Saturday, May. 22, 2010

Cannes: Preparing for the Palme d'Or

Before the Festival opened, chief programmer Thierry Fremeaux declared this was a "difficult" year. That's diplomatic-speak for subpar, and Fremeaux wasn't kidding. The 63rd edition of Cannes unearthed no masterpieces, few enthrallments and a lot of dead wood from the not-quite-masters of world cinema. If the Palme d'Or at Sunday night's closing ceremony goes to one of the three films most highly praised by the critics polled by IndieWire — Mike Leigh's Another Year, Abbas Kiaorstami's Certified Copy, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives — it will reveal the meagerness of what in the past few years was a nourishing banquet. (One personal choice for the Palme d'Or: the religious drama Of Gods and Men.)

Part of the problem is that some of the stronger works, including the 5½-hr. biopic Carlos and the South Africa drama Life, After All, were deemed unsuitable for the main competition and are thus ineligible for the prizes to be awarded by Tim Burton and the rest of this year's Jury. And, as Fremeaux or any other festival programmer would say: We can discover good films; we can't invent them. Nonetheless, Cannes 2010 had plenty of movies that, if they fell short of greatness, were worth seeing and arguing over. Here are five of them.

Biutiful, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Spain
After three synoptic, time-shifting features (Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel) written by his longtime collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, this Mexican director pares downs his ambitions for a drama about a shady Barcelona entrepreneur in the last months of his life. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is an underworld middle-man: He oversees street vendors, supplies Chinese workers for illegal projects and, as a sideline, serves as a psychic go-between, telling grieving people the thoughts of their recently deceased family members. He also tries lovingly to raise his two kids, with or without the manic intrusiveness of his bipolar ex-wife (Blanca Portillo). A decent fellow for all his chicanery, Uxbal wants to resolve his dilemmas before he succumbs to prostate cancer.

As obsessed with the minutiae of Spain's undocumented economic system as he was with the earth-straddling cataclysms of Babel, Gonzales Inarritu spends two-and-a-quarter hours of the viewer's time letting Uxbal's life unravel. The movie has many incidental felicities and compelling eccentrics in supporting roles, but it is first and only a showcase for Bardem. His complex, powerful performance is reason enough to see this film, and it may propel him on stage tomorrow night to receive a Best Actor award. —M.C.

Des hommes et des dieux / Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvais, France
Can men be saints in the modern world? When medieval Catholicism confronts radical Islam, where does true spiritual heroism reside? These are among the profound, profoundly troubling questions Beauvais raises in this serenely beautiful film, based on an actual case of eight Cistercian monks kidnapped by Algerian terrorists in 1996. Using a visual language both urgent and spiritual, the director depicts two groups who have nothing in common but proximity — and a devotion to religious precepts that are worlds removed from the secular life most of us inhabit.

The monks, led by their abbot Christian (Lambert Wilson), insist on staying in Algeria despite government warnings and terrorist threats. Luc (Michel Lonsdale), the doctor among them, keeps tending to the physical needs of the locals, while Christian encourages his brothers to find strength in their love for each other, as well as in their faith, to guide them through the impending terror that threatens their existence. Even those in a post-religious frame of mind should find this an exalting experience. —M.C.

Film Socialisme, Jean-Luc Godard, France-Switzerland
Just 50 years ago, Godard's debut feature, Breathless, earned him the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival and sped him toward icon status as the most demanding, beguiling and confounding filmmaker of the '60s. The smart set on three continents debated his "God art" until the decade ended in rubble and JLG went in more gnomic directions that separated him from many of his followers. It was not until 1980 that the movies' most influential modernist had a spot in the Cannes competition; he has never won a Jury prize here. Now, in his 80th year, Godard was back. Or at least his new work, Film Socialisme, was. "Due to problems of the Greek type," Godard wrote to the French daily Liberation, "I will be unable to oblige you at Cannes." Problems of the Greek type? "That means he's broke, like Greece," said one Paris critic.

Most of the one-time Godardians who sat through Film Socialisme would have welcomed his presence: They thought he had some explaining to do. With reams of French narration and dialogue but only meager subtitles in what the director referred to as "Navajo English," and with no storyline, only vignettes on a cruise ship and at a gas station, the film was a stately parade of perplexities. It's reminiscent of one of Jacques Tati's old quasi-comedy films M. Hulot's Holiday, Playtime in its glimpses of the passing scene, but without Tati's onscreen figure to bring a coherent attitude to the narrative and provide of point of view to the audience. The critical consensus was one of shrugs and scratched heads.

And yet, liberated from the usual obligation of following a story and getting involved in the pretense that actors are fictional characters with identifiable problems, a viewer could surrender to the film's cool physical grace. The first image — an overview of the Mediterranean's roiling dark waters that could be the BP oil spill as painted by J.M.W. Turner — serves as a reminder that Godard is among the most lucid of picturemakers, however obscure his text. Just watching Film Socialisme, without trying to parse its meaning, is an eye-enriching experience. There is pleasure, too, in his attractive performers, whatever they may be doing or saying; they are the successors to such stars as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Anna Karina, Isabelle Huppert, Maruschka Detmers and Juliette Binoche, all of whom were the swank wrapping for Godard's political and cinematic ideas. Film Socialisme is unlikely to play at a multiplex near you any time soon, but I am glad it was shown here, and hope the old man keeps at his important, infuriating work. —R.C.

Tuesday After Christmas, Raul Muntean, Romania
"Marital intimacy," says director Muntean, "can be more captivating than a good action movie." It surely is in this fresh angle on the eternal triangle. The new Romanian cinema has come of age in the past few years, with The Death of Mr. Lavarescu, the 2007 Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and last year's Police, Adjective. Muntean's intimate domestic drama deserves a place in this exalted company.

Paul (Mimi Brenescu), married for a decade to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), is preparing for Christmas: the usual shopping and plans for a visit to his parents. What Adriana doesn't know is that Paul is having an affair with their young daughter's dentist Raluca (Maria Popistasu). When Paul tells Adriana that he's in love, she first believes he's talking about her; what a lovely declaration! As Adriana slowly understands her husband's infidelity, a myriad of emotions — disbelief, anger, despair — registers in Oprisor's eloquent, touching, bold performance. It was one of the Festival's great moments this year, in a film that takes a clichéd situation and elevates it to a universal human hurt. —M.C.

The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo, South Korea
Many films in the competition are made by directors who are so knowledgeable about cinematic history that they refuse to traffic in its narrative seductions. Their pictures are post-thriller, post-narrative and, very nearly, post-movie. Not so Im Sang-soo, who reveres the old Hollywood style of melodrama and is pleased to give it vigorous twists. His earlier Girls' Night Out, A Good Lawyer's Wife and The President's Last Bang had story to spare, and so does his new film, a remake of Kim Ki-young's 1960 Korean noir.

Eun-yi (Jeon Do-yeon), a pretty, naive young woman of the working class, gets the position of housemaid to a wealthy family that festers with corruption and malice. The husband, a prosecutor, is a narcissistic philanderer who quickly seduces and impregnates the girl. On learning of the adultery, his wife, also pregnant (with twins), nearly smashes Eun-yi's head in with a golf club. As Eun-yi stands on a high ladder cleaning a chandelier, the wife's mother, a glamorous Dragon Lady, kicks the ladder over, hoping to kill the girl. Each family member bears animosities toward the others; but when the unity of this sick brood is threatened, they stand together. Their ally in maintaining the social order is Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), the imperious senior housekeeper, who sees all and spills every secret, with deliciously dire results.

In the fascinating 1960 original (which can be seen on the Mubi website), the housemaid was a bedraggled schemer who played with rats and rat poison as she drove a nice family to perdition. In Im's version, Eun-yi is the working-class victim of a pampered, vindictive, near-homicidal upper class. We get it: Rich people are awful, and the poor their pawns. Beyond this reductive social view, though, The Housemaid has a silky thread of tension tightening around the viewer's rooting interest, right up to the unusual revenge Eun-yi chooses to take on her torturers. Lee Jung-jae has been mentioned as a strong candidate for the actress prize, but all of the principles fill their roles with subtle or preening conviction. Some distributor should pick up this sexy thriller for release in the U.S., to show our audiences how, when American directors have abandoned the genre of melodrama, an Asian director can shock it back to life. —R.C.