In a Word
In the very entertaining romantic-musical-porno-comedy-drama Shortbus, a character who has attempted suicide is dispatched to Our Lady of Adequate Grace Hospital.
At the press screening for his eco-doc An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President and near-President Al Gore was asked how he should be addressed. His reply: "Your Adequacy."
"Adequate" sums up the Festival's offerings so far. No films yet have reaped unanimous critical acclaim. A few name directors are thought to have been coasting (Pedro Almodóvar's Volver) or tailspinning (Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation) with their latest works. Some directors of promise, like the Turk auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan with his Climates, have brought works earning mild applause. We see and we shrug.
The Ones That Got Away
Maybe this is just an off-year for international cinema. About this lineup, Cannes' Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremeaux might mount the usual defense you hear from film festival programmers: "We can discover good films, but we can't invent them."
Every festival has its stories of the good movies they let get away. Cannes, with the biggest, harshest spotlight, has more of these might-have-beens than most. Last year it turned down Brokeback Mountain, to which the only reaction can be, "Huh?" This year the festival made room for DreamWorks' OK animated feature Over the Hedge but is not showing Pixar's turbo-terrific Cars.
Jacob and Fremeaux were also expected to be presenting The Fountain, the third feature from Darren Aronofsky (Pi and Requiem for a Dream), starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The synopsis "Spanning over one thousand years, and three parallel stories, The Fountain is a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world" makes The Fountain sound wildly ambitious, on the order of D.W. Griffith's three-hour, four-part, epoch-straddling 1916 film Intolerance. One would expect as much from Aronofsky, a young director with an original, powerful vision. But The Fountain dropped out at the last minute, reportedly because the programmers offered it a slot out of competition for the Palme d'Or and Aronofsky wanted to compete with the big boys. Now critics will have to wait till the fall to see if they would have slotted it in their own imaginary, ideal film festival.
Minimalist and Moving
The Ceylan film, Climates, is a typical choice, and a bit better than that, for an art-film festival. It moves at a glacial pace actually, we can't use that metaphor any more, after what we learn about melting icecaps from the Gore movie, but this is a film that takes its time with a camera that rarely moves and characters who for long stretches are wrapped mutely in isolated misery against stunning landscapes.
This film style was virtually patented in the '50s by Robert Bresson, the great French minimalist, and has been widely copied ever since. It seems easy to imitate. But when directors can't approach the artistry of which Bresson was capable, the films become a series of still-lifes about sour people. Much smoking, not much talking, almost no kinetic energy.
Ceylan came to the attention of world cinema three years ago with Uzak (Distant), which won the Grand Jury Prize (second place) and two acting awards. It was enthralling or infuriating, depend on your threshold of love or pain for emotional minimalism. Climates was much more involving, perhaps because it's simply a better, more human film.
It begins with a middle-aged professor, Isa (played by the director), and his young girlfriend, Bahar (Ceylan's wife Ebru), at the archaic architecture site of Kas. As he photographs the ruins, she stands on a promontory, gazes at the view and cries. The camera holds on her for agonizing minutes, until a fly alights on her hair. Maxi-minimalism! The two are trudging toward a breakup. At dinner with friends, they quarrel publicly. "Don't worry," Bahar says of her hosts, "they enjoy seeing us miserable." (A remark that puts the relationship of critics to minimalist movie characters in a nice nutshell.)
They do separate, and Isa tries to take up again with his old inamorata, Serap (Nazan Kasal). Actually, he stalks her, waiting at night outside her home. She lets him come inside, and after a few terse pleasantries he assaults her. She puts up a fight on the couch and, whack, as they fall to the floor; yet there is the hint that this may be the renewal of an cat-and-mouse old game between them. A minimalist movie doesn't offer many explanations; the viewer has to infer what's going on in the characters' heads, hearts and loins.
The film covers three seasons, three locations, three climates: summer heat, autumn rain, winter snow. All photographed gloriously. In the final section, Isa now goes searching for Bahar perhaps because he loves her, perhaps to convince himself that he could still have her if he wanted her.
Even those filmgoers who are averse to the minimalist aesthetic can find reasons to praise Climates. Here are four. One is that under its cloak of aesthetic severity, Climates has a beating heart, aware of the charm, selfishness and contradictions in any person. Another is that, though Ceylan the director loves taking long closeups of Ceylan the actor, he's worth it; this is a face, craggily attractive, that rewards extended attention. A third is that the movie occasionally reveals a wry, wise sense of humor. On his second encounter with Serap, she is the one eager to have sex, he the reluctant one. As she cuddles up, he suddenly takes notice of a TV news report on a natural disaster. Won't you make love? she asks. He shakes his head. "Earthquake," he says the Turkish equivalent of "Not tonight, dear, I have a headache."
The fourth is that Climates has a real climax: at the end, as at the beginning, a tear down Bahar's cheek. This time, though, it's a lovely epiphany that fulfills and finalizes her relationship with Isa.
All of which proves that, even if they don't move that much, movies can't still be moving.
Trying Too Much
Cannes 2006 has shown some movies that oppose the prevailing trend and try to encompass a lot, everything, too much. One film was Summer Palace, from the Chinese director Lou Ye, whose Suzhou River was an international hit six years ago. In Summer Palace he wants to summarize the yearning for emancipation among China's youth in the '80s and '90s. The centerpiece is the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, the portrayal of which should keep the film suppressed in its home country for quite some time.
But Lou Ye's boldness is as least as much sexual as political. The lead character, Yu Hong, is a bundle of very Western-style neuroses, and a one-woman sexual liberation army. Her love scenes have a volcanic intensity not seen before in a Mainland Chinese film, and Hao Lei, the young actress who plays Yu Hong, has an urgent eroticism that mesmerizes the audience (or at least this member of it). She made me think both of the young Joan Chen, who was a teen idol before coming to the West in the early '80s, and of the divine, androgynous Leslie Cheung, best known for his role as the female impersonator in Chen Kaige's Farewell to My Concubine. In other words, she's hot and she's cool.
Halfway through, when the story moves from Beijing to Berlin, the film careers off the tracks, and I wouldn't recommend it in toto. But I respect Lou Ye's audacity. And I'll be watching for Hao Lei, while hoping that other Chinese filmmakers, who routinely tilt against their government, can some day be as unfettered in their approach to affairs of the bedroom as to affairs of state.
Here is another wayward film with huge ambitions and, as yet, no notion of taming them.
The land in Richard Kelly's Southland Tales is Southern California in the year 2008. The U.S. is under a kind of martial law, because, the narrator says, "After the nuclear attacks on Texas, things got real complicated." The government is trying to harness a hydrokinetic energy called "fluid karma." The country's rebels include prostitutes, arms dealers and various flaky types.
I shall say no more because, in the 2hr.40min. version shown at Cannes, Southland Tales felt not only unfinished but unformed. After his imposing directorial debut with Donnie Darko in 2001, Kelly secured financing (mostly from German sources) for a much larger budget film, with some big-name stars: Dwyane Johnson, aka The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) and Seann William Scott (Stiffler in the American Pie farces, here in a more serious role). He also hired a passel of veterans from Saturday Night Live, including Janeane Garofalo, Amy Poehler, Jon Lovitz and Nora Dunn. Plus Justin Timberlake, Wallace Shawn and, slimmed down and head shaved, a nearly unrecognizable Kevin Smith.
So far, Kelly hasn't been able to wrestle his madly imaginative material to the mat. It's controlling him. But I hold out hope that he will find a way to corral the riot of ideas and characters and astonish us with a great movie.