Saturday, May. 15, 2010

Cannes: Another Year, Another Mike Leigh Psychodrama

Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Frémaux occasionally programs the movies of a certain day to complement or comment on one another. That was the case today, when the official selection spotlighted world premieres from two of Cannes' favorite veterans, Woody Allen and Mike Leigh. Each man has been creating idiosyncratic films for about four decades — Allen's first feature as writer-director was the 1969 Take the Money and Run; Leigh's, the 1971 Bleak Moments. Each became renowned for intimate, actor-centric comedy-dramas set in a location (Allen's Manhattan, Leigh's East London) that he has helped define for the rest of the world. And the new films, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Another Year, are similar in structure: both are, in effect, short-story collections linking six or eight major characters by a shared place or obsession.

"On a scale of 1 to 10," a psychologist asks her new patient at the beginning of Another Year, "how happy would you say you are, Janet?" The reply is quick and crisp: "One." The expression of working-class misery through a humor only the audience can perceive is a hallmark of Leigh's films, from the mother-and-daughter-reunion drama Secrets & Lies in 1996 to the abortionist tale Vera Drake in 2004. The director, whose full beard and knowing smile give him the look of a sly Santa Claus, is ever bearing down on his characters like a persistent therapist until they break through or become simply unbearable. Another Year has evidence of both strains in Leigh's work. For all its incidental insights and pleasures, it has to be marked one of his lesser achievements.

The film comes in four sections, one for each season, as Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist, and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen), the psychologist who counseled Janet, play host to friends much rougher and more troubled than they. Gerri's co-worker Mary (Lesley Manville) may be perky on the surface, but after a few drinks, her desperation festers and explodes. Trying to justify an affair with a man who turned out to be married, Mary argues, "You can't wear a sign that says, 'Don't fall in love with me. I'm married.' " Tom, a placid sort familiar with Mary's secrets and lies, quietly observes, "Some people wear a ring." The film is a series of such encounters, with the loving, well-adjusted Tom and Gerri — who bear none of the frantic animosities of their cartoon namesakes — put up with their friends' neuroses until they finally have to put their collective feet down.

In the Leigh scheme of building a film with his cast over a six-to-nine-month period, these gifted actors become so familiar with their characters that by the time shooting starts, they can instantly and subtly convey the insecurities, the heartache behind the chatty bravado, the quiet endurance of other people's eccentricities. This works splendidly in brief scenes like the opening in a clinic. Janet, played by Imelda Staunton (an Oscar nominee as Vera Drake), has come complaining of insomnia, first to a female physician, then to Gerri. Leigh's remorseless closeups show a lifetime of bitter regret sketched in every Staunton frown, each answer spat out as if she were a prisoner of war being grilled by the Nazis. The scene, which lasts about five minutes, is a superb character study in miniature.

For most of this long film, though, Leigh insists on building his actors' small revelations into the performance equivalent of arias: scenes that last 20 to 30 minutes. Subtlety evaporates into sameness as, for example, Manville grows more inebriated and self-pitying over a long evening with Tom and Gerri, or when Tom's old friend Ken (Peter Wight) drops in to tell everything about his own dissatisfied life. All the actors make the most of their time before the camera; eventually a plot emerges and a narrative crescendo is reached. It's real life, processed for the cinema in Leigh's practiced style. But the real life it simulates is too often that of an evening that turns into an endless night with friends one wishes might just get their coats and get out.