At the Cannes Film Festival, where fortunes can change more quickly than at the court of Versailles, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette arrived the odds-on favorite — buoyed by enthusiastic advance reviews in Paris, along with the sentimental possibility of history’s first father-daughter Palme d’Or winners — only to go home empty-handed. In between, there were those who wanted off with the head of Coppola and her rock-and-rococo biopic of France’s most notorious queen. While it’s impossible to know how many French nationals were among the small but vocal minority that booed Marie Antoinette’s first official press screening, it’s a fair bet that some Gallic viewers bristled at the film’s depiction of a time when Franco-American relations ran so strong that French troops and financial support were funneled into the American Revolution, even as France’s own economy teetered on the brink of collapse. But as Cannes wound on, there were critics of many nationalities who expressed disappointment with Coppola’s third feature film, bringing to mind one trusted colleague’s tried-and-true observation that sometimes people see a movie, but they don’t really see the movie.
In the case of Marie Antoinette, I suspect that many came to the film expecting one thing — perhaps the kind of dense, multicharacter historical epic Coppola père might have made — and didn’t know quite what to make of what they found instead. Don’t get me wrong: Marie Antoinette is a feast for the senses, shot on the grounds of Versailles, with hundreds of extras parading through the frame in candy-colored costumes by Oscar winner Milena Canonero. But the movie is less notable for its opulence than for its intimacy, as Coppola cuts through the rigid pomp and circumstance of so many period movies to create an irreverent snapshot of an impetuous young monarch (played with bubbly insouciance by Kirsten Dunst) more interested in haute couture and gossip among girlfriends than in the troubles of the nation that lies at her Manolo Blahnik–shod feet. Those who accused the film of failing as a study of 18th-century French politics missed Coppola’s point, for this Marie is a resolutely apolitical figure, not so much insensitive to the woes of pre-revolutionary France as ignorant to them, safely ensconced in a bubble of superficiality and decadence far from the madding crowd.
Daubed with anachronistic touches (including a soundtrack loaded with New Order, Bow Wow Wow and Gang of Four) that invigorate but never overwhelm, Marie Antoinette was, following the unqualified disaster of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, the one movie in this year’s Cannes competition that felt authentically hip and young and the product of a dazzling pop sensibility. It may also be Coppola’s most personal film to date, not because she is herself the scion of a royal Hollywood family, but rather because she came of age during her father’s lean years, when the palace of Zoetrope was set upon by angry creditors and King Francis was forced into working as a director-for-hire just to pay the bills. This is a movie made by someone who knows firsthand what it means to watch a once-glorious empire crumble.
There were few if any boos at the end of the press screening of Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, but that was because anyone likely to jeer (including the entirety of the three rows seated in front of me) had long ago fled the theater — many of them during the scene in which a methadone addict named Vanda pours forth a long, rambling monologue about childbirth, while a man called Ventura, who may or may not be Vanda’s father, listens inexpressively. Like all of the characters in Colossal Youth, Vanda and Ventura are “played” by real Cape Verdean immigrants enacting thinly fictionalized versions of their own lives, and to the extent that the film has a plot, it’s about how Ventura’s already tenuous existence descends into chaos when the demolition of the Lisbon housing project where he has lived for more than 30 years coincides with his wife’s decision to leave him. From there, Ventura sets out on an itinerant odyssey, dazedly wandering between his gutted-out former residence and a couple of prospective new ones, crossing paths with a succession of similarly displaced and/or dispossessed persons whom he refers to as his “children.”
Developed by Costa in close collaboration with his nonprofessional cast, many of whom contributed their own storylines and dialogue, Colossal Youth was whittled down by the director from more than 300 hours of footage shot over a 15-month period. The result is a harsh, nightmarish and often terribly beautiful film set against a world of peeling paint and crudely nailed planks, through which moves this solitary man grasping at the flickering embers of some real or imagined past. It is a movie in which marginal people living on the edges of society are treated with dignity and allowed to tell their own stories in their own unmistakable voices. And it is quite unlike anything that you or I have ever seen before.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Colossal Youth was the single most divisive film at Cannes in 2006. Even before anyone had seen it, some Costa detractors were badmouthing the film up and down the Croisette, accusing the director of being a fraud championed by a few highbrow critics said to get off on his films’ impenetrability. It was a sentiment summarized succinctly by the Variety review, which opined that the film would “hold the Portuguese director’s coterie of fans in rapt attention while proving a colossal bore to everyone else.” But does the fact that a movie is destined to reach only a limited audience prevent it from being great? I grant that Colossal Youth isn’t for everyone: The pacing is slow (there are maybe 30 or 40 shots over the course of two and a half hours of screen time), and sometimes we are looking, for minutes on end, at two people lying on a bed watching TV, or sitting in a cramped, dimly lit room playing cards. Yet in the week since I saw the film, it has haunted my dreams and is still with me upon waking. If there were many good movies in Cannes this year, and perhaps even a couple of great ones, Colossal Youth is the only one I would venture to call heroic.
The decision of the Cannes programmers to include Colossal Youth in the official competition struck even some of the film’s admirers as perverse, but to my mind it is the very sort of radical gesture by which Cannes continues to define itself. Like several other filmmakers who premiered new films at the festival this year — including the Argentine Lisandro Alonso and the Paris-based American expat Eugène Green — Costa is a director whose work is scarcely known within the borders of his own country (let alone elsewhere) and who needs a stage like Cannes upon which to present it, lest he follow in the footsteps of so many great artists not duly recognized in their own lifetimes.
At the end of the day, it was another Pedro — Almodóvar — who proved the audience favorite of Cannes 2006, even if he left the closing-night awards ceremony a Palme d’Or bridesmaid, just as he did back in 1999 (when All About My Mother earned him a best-director trophy but lost out on the top prize to the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta). This year, the Spanish director copped a screenwriting award for Volver, one of his typically lush, femme-centric melodramas, starring Penelope Cruz (who shared the best-actress prize with five other women from the film’s ensemble) as a Madrid cleaning lady whose aunt and husband depart this world at the same moment that her long-dead mother suddenly returns from the grave. I can’t say all that much against Almodóvar’s heartfelt and sometimes absurdly funny tribute to solidarity among women, nor can I share in the fits of ecstasy it inspired in some of my fellow critics. But since Volver is scheduled to open in U.S. theaters later this year, I won’t spend any further time now on its merits (which are considerable) and its flaws (which are many).
Suffice it to say that, whatever one thinks of it, Volver is sure to meet with greater box-office success than this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Ken Loach’s somber The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which was the first film to screen in the competition and, 12 days later, still the most staggeringly powerful. Set in Ireland in the early 1920s, it’s about the struggle for Irish independence from England and the early days of the IRA, and it was one of several visions of war and remembrance that dominated this year’s Cannes awards. A collective best-actor prize was presented to the male cast of Indigènes, a big-budget French production about the Algerians and other North Africans who fought bravely — and in the face of virulent racism — on the side of their colonial occupier during the Second World War. The actors are strong, but the movie itself is the sort of stolid, devoutly old-fashioned war picture (dubbed Saving Private Akbar by some dissenters) that a Raoul Walsh or a Sam Fuller would have dispensed with in half the running time and with twice the punch.
More to my liking was Bruno Dumont’s stark and unforgiving Flanders, in which an inarticulate young farmer from the French countryside goes off to fight in a vaguely defined war in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. Like Dumont’s masterful second feature, L’Humanité, Flanders won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize (a Cannes euphemism for “runner-up”) amid cries of outrage from those who find Dumont’s reduction of human behavior to its basest, most bestial impulses too much — or too truthful — to bear. Still, in its discussion of the seeds of terrorism, of centrism at odds with extremism, and of political interests placed ahead of human ones, it was The Wind That Shakes the Barley that had more to say about the world of today than any other film screening in Cannes — no matter that it takes place more than 80 years ago. As Loach himself observed while accepting his award, “Maybe if we tell the truth about the past, we tell the truth about the present.”