Cannes Diary VII: Out of the Past

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For all the startling melodrama of its second half, The King is strangely antidramatic. It observes Elvis' crimes and misdemeanors like a prison guard forever in danger of nodding off. It is, finally, a splatter movie trying to pass itself off as a Sundance film, and a few critics at Cannes were outraged by the tests of faith it presented: of Christian faith for the characters, of plausibility for the audience. What's undeniable is the showcase it provides the young Mexican actor primed for U.S. stardom. Lending an impeccable American accent to his brooding good looks, Garcia Bernal expertly embodies a young man who can be gentle and cruel, a courtly lover and a ruthless killer.

The shadows of guilt hanging over Manderlay are longer and darker than in the other films, and speak to a crucial American social crime: the imposition and perpetuation of slavery. The second of a 1930s trilogy that began with Dogville, Von Trier's new work again has the redheaded Grace as its focus. (There she was played by Nicole Kidman, here by Ron Howard's daughter.) She comes to Manderlay, a plantation that has only now, 70 years after the Civil War, with the death of its owner Mam (Lauren Bacall), freed its slaves. But do they want to be free, to the extent that blacks could be free in the 1930s South? Or are they so comfortable in their old roles on the plantation, as defined in the elaborate rules of hierarchy and behavior known as Mam's Law, that the attempts of an outsider to liberate them seems like kidnapping?

Von Trier always has a few shocks up his sleeve: a banquet in which whites put on blackface; the violent taking of Grace by Timothy (Isaach De Bankole), the most rebellious of the ex-slaves. The director is also fond of parading America's old crimes, most explicitly in a closing montage of lynchings and other rank injustices to African-Americans. But though the film uses Dogville's technique of presenting all the action on a single stage, with no realistic sets and few props, it hasn't the kick or the sweep of the earlier film. Von Trier is up to the same old innovations and outrages, and audiences are used to them by now. Perhaps the trilogy's conclusion, Washington, will bring the director back to form. Von Trier seems to realize that, in mid-career, he still has things to learn. At his Cannes press conference, he said he was postponing Washington because he was not yet mature enough to tackle it!

Neither failures nor successes, Broken Flowers, The King and Manderlay cemented the notion of this year's festival as one of mostly middling films from better-than-middling directors. Only the Cronenberg suggested that Cannes 2005 might be ready to forge a robust identity in which filmmakers escaped the glories of their past.

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