As the festival winds down, we can see patterns in the films on display. So many, it seems, deal with men as predators and women as their prey, with mean males and women driven to the edges of society, sometimes to madness, by the perfidy of the penis. Here's a rundown of the dark views of humanity we see when we walk out of the sunshine into the movie theaters.
Blind Mountain. A college-educated city girl, promised a good job in a remote village, finds herself abandoned and sold into marriage. Can she escape, or somehow take revenge? The woman-in-chains story has been told countless times; the twist here is that it's a parable of inequities in rural China. Director Li Yang says the Chinese censors cut his film in more than 20 places, but what's left is still strong meat for a movie from the People's Republic. As the captive, pretty Lu Huang gives a bold, nuanced performance in a film whose last potent, if predictable earned a thunderclap of applause and cheers from the audience.
Import Export. Director Ulrich Seidl tells two unrelated stories of Austrian men working in Ukraine, and of a young Ukrainian woman who comes to Austria with the earthshaking message that men are bad and women put up with them. The guys spend their spare time degrading women they pick up in bars, making one strip, crawl on the floor and bark like a dog. Women pose naked before a camera, following the rude commands of Web cam masturbators. In a hospital for the aged, nurses perform perfunctory tasks for old droolers, whom Seidl photographs unpityingly. The humiliations of the characters, the actors and the audience pile up for 2 hrs 15 mins. Whatever it all means, the film plays like loser-sadists in slo-mo.
We Own the Night. New Yorker James Gray makes grimy melodramas (Little Odessa, The Yards) about working-class guys from the outer boroughs who are forced to face moral dilemmas or brutally erase them. The main characters in this new one are a cop father (Robert Duvall) and his two sons, one a cop (Mark Wahlberg), the other (Joaquin Phoenix) the manager of a Brighton Beach nightclub crawling with Russian mobsters. The police are portrayed as stalwart but mostly dewy do-gooders, so they fade in screen appeal next to the Russky tough guys nothing like a monster mobster with a guttural accent to infuse a little juice into a long, languid character study. There's also a terrific shoot-out in the rain that deserves a spot in the Movie Car Chase Hall of Fame next to the stunt action under the El in The French Connection, - R.C.
An Old Mistress. Novelist and filmmaker Catherine Breillat became notorious with four movies Romance, Fat Girl, Sex Is Comedy and Anatomy of Hell that put young women in states of bondage or virginal peril without making them seem victims, and with an attention to sexual realism that verged on hard-core. Breillat suffered a cerebral hemmorage a while back; that hasn't stopped her career but it has slightly softened her tone. An Old Mistress, based on a 19th century novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, is the director's first period film; she wants to see what's under those elegant manners and fancy dresses.
Ryno de Marigny (newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is a famous reprobate who's about to marry the innocent aristocrat Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida) but, reputedly, hasn't shaken off the allure of his Spanish mistress Vellini (Asia Argento). The film is mostly a flashback relating their affair. Like many movies once upon a time, and few today, An Old Mistress approaches romantic passion with a voluptuous seriousness. The Cannes audience giggled at some of the more intense scenes as when Ryno has a bullet removed from his chest and Vellini avidly licks the wound. To each his own eroticism.
But the film's real interest is in the iconographic pairing of the lovers. Argento is one of those severe, strong-featured women who exhales the toxic sexuality of a vixen painted by Goya. Aattou is a luscious, full-lipped, smooth-bodied satyr who could be Argento's prettier, more feminine twin. No wonder Ryno can't shake off Vellini's spell she is his more volcanic, dominant half. The film may be more seductive than it is plausible, and it's not Breillat's most engaging work (that would be Fat Girl and its funnier remake, Sex Is Comedy). But this filmmaker's train of erotic thought is always worth riding.
Breath. There are two Korean films among the 21 in competition for the Palme d'Or, and both have a scene in which an obsessive woman visits a killer in jail and expresses her sympathy for him. The first and lesser of the pair is from Kim Ki-duk, who came to international prominence with The Isle (or, as aficionados describe it, the erotic fish-hook movie) and has ben paring down his style ever since, in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall and Spring Again and the near-wordless 3-Iron. His new film is more conventional, not so rewarding. Yeon (the actress Zia) switches her affection from her faithless husband to a condemned killer (Taiwanese star Chang Chen) who keeps trying to commit suicide. Both, the movie says, are doomed, but to Yeon life is made precious by her devotion to the condemned man. It's one of those stories with a predictable arc, and this one requires a more imaginative treatment than Kim has managed to summon for it.
Secret Sunshine. That's the literal Chinese translation for Miryang, a town to which the thirtysomething widow Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has retreated with her young son Jun. In Miryang, people are friendly and compulsively helpful, especially a garage mechanic (Korean superstar Song Kang-ho) who is clearly, clumsily smitten by Shin-ae. She needs all the help she can get when another tragedy befalls her. She joins a Christian fellowship and indulges the mechanic's devotion. But her mind and spirit spiral into disarray as her behavior becomes more destructive and self-destructive.
Some fervently admired Secret Sunshine, others thought it slow and forced; and you can get those varying opinions from the authors of this journal. The big news here is Jeon's performance, which is being touted for the Best Actress prize. She can play ferocious or catatonic with equal plausibility. Jeon also has a way of turning on a small smile in the most extreme moments, as if to share a sly intimacy with the audience. Does she want viewers to see the full humanity of the troubled Shin-ae? Or is she telling us not to probe too deeply for logical explanations in a character that is essentially one more exotic movie madwoman? - R.C.