Midway through the 63rd Cannes Film Festival it was clear that the action this year (even more than in the past) was to be found in the main event's less prestigious shadow, the section with the untranslatable moniker, “Un Certain Regard.”
The main competition was largely a haven for familiarity, mediocrity and what the French critics disparagingly call “qualité.” Warmly received films included Mike Leigh's middling, unfortunately titled Another Year and Bertrand Tavernier's old-fashioned costume drama, The Princess of Montpensier. Although not without their pleasures, Mathieu Amalric's faux-Cassavetes burlesque pageant, Tournée, and Takeshi Kitano's yakuza slapstick, Outrage, are lightweights.
That the “Regard” is to be taken seriously was signaled by its opening movie, Manoel de Oliveira's latest, The Strange Case of Angelica. The most existential of filmmakers, as well as the oldest, at 101, de Oliveira has been making his last film for 20 years. At once avant and retro, as funny and peculiar as its title promises, Angelica is yet another unique sign-off — a serene and sublime meditation on the essence of the motion-picture medium and the nature of eternity. Like Vertigo and Solaris, it's a variation of the Orpheus myth: A young, Jewish photographer is taken with a beautiful Portuguese maiden, whose beatifically smiling corpse he is hired to shoot. Falling in love, he imagines that his camera brings her back to life. Ultimately, the increasingly obsessed photographer joins his subject in death.
The Strange Case of Angelica is a comedy in the droll, intentionally stilted, highly deliberate yet anecdotal manner de Oliveira has perfected over the past several decades. The story's meaning is the pleasure of the tale — a story told for its own sake, its narrative advanced with the expertise of a chess master pushing his pawns. Like most great avant-garde movies, Angelica is programmatically anachronistic — the special effects would have seemed primitive to Georges Méliès back in 1901.
The sight of 101-year-old de Oliveira vigorously strolling La Croisette with his 90-something missus was nearly as impressive as the film's serenely playful statement on mortality. On the other hand, Jean-Luc Godard's last-minute decision to snub the festival (out of solidarity with Greece!) made his presence all the more tangible, especially as his “Regard” entry, the dense, often visually ravishing but only partially successful essay Film Socialisme ends with the words “NO COMMENT.” (Before the fest, Godard had condensed his movie into a four-and-a-half-minute YouTube preview.)
Other gems in the “Regard”: the two Romanian films, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas and Cristi Puiu's Aurora. The new Romanian cinema (one hesitates to call it “New Wave” because so many of its aesthetic premises can be traced back to Italian neorealism and its successors) is a cinema founded on long takes, real time and the primacy of actors. Technical virtuosity aside, the triumph of movies like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Police, Adjective has been the application of these devices to create a new sort of narrative tension.
Tuesday, After Christmas — a movie about a man who is only interesting in his desire to leave his wife and child for a younger woman — is a succession of scenes in which, almost always living a lie, the hero interacts at length with each of the women in turn. The movie's turning point brings all three together (in a dentist's office, no less, where the child is being fitted for braces) with one member of the triangle still oblivious to the triangle's existence. This sequence is topped by the subsequent 10-minute take, in which the husband drops the bomb on his wife and the truth is revealed, just in time for Christmas. (Were the movie in competition, the jury might well have handed Mirela Oprisor the Best Actress Award at the end of the screening.)
If Tuesday, After Christmas synthesizes the gains of previous Romanian films, imbuing an ordinary story with extraordinary dramatic tension, Aurora pushes the Romanian style into new territory. A test for admirers of Puiu's now-canonical Death of Mr. Lazarescu (discovered five years ago in the “Regard”), Aurora is a murder mystery in which the killer's identity is known but his motives are enigmatic. Béla Tarr did something similar with his epic, opaque Georges Simenon adaptation The Man From London, but Puiu's observational style does not offer the same visual pleasure as Tarr's sumptuous hyperrealism; here, the movie is a continuous search for meaning, with the viewer under constant pressure to puzzle out just what the heck is going on.
The movie's premise is absurdist, although only occasionally (and unexpectedly) humorous. For Aurora's first hour, a lanky, unhappy-looking man haunts the outskirts of Bucharest, making cryptic phone calls, spying on children, getting medicine from a woman who seems to be his girlfriend, crossing and recrossing railroad tracks, and moving his belongings from his mother's flat to an apartment he claims to be renovating (and vice versa). The compositions are typically underlit or obstructed; the movie's characteristic shot has the action glimpsed through (or hidden by) a half-open door. Abruptly, this distractive, furtive fellow purchases a gun. Have we been watching a madman, an assassin, a Romanian Travis Bickle? That Puiu stays resolutely outside his protagonist is all the more fascinating in that he plays the role himself.
The jury has its awards, and I have mine. Sometimes they even coincide. Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul's modest Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives — the acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naive magic realism — towered over a shockingly mediocre competition. (Distant runners-up were Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy and South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's overwritten but screenplay-winning Poetry.) Set, like many of Weerasethakul's movies, mainly in the jungles of northeast Thailand and materializing late in the festival as a kind of soothing cinematic balm, Uncle Boonmee is a movie in which conversing with spirits and watching TV have much the same valence. The protagonist is dying of kidney failure; the ghost of his first wife and a red-eyed, human-size monkey, who is the manifestation of his long-lost son, arrive to guide him toward death, with several delightfully inexplicable digressions into past (and possibly future) incarnations.
Let the sound of one palm clapping herald the best movies not in competition: Aurora and Tuesday, After Christmas; Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte, a wordless, but hardly silent, evocation of the Great Chain of Being (men, goats, trees) as manifest in rural Calabria, which was the shining light of the Directors' Fortnight; and mainly Assayas' five-and-a-half-hour docudrama, Carlos, evidently removed from the competition because someone complained that it was produced for TV. Big mistake.
Carlos is more fun than Steven Soderbergh's Che — to which it has been routinely compared with regard to length, historical period and revolutionary protagonist (in this case, the eponymous Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal) — in part because it is considerably less conceptually rigorous. Its controlled, rock-fueled tumult evokes Assayas' thrillers like demonlover and Boarding Gate. French critics, in particular, adored Carlos. Had it remained in the competition, it might well have won the Palme; indeed, the extended account of Carlos' most elaborate operation, holding hostage a full conference of OPEC oil ministers, would make a terrific movie in its own right.
Cannes is more often about dashing expectations than exceeding them. Better-than-expected movies eligible for La Quelle Sur-Prix include Amalric's likably rowdy backstage homage to striptease and pulchritude, Tournée (surprise winner of the international press's FIPRESCI prize, as well as a jury award for best direction), and, to a lesser degree, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's highly crafted, overbearingly solemn rethinking of the Frankenstein story, Tender Son. By contrast, Doug Liman's Sean Penn–starring Fair Game and Ken Loach's Route Irish fell below even my lowest expectations.
The undisputed La Quelle Sur-Prix winner, however, was Certified Copy, Kiarostami's first venture into European art cinema, shot in Tuscany with an international cast — basically of two. A tricky acting exercise that would have been a pure hell of sodden duplicity in the hands of David Mamet, Certified Copy proved remarkably adroit in developing a rumination on authenticity, using nonactor William Shimell (an opera singer by trade) as a foil for festival diva Juliette Binoche, who hilariously told interviewers that, as directed by Kiarostami, she wasn't actually acting but only being herself.
As welcome as those movies that exceed expectations are those that confound them. Weerasethakul is Cannes' reigning baffler, Aurora and Le quattro volte are full of mysteries, and South Korean prankster Im Sang-soo sowed confusion with The Housemaid, remaking a ferociously tawdry and moralistic local classic as a parodic French art thriller. But this year's Grand Whatzit belongs to American indie Lodge Kerrigan for his precisely opaque Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs), another Un Certain Regard selection. As inexplicable as it is enjoyable, Rebecca H. has all the earmarks of a failed project mash-up reclamation job, and shares several interests with Certified Copy — an acting exercise that climaxes with an extended real-or-Memorex simulation of Grace Slick lip-synching barely audible words during Jefferson Airplane's Monterey Pop rendition of “Today” (To be any more than all I am would be a lie …).
They say that some performances are bad enough to win an Oscar; Cannes '10 would seem to be stocked with movies that are too good for the competition.