“For some reason, works built on the masterpiece scale command instant respect, even if their structure is unsound . . . Although [The Great Beauty] looks and sounds like an epic, there is no definition in the detail — the film has been put together with hammer and tongs.”
One strange aspect of Cannes is the predictability of the buzz surrounding movies, in which anything resembling an epic creates serious anticipation, while an intriguing film with a conventional veneer (something that looks, for instance, like a bourgeois family picture) is doomed from the start.
That was the case with the most reviled film of the competition — dismissed as either lightweight or pretentious, with the added pressure of being the sole entry by a female director (a common question around town was, “Why couldn’t it have been Claire Denis?”). Critical expectations were low, but I found Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Un Château en Italie an innovative and dark treatment of sexuality. The film does contain many familiar tropes — a family carving up a rich estate, actors falling in love off-set — but their depiction is unusual. The central affair between Louise (Bruni Tedeschi) and Nathan (Louis Garrel) makes us uneasy; it has a dynamic that I suspect is more common than we generally see in movies.
Louise is soft and maternal-looking; Nathan is dark, aggressive, and much younger. The two have a push-pull relationship that is troubling but also sexy. In a key scene, he accuses her of infidelity and alternates between shouting at her, soothing her, grabbing her, and passionately kissing her. She seems a little scared but also aroused; when someone comes to interrupt them, she is furious. We never know whether the night would have ended in consensual sex or in violence. Nathan is mercurial; he goes from exuberant to sullen and closed in seconds. His impulsiveness might be disturbing in an older man, but for now it seems to symbolise youth and vigor to Louise. Bruni Tedeschi refrains from commenting on these scenes, which might either be foreplay or the prelude to an abusive relationship. In this film, sharp points stick out; uncomfortable scenes are left to sit.
The first encounter between the lovers is not innocent or spontaneous. Each has romantic preconceptions about the other; Louise is determined to resist them, Nathan is happy to run with them. They meet when Nathan walks off a film set into a forest — since he may still be in character, can this be regarded as a scripted scene? As in the films of Marco Bellocchio, the characters keep wandering into pre-staged scenarios. These people may be absent-minded, but they stumble into formal situations: musical sequences, tableaux-like frames, scenes of vérité. Each cut lands us in an unexpected place, forcing us to reorient ourselves as a compressed dramatic moment jumps to a shot of figures in a landscape. The Hollywood Reporter criticized the film’s style as having “minimal narrative momentum,” but I think these quick, oblique transitions contribute to the film’s freshness and surprise.
The performances have a looseness that contrasts with the visual formality. As an actress, Bruni Tedeschi has a warmer, messier presence than most French female stars. Her face is not set into the icy planes of her mother, Marisa Borini (or her sister, for that matter), and she has a lack of self-consciousness that lends itself to eroticism. Like Nathalie Baye, she has a facial structure and a sensibility that defines her films. Over the last decade, she has shown us that women can have a shaggy charm: they can be rumpled, unrefined, and totally watchable.
In Un Château en Italie, she is a harried woman surrounded by good-looking men. At the moment Louise faces charges of being old and unwanted, she is beset by Nathan. Having been attracted by her appearance in a film ten years ago, he jumps at her like a puppy, before backing off into one of his moods. She finds him seductive but too ready-made: the fact that he has wandered off a film gives him an air of unreality. She feels she should break out of the dream scenario, but it is unclear where wish fulfilment begins and ends. There are frequent conflicts between the characters, who seem to come from different periods and genres. Nathan is a volatile star of the moment, Louise belongs to a more traditional form of drama, while her family lives with a Visconti-like opulence and decay.
The film’s ending resolves nothing about the relationship. In the final scene, Nathan turns up out of the blue, smiling and buoyant, wanting to start over. It seems he has put aside his jealousy and rage, if only for the moment. The film closes on a high-energy shot of him skipping merrily: an image reminiscent of the freeze-frame at the end of The 400 Blows (1959), as well as its recent echo in Bertolucci’s Io e Te (2012). Despite everything, the camera (and Louise) is still won over by his look of boyish eagerness; his photogenic charm is equated with the power of cinema, and that image cannot be erased. It is in her ability to weave together contradictory scenes — of desire and fear, violence and intimacy — that Bruni Tedeschi shows her greatest talent as a director.
At the other end of the spectrum was Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza, a sprawling film that purports to reflect the state of contemporary Italy. For some reason, works built on the masterpiece scale command instant respect, even if their structure is unsound. In the first week, this film was considered the leading contender for the Palme d’Or simply because it references nationhood, art, and a tradition of decadence that can be linked back to Fellini and Caravaggio. But big themes don’t equal an ambitious picture: although it looks and sounds like an epic, there is no definition in the detail — the film has been put together with hammer and tongs. Sorrentino goes after garishness and easy targets: the crassness of the local media, with its showgirls and lustful old men. At the center of the storm is the writer Jep (Toni Servillo): celebrated, horny, and able to humiliate feminists while seeming gallant. He is the type of intellectual usually played by Marcello Mastroianni: a man who succumbs to excess while wearing a knowing sad smile.
The film achieves striking but obvious effects by contrasting high-color glitz with Caravaggesque lighting and gaunt faces. The result reminds me of works by Jeff Koons and Martin Parr: a vision of the grinning awfulness of the world, filled with giant stuffed animals, blue-white teeth, Botox, and inflated breasts. But what does Sorrentino offer as an alternative? Only the image of a pure woman from Jep’s youth, untouched by all the waves of celebrity and plastic surgery. It is a derivative beauty with nothing personal or precise in it, similar to Kevin Spacey’s vision at the end of American Beauty (1999).
Perhaps Sorrentino was discouraged by negative reviews for his previous film This Must Be the Place (2011), a remarkable work that paired the outline of a universal story (a road trip of self-discovery) with a specific and unbelievable history (a Robert Smith-like musician tracing the Nazi past of his father). That film earned its great title: taking a vague path toward a certain destination, it was both classical and idiosyncratic. Since then, the director has returned to the show-off style that made him famous in Il Divo (2008) and L’Amico di Famiglia (2006). La Grande Bellezza is all brash frontal images and rock editing, but without the energy or surprises of a Tarantino, or even a Danny Boyle.
A film without pretensions or grandeur, Venus in Fur is an intriguing move for Roman Polanski: like Carnage (2011), it is a minimalist chamber piece deliberately locked into theatrical conventions. The creative use of confinement might have delighted André Bazin; by filming a two-hander in a single setting, the film investigates the possibilities of bareness. Polanski encourages constraints, problems, boxes; he shows us how a text can be activated within self-imposed limits.
The director has an endearing habit of casting his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as the devil: an eternally provocative witch. She has the face for it: sensual but with a covered look, as if a thin film is stretched over her eyes. In The Ninth Gate (1999), she was Satan in tennis shoes: a demon seducing Johnny Depp’s nerdy bookseller. Here she plays Vanda, the sphinx-like actress who teaches a playwright (Mathieu Amalric) that love is power. She has a high girlish voice, but it booms with controlled authority over the soundtrack. It is a wonderful vocal performance — one of the best of the year, surpassed only by Rosario Dawson’s hypnotist in Trance (2013). As in The Ninth Gate, Polanski introduces us to Seigner through a series of parting doors, so that we visualize her character as some kind of secret room, accessible only via a maze. When Vanda finally walks in, it is on a wave of anticipation, but she keeps things very casual. No one can do sloppy and cunning like Seigner: even when she throws her busty body around, she has a half-smile that conveys some extra knowledge of the script.
Another devil at the door: Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman belongs to a tradition of reverse morality plays exemplified by Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (1976), Funny Games (1997), and the Claude Chabrol masterpiece La Ceremonie (1995). In this subgenre, a diabolical figure walks into a bourgeois home and proceeds to damn the inhabitants for unspecified crimes. Somehow, an unobjectionable family comes to seem “wrong”: guilty of being too smug, too ordinary, or sometimes just of being available chumps. Perhaps they resemble a model nuclear family too closely, or they are preoccupied with petty concerns. Either way, the family becomes flustered while the devil remains radiant and cool.
In Borgman, the devil is a homeless man (Jan Bijvoet) who is beaten by the father of the house and returns to exact his revenge in disguise, working his way into the family. Mischievously, he exerts his powers over the mother and daughter, from whom the father becomes increasingly estranged. But the focus is not so much on the devil as on the culpability of the family. Their home is composed of clean lines and modernist furniture, which makes them seem sterile to the camera. The father expresses far-right views and discriminates against blacks. The mother appears to be guilty of pretension — for instance, painting bad abstract art and naming her daughter Isolde.
Unfortunately, Borgman remains on the side of quirky rather than chilling. Everything “shocking” happens on a plot level: nothing is visually uncanny or strange. In the best films of this genre, the presence of a knowing stranger magnetizes and changes the relations between the characters. We are forced to consider that a well-meaning family may be destined for hell. However, at the press screening, the audience clucked along happily with the devil’s schemes; there was no sense of conventional morality being overturned.
Two highlights screened in the Directors’ Fortnight, the only section open to the public. I was keen to see Serge Bozon’s Tip Top on the basis of its program synopsis, a fantastic bit of prose poetry: “Two policewomen from Internal Affairs arrive in a provincial precinct… One punches, the other eyes, tip top.” Blurbs should always be this brilliant and condensed: written in clean and plain language, yet hinting at all manner of possibilities.
Tip Top constantly changes shape. Although it ostensibly deals with police bigotry, the film’s subject remains suggestively open. Bozon uses a premise of two bumbling female cops — one impulsive, the other straitlaced — who launch an investigation involving police corruption and Algerian immigrants in France. The combination of a stock Hollywood genre with a very topical issue unsettles us, yet neither aspect dominates. In the end, the film seems to be about two women who exist in rhythmic jolts. Esther (Isabelle Huppert) is an officer who speaks in staccato bursts and slams things around, resembling a parody of Judy Davis. Sally (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a quiet rookie who is sexually shady. Bozon samples them like two instruments, two effects: Huppert as a clashing cymbal and Kiberlain as a muffled note. I think it is a stretch to suggest that the relation between these two represents any kind of political dynamic, since Bozon appears more interested in their tip-tapping rhythms than anything else. Instead, I’d liken the film to the Kazuo Ishiguro story “Come Rain or Come Shine,” in which the characters’ voices are controlled like a couple of sound effects, with dials turned up and down. In Tip Top — as in Ishiguro’s story — the finale is an overwhelming, percussive climax of sounds.
The best film of the fortnight took me by surprise. Un Voyageur presents itself, deceptively, as a fond biography of its director Marcel Ophüls. Initially, it does not seem as if the film is directed by Ophüls himself; he behaves like a genial talk show guest, regaling a young film buff with anecdotes about Marlene Dietrich and Otto Preminger. There are some astute observations in this first section of the film, but we are not really challenged as viewers. Sensing no tension here, I relaxed, but I should have remembered how crafty Ophüls is.
When Ophüls pops in to talk with Frederick Wiseman, we may not sense that anything is afoot; it seems like a casual chat, even if being stared at by Wiseman means having a relentless pair of documentary eyes fixed on you. Ophüls talks of having to invent a narrative “backbone” for his films, and he wonders about the integrity of applying this fictional strategy to a documentary. Then it becomes clear that the backbone is building: what seem like idle comments about journalism intensify as more and more documentary-makers are interviewed. All of a sudden, it is apparent that Ophüls is seizing the film as both subject and author. He relentlessly quizzes other directors, as well as himself, about editing choices. He questions the compromises and inventions needed to create a narrative line, and what those conventions may omit from history. Ophüls presents Un Voyageur as a work-in-progress to his peers, so that we can see the film’s construction before our eyes. The dreamy old man switches into sharpness; there are no more stories about Hollywood stars. The figure of Ophüls becomes bigger and physically looms over the frame, as he becomes an increasingly vocal and demanding presence. This breathtaking sleight-of-hand, in which a hidden author upends a work by revealing himself, is worthy of F for Fake (1973).
However, the signs of this switch have been present all along. Ophüls, who had an enchanted childhood in Hollywood, tends to recall his life through movies, but he is no conventional nostalgic. Descriptions of his life are interwoven with clips from iconic films such as The Band Wagon (1953), but he is aware that these fragments are like little patches that plaster over the gaps in one’s memory. If we are irritated when Ophüls compares his suicidal thoughts with those of Hamlet, then we are confounded when he segues into the Shakespearean travesty of To Be or Not to Be (1942). Similarly, misty memories of Maurice Chevalier’s “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” give way to the Marx Brothers’ version of the tune. It is an extremely effective strategy: to show a famous scene with apparent reverence, and then to deflate it straight away with parody.Throughout the film, Ophüls is acutely conscious of the power and significance of how things look; he understands why an image is likely to be mocked or taken on face value. His father is referred to in terms of his public identity, “Max Ophüls”; he himself is seen as “the Kraut,” and he knows that his partner is considered a trophy wife. Image and morality don’t always come together: he refers wryly to a relative as “a Nazi and a good man.” What Ophüls has in common not only with his father but with Renoir and Cukor is the ability to reconcile contradictory values: he can balance attraction and repulsion without inner conflict. In November, the Montreal International Documentary Festival will host a major retrospective and forum with Ophüls. Then we will see the searching nature of this director, as he interrogates his own films in person.