), is rapidly losing his memory — the result of a bullet lodged in his skull. And so he must constantly be reminded of why he’s intent on revenge and, ultimately, of the very definition of revenge itself.

A similar spirit of literal-mindedness guides Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, easily the best film in Cannes not screening in the main competition. (Instead, it was inexplicably relegated to a single 11 a.m. screening in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar.) Set, like Porumboiu’s previous 12:08 East of Bucharest, in the filmmaker’s hometown of Vaslui, Police, Adjective depicts an absurdly protracted sting operation designed to catch a lone high school student in the act of selling marijuana. Cristi, the cop assigned to the case, realizes the futility of his mission, though his attempts to convince his bureaucratic superiors of the same are met with contempt, derision and the reminder that it is not his place to question the letter of the law. But it is nothing less than letters and laws — of both the legal and grammatical variety — that are the keys to Porumboiu’s wonderfully pliable, allegorical theme. For much of the running time, Porumboiu gives us a series of long, nearly wordless scenes of the cop pursuing his suspect, which turn out to be the carefully laid groundwork for a show-stopping final act of Stoppardian verbosity, as the cop and his superior engage in a verbal tennis match about conscience, personal morality and the true meanings of words.

Down the Croisettea few paces, Cannes’ renegade parallel festival, the Directors Fortnight, got off to a strong start in its 41st year with the world premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, another reported competition also-ran that nevertheless finds the Godfather auteur delivering his most ambitious, personal and richly satisfying film in the 20 years since Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Like most of Coppola’s best films, Tetro is another coded autobiography about success and failure, domineering patriarchs and sibling rivalries, here set in contemporary Buenos Aires (although the high-contrast black-and-white images and generally dreamlike mood evoke a timelessness), where a quixotic aspiring writer (Vincent Gallo) who has fled from the family nest is visited by his adoring younger brother (18-year-old newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, with the devil-may-care smirk of the young Leonardo DiCaprio).

Elsewhere at the Fortnight, Portugal’s Pedro Costa unveiled the feature-length version of his performance film Ne Change Rien (an in-progress excerpt screened during Costa’s 2007 Los Angeles retrospective), in which he documents the French actress and singer Jeanne Balibar rehearsing and performing an extensive repertoire that ranges from husky-voiced torch songs to Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole. The last of those is sung repeatedly by Balibar while taking exacting notes from an offscreen vocal coach, by which point it has become clear that Costa’s very beautiful film is, like his earlier portrait of the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, a rare chronicle of work and the creative process. Also shooting in lustrous black-and-white, Costa first shows Balibar onstage performing the song “Torture” from her 2003 Paramour album, and he proceeds to film her in a variety of poses and locales as she works out various approaches to a song, always (even in close-up) retaining a respectful distance from his subject, never vulgarizing her in typical music-video fashion.

The wonderfully idiosyncratic South Korean director Hong Sang-soo was in fine form with Like You Know It All, his latest film à clef about the peccadilloes of emotionally immature Korean men and the women they hopelessly lust after. Like many Hong films, this one is set in and around the film industry — specifically, at a film festival where Hong’s onscreen avatar is invited to serve on a jury. Once there, the filmmaker proceeds to miss and/or sleep through most of the screenings, something that happens a good deal more frequently than most festival organizers would care to admit.

Meanwhile, back in Un Certain Regard, another film shed light on a rarely heralded aspect of the movie business — the maverick independent producers who gamble their livelihoods on the uncommercial visions of leading art filmmakers. The film, Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children, takes its inspiration from the real case of the late French producer Humbert Balsan, who killed himself in 2005 with his company on the verge of bankruptcy. In sharp relief to Hollywood’s constant supply of mawkish dead child/parent weepies, Hansen-Løve’s film — her second — casts its clear-eyed gaze upon the unpleasant business of lawyers, unpaid debts and everything else that must be reckoned with before anyone has the time to sit around grieving. (As one who has spent much of the past year settling my own father’s untidy estate, I had many moments in which I sensed my life passing before my eyes.) Ultimately, the film renders tribute to Balsan’s artistic vision (which supported films by the likes of Claire Denis, Youssef Chahine and Bela Tarr), to the many others who work for little personal gain to make the movies that broaden our cinematic horizons, and to the festivals, like Cannes, where we line up to see them.

For more Cannes coverage throughout the festival, check LA Daily for Foundas on Film reports.

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