Bright Lights Film Journal

No Transcendence: Cannes Film Festival 2009

“It’s becoming more and more rare that a fresh, original film gets into the Cannes competition.”

Remarking on this year’s Cannes, famed film critic Roger Ebert lamented that nowhere to be found was a Fellini, Kurosawa or Fassbinder — those “ecstatic giants” who “bestrode the earth in those days” of old. I would second Ebert. Whereas a trademark of film in the 1960s and ’70s was to make one wonder — at whatever — the trademark of 2009 was to clench one’s films in angst (e.g., Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, also Ebert’s favorite) — or, on occasion, to yawn politely (Isabelle Coixet’s Map of the Sounds of Tokyo).

Not to say that there is anything wrong with angst. Von Trier’s controversial offering — roundly hated by most critics — was one of my favorites. A stellar duo performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, Antichrist (right) reveals the depths of the psychodynamics that can develop between two people. The story: a child accidentally dies while his parents make love (in black-and-white slow-motion to Handel’s music), and the mother goes through an extended mourning process. Her husband, a psychologist, tries to help her with cognitive therapy techniques — which not only fail (showing the flatness of contemporary psychological theory), but lead to a backlash of violence. Throughout, there is a rich archetypal symbolic atmosphere, rife with forest scenes, mythological creatures and allusions to witchcraft. Granted, the film’s unleashed cruelty is sadistic (the climax a graphic clitorectomy) and will turn off the unsuspecting viewer. Yet the merging of fantastic (the fairytale setting) and realistic (the psychological shifts) is an original achievement, and works well to show the mysterious and many-layered quality of mental anguish.

Indeed, it was odd to me that critics reacted so violently to Von Trier — terming his work “sick” and “manipulative” — and yet accepted without a grimace the violence endemic to the competition films, to the point of awarding the most violent. The winner of the Grand Prize, Jacques Audiard’s The Prophet, gripped the audience with its supremely well-acted, suspenseful look at a prisoner rising in the ranks to gangster status. Its key scenes included slitting a man’s throat, cowering from fists in a courtyard and a bloody shoot-out between Corsican thugs. Another commended film, Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (co-winner of the Jury Prize), an aesthetically slick extravaganza of vampire gore, was so over-the-top macabre that one fellow critic couldn’t drink his coffee afterwards, because it “tasted like blood.” And Johnnie To’s (right) set-attractive Vengeance begins with little children shot to death in a closet. Its own spectacular climax — the peak of “vengeance” — is a spooky expressionistic shoot-out in the woods.

Taking the prize, however, for most dully rendered gratuitous violence was the Filipino film Kinatay, in which director Brillante Mendoza has us watch the dismemberment of a prostitute for twenty minutes, after an equally long rape scene. Journalists were outraged when the jury awarded this film with Best Direction.

Among these bleak depictions of humanity in the Cannes competition, one shone out as a real jewel: Fish Tank, by relative newcomer Andrea Arnold. The story of a girl in a dysfunctional home, verbally abused by her mother, this film has a freshness, light and creativity that make the two hours a veritable tour de force. The director has a sensitive awareness of adolescent loneliness and desire, and one quickly identifies with her character, rooting for her to find a way out. Vulnerable and desperate, the young heroine seduces (or is seduced by) her mother’s lover, and next tries to get out of her white-trash situation by break-dancing for a nightclub. One of the most evocative scenes is when she kidnaps a little girl — taking her through the sunny fields — to vent her rage and frustration. The disturbing subtext is offset by the lyrical shot of the two girls traipsing though the grass, alongside water. The spontaneity of the acting, the original musical score and the quirkiness of the rhythm made this an impressive offering — and a favorite of almost every critic at Cannes.

Two other good films to consider: Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, a classic psychological drama about Mussolini’s maltreated mistress, and Xavier Giannoli’s In the Beginning, about an ex-con who fakes having a construction company and gets a highway built before anyone suspects a thing. Both are well-made with gripping character depictions. The merit of Bellocchio’s film is that it takes an obscure topic (who would have thought of Mussolini’s mistress?) and makes it contemporary: we perceive Mussolini’s selfishness and see Berlusconi. And Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s acting as the maddened mistress — pathetic verging on insanity — is truly superb. As In the Beginning, it is always entertaining to watch a film where a man defeats the system, especially if it is a true story. Again, no particular aesthetic or narrative surprises in either film.

Ken Loach’s bubbly comedy Looking for Eric, with Eric Cantona, was also fun to watch. A postal worker gets his life back with a bit of teamwork from his mates. The film offers many fresh moments of humor, and roundly earned the epithet crowd-pleaser. In one brilliant scene, the postal workers decide to experiment with self-help therapy and all sit around a living room staring at a window, trying to tell themselves they “love themselves” in Manchester accents. The rest of the dialogue in this perfect comedy where all’s well that ends well is less memorable. Still, one can commend Loach for his persistent engagement with community responsibility, and his political commitment to the underdog who slips under the cracks only to rise with the encouragement of idealized team player par excellence Eric Cantona.

In contrast to the above, some of the flicks at Cannes were forgettable tout court. A big disappointment was Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, a flat comedy starring Penelope Cruz as the beloved mistress of a decrepit rich old man. Almodovar’s characteristic warm, idiosyncratic gaze turns insipid here, as his camera fetishizes his beloved Cruz, whose two-dimensional role in this slight film doesn’t merit all the attention. Equally mediocre — an “embarrassment to France,” as some critics said — was the weird Alain Renais film Les Herbes Folles about a ménage a quatre.

Then we have the entertaining but useless Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock, which offers a campy spree through sex, drugs and silliness of the famous music festival, while emptying the sixties of any political or intellectual content. And holding the prize for boring the most critics was Jane Campion’s Bright Star. Her romantic tribute to the love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne has the delicacy of a fine spider’s web, with beautiful sensuous shots of nineteenth-century drawing rooms and lovely frocks. A bit too fine, thought some (especially the masculine) critics: “With no sex even!”

Among such a turn-out, it was not surprising that Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon took the Palme d’Or. Its methodical depiction of evil in a pre-war German village once again revealed Haneke (right) to be a master at probing the dark selfishness and close-mindedness that mark much of humanity and can lead to such events as Nazi Germany. Haneke gives careful portraits of a host of characters — a doctor who abuses his daughter and his mistress, a pastor who flogs his children, and an uptight Baron and his family — one of whom is behind the odd events besetting the village: a murdered maid, a crippled horse, a mutilated boy. The film is beautifully shot in black and white, with poised shots of farmhouses, manors, and even the dead body of a woman whose feet protrude in the frame, while flies circle about. The tempo is careful and steady, with each moment both understated and ominous. And as usual, Haneke’s gaze is impressively icy, lingering on the uptight faces of the adults and the fearful eyes of the children, so the film continues to trouble even after the screening.

Still, compared to such sparkling works as Arnold’s innovative Fish Tank, Haneke’s aesthetically perfect rendering came off as somewhat old-fashioned, a stiff academic treatment with an inexorably predictable rhythm and outcome.

I was not alone in thinking so. Fortnight director Frederic Boyer commented, a bit cynically, that this Haneke film was typically “Canois,” i.e., made expressly for Cannes, much like, he pointed out, Johnnie To’s Vengeance, with its deliberate choice of lead actor Johnny Hallyday engineered to fit the Cannes taste. “It’s becoming more and more rare that a fresh, original film gets into the Cannes competition,” Boyer noted. His own favorites: Fish Tank and Antichrist, the only films this year that delivered the one-two punch of emotions and aesthetics that mark the best in contemporary cinema.