“The surprise musical number can represent a facile avoidance of complexity, a moment of true strangeness, or a way of harmonizing existing, underlying themes.”
This year’s festival was French-dominated for two reasons: a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and the outstanding new work of at least five directors. Although I loved The Green Ray (1986) and a couple of ingenious scenes in Full Moon in Paris (1984), the glorious Romance of Astrea and Celadon is possibly my favorite Rohmer to date. Despite their chatty protagonists, Eric Rohmer’s films have always had an element of atmospheric mystery — and here, the mystery dominates. The tale of a young shepherd and shepherdess is presented in down-to-earth terms, yet the fact that goddesses and magic also play a part in this fable means that the tone needs to be a little strange. Somehow, Rohmer manages to create a reality in which humans and descended gods can interact. The story takes place at a time when myth is still malleable: the experience of the young lovers is played alongside depictions of Venus and speculations about the changing nature of the gods. Perhaps all of Rohmer’s films have had this kind of spiritual underpinning — still, it’s rather extraordinary that in 2007, he’s found a convincing way to depict mythology alongside mortal affairs.
Jacques Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe is a Proustian fantasy in which a young officer travels through time pursuing, and often thwarting, his version of an Odette. A fine, dry, minimalist work, it’s reminiscent of Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours (2006) in that the relationship between its principals, the general (Guillaume Depardieu) and the duchess (Jeanne Balibar), seems to be based on a prescribed order: like the relation between two coordinates, or satellites. These two figures appear to be trapped within an eternal narrative — or pair of narratives, since the general’s trajectory is that of the colonial adventurer, while the duchess follows a feminine line from the drawing room to the convent. Amidst this agonizingly slow courtship, a series of intertitles appear, purporting to know and extract the significance of events. Occasionally, this fictional voice announces that minutes, hours, or years have passed: someone, at least, appears to be confident of steering time, despite the elusive vagueness of the relationship. The general is at one moment dumbly available, then suddenly powerful and knowing; the duchess is by turns beguiling and injured. Temporarily outmaneuvered, she regains her power with a toss of her hair, and a frighteningly direct gaze to camera.
Aside from French masters, the major theme of this festival was the sing-along: at least half a dozen films featured unexpected detours into song. Despite its frequent use, the surprise musical number can represent a variety of things: a facile avoidance of complexity (so that the audience relaxes into the chorus), a moment of true strangeness, or a way of harmonizing existing, underlying themes. Breaking into song has the potential to be formally interesting: when popular music is injected into an everyday or politicized reality (as in the soldiers and sludge of Serge Bozon’s La France), it can create just the right amount of jolt and discomfort. However, I remain undecided about a re-run of Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1986), a rather dreary musical set in a department store. At first, I found it unbearable, but its look and feel — its tarnished, brassy appearance, the defiantly ugly textures, the general stasis and lack of energy — have stayed with me. More engaging — if less memorable — was Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon’s Rumba, a fantasy about the life of two dance teachers, which presents life as a day-glo musical (day-glo without the grimace, unlike Golden Eighties).
In Serge Bozon’s two features, Mods (right) and La France, music and song are crucial: it’s as if all the hidden structures of the film break through the surface as a lyrical performance. Each film impressed with its singular use of dialogue and lyrics. Mods has a declarative, novelistic style; the characters speak in compressed gulps, uttering bits of unbelievable dialogue a là Ivy Compton-Burnett. These young students, with their languid or coolly abrupt phrasing, are mods in every sense: an elite group whose style is incomprehensibly compact. Yet their clipped, modernist poetry comes to life during the musical sequences. By contrast, La France, a romance set during World War I, is beautiful and mysterious, with the consistent, limpid tone of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). Camille (Sylvie Testud) cross-dresses and joins a French regiment in hopes of finding her lover. The stage appears set for a pastoral, gender-swap comedy: this lovelorn woman, dressed as a lad, has the stoic impassiveness of a boy. However, something strange is at work: all of a sudden, the soldiers speak in lyrical outbursts, which culminate in the plaintive rendition of a song. Post-performance, they resume their stiff demeanor. With his ability to shape war scenes, sex changes, and serenades into a single melancholy mood, Bozon reveals himself as a truly expressive director.
As an actor, Bozon also appears in director Axelle Ropert’s brilliant, opaque short feature Etoile Violette. The film is almost like a novella in its length and clarity, and the undigested strangeness of its characters — for instance, a tailor who listens to radio excerpts, or a man who specializes in exotic woods. Ropert’s film reminded me of the writing of Jean-Claude Carrière, in its ability to regard every person, every fragment of dialogue, as a narrative possibility. Recently reading Carrière’s novel Please, Mr Einstein, I marveled at the brilliance of its “editing”: its way of seizing on a seemingly random image or gesture (“Let’s follow that girl who’s walking down the street”) to illustrate a philosophical precept. I wonder how much of Buñuel or Godard’s style can be attributed to the “cuts” implied in Carrière’s texts.
Arnaud Desplechin’s two films both worked from a premise of self-involvement. L’Aimée shows the director looking through his own family history, as if sifting through a dead artist’s estate. Questioning his father and looking through old letters and photographs, he tracks the family tree at every turn: speculating what would have motivated a relative to utter a particular phrase, like a detective deducing moods. His reconstruction of events is impossibly detailed: he recreates back-stories for every situation, suspecting his ancestors of gothic or uncanny motives. Desplechin attempts to reconstitute an epic in his own backyard (the score from Vertigo, 1958, is heard during several scenes, so that we get the sense of desire and dread, and an old romance being lit up). Meanwhile, the house is full of rushing children, who are encouraged to immerse themselves in legends and hearsay. As such, generations of Desplechins appear to be playing out an eternal script. Much attention is given to ascertaining mood from a single snapshot or detail — above all, there’s a fascination with analyzing women and their impulses. As in his fictional films, women tend to be seen as iconic heads of house, queens of their domain.
Desplechin’s latest film, A Christmas Tale, is also interested in multiple ways of tracing a family, and it has a lush, Herrmann-esque orchestration. It’s neither a sequel nor prequel to Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (2004), yet it recasts many of the same actors in slightly altered roles. It’s as if a fictional slippage has occurred between the two films: the same figures appear to be ranged over a new text. An intriguing idea, but it’s a little early in Desplechin’s career for him to be this self-referential — for us to be coasting on reverberations from his previous films.
Catherine Deneuve, a regal therapist in Kings and Queen, is now a matriarch presiding over several generations of mixed-up adults. Here, the family mystery is a forensic mystery: Deneuve’s character needs an organ transplant, so everyone’s characteristics are computed in hopes of a match. However, this allusion to genetic and narrative repetition within a family isn’t given much room to develop. While L’Aimée comes across as a sketch for a fuller film — all its themes and diagrams could be pulled to create a new fictional work — A Christmas Tale is overstuffed. It’s crammed full of literary and cinematic archetypes, but none of them have the enigmatic force of the characters of Kings and Queen: the shuffling feels a little generic.
Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day is also set in France, but largely within its Korean expat community: the film’s Parisians are faintly unreal in their shabby or artfully casual style. As with Bozon and Desplechin, Hong’s territory is the cinema of charm and aggression. His protagonist, Sung-nam (Yeong-ho Kim), initially appears to be a bewildered youth (a “narcoleptic hunk” in the parlance of ’90s Saturday Night Live): someone so dazed that he aimlessly picks up the Bible during a lull in conversations. However, he later reveals himself to be more of a passive-aggressive boor: he’s all too relaxed when his ex-girlfriend reveals her six abortions by him. Later, in a similar mood of careful neglect, he convinces himself that his gift of 400 euros to a girl is unrelated to their subsequent sex. The film is a study of a particular kind of male ingénue: a man who acts boyish and befuddled whilst pursuing a clear line of intent.
Night and Day has elements of early Rohmer in terms of its atmospheric attentiveness and the witnessing of moods at different times of day. The film’s small circle of acquaintance includes a number of Rohmer-type love interests: springy, pony-tailed girls with winningly careless and engaging manners. However, Hong’s eye is much more focused on brutality than any New Wave director. He watches as people affect hatred and contempt for the individuals and concepts that threaten them. He’s a master of dialogue, presenting us with characters who efficiently redirect responsibility through small talk. Amid the chatter, conversational intensity suddenly peaks and agitation pricks up sharply. Even the most awkward people have ways of evading or denying things they don’t want to hear (“Why do you have to emphasize that?”) And what kind of a character description is “I don’t like her . . . she’s stingy and realistic”? That condensed summary of Sung-nam’s love object turns out to be one of the film’s more lucid statements.
Finally, the fullest character study I saw was the Australian film Bastardy, Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s documentary on the Aboriginal actor Jack Charles. Charles, who appeared in Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), was a prominent performer and activist throughout the ’70s; a challenging media figure, vocal about radicalizing theater and creating opportunities for indigenous artists. However, the theater he helped set up eventually collapsed after the withdrawal of funding, and roles for Aboriginal actors continue to be scarce. The film follows Charles as a 60-something, homeless heroin user who’s as articulate and interesting as ever. He also happens to be a cat burglar; when he discusses breaking into a rich suburban home, he says he’s a “hunter-gatherer on prime Aboriginal land.” On the one hand, this is the actor vamping for comic effect — but it’s also a way of drawing up an alternative map of inner-city Melbourne.
Scenes from Charles’ current life are intertwined with flashbacks of early footage. Glimpses of the young Charles show a man full of shrewdness, anger, and fire, able to play the media game. While Charles today has a slight aura of helplessness, the early Charles parodies that very state: there are shots of him elegantly miming drunkenness and waste. It’s as if the film is wondering what happened to someone with such ability and authority — with such a promising edge, and a vow of radical change. Is it inevitable that that kind of anarchy and intensity goes to waste? Although he still appears in the odd film, Charles’ dramatic instincts have been criminally underused: even at a publicity photo session, every shot comes into focus with him in the foreground. He walks around with a guitar strumming a mix of songs, but with his eyes swimming out of focus.
Toward the end of the film, Charles gets out of jail for burglary and moves into a council flat; while it’s a relief for him to finally have a home, there’s something sad about his rehabilitation. He seems to have lost his alertness as well as his aggression. With his head shorn and energy dimmed, he’s less than the fiery figure of the start. Even though he doesn’t dwell on the past, he feels some regret for the opportunities he’s lost, and the film makes it clear that it’s our loss as well.