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Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:02 am
Every year the Cannes Film Festival is a giant Rorschach test. A hundred disparate movies splosh down on the blank, bright page of a Mediterranean beach town and we are asked to see a pattern. A few critics, with honest candour, say: “Pattern? There’s no pattern at all.” Others seize the moment for delirious interpretation. “Oh yes! Yes! This year the festival is all about ...” Name your thesis; cite your movies; make your claim.
Let’s be doubly honest; let’s square the riddling circle. First, it’s true: there is no pattern to the 65th Cannes Festival or its predecessors. Second, it’s no less true: there is every pattern you can think of plus a few million more. Movies, and the shoals they move in, are like dreams. They make no sense – and simultaneously they make so much sense you cannot possibly audit all their messages.
Take this year’s second week in Cannes. Themes and motifs abound, in a mixture formed by equal measures of serendipity and zeitgeist. Some naughty angel clearly juxtaposed Michael Haneke’s Amour, the Palme d’Or favourite (reviewed in my last report), with Alain Resnais’ Vous N’Avez Encore Rien Vu (You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet). Both are about old age and its manifold demons. Another crafty sprite from Mount Celluloid herded together three competition films from Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami and rising South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo (In Another Country). All are fables of youth courting or confronting supposed wisdom: stories that ask “Are our so-called betters actually better?” and “Does anyone truly learn from experience?”
You don’t often go to Loach for charm. But The Angel’s Share, scripted by his regular writer Paul Laverty, is a comedy with sweetness and panache. Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan), a penurious Glasgow youngster with a petty crime record, wants to better himself. The solution? Another crime, but a victimless one. How about stealing a priceless antique whisky without actually stealing it? Can’t be done? Si argumentum requiris, see the film. The crackle of a good caper thriller is enhanced with spryly jaundiced wisdoms about Britain, old and new, north and south.
The two other directors broach the same themes while also trespassing, teasingly, across borders. In Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love the Iranian director shoots in Japan, fine-stitching the story of a student/callgirl with a client who is less interested in sex than becoming a frazzled, befriending uncle figure. Complications ensue with a tantrum-prone fiancé. Larky, minor-key.
Hong brings French star Isabelle Huppert to a Korean beach resort, playing in successive stories three characters called Anne. Age may not wither some innocents abroad but custom and culture play sly, educative tricks. Anne falls for a beach guard (three times), a monk and a folklore professor. In a word – or extended haiku – the east has a lot to learn from the notionally civilised west, the west even more to learn from the “undeveloped” east.
In Cannes life is short, the Palme-guessing art long. Mid-competition saw a lull in quality: John Hillcoat’s Lawless, an errant Prohibition romp acted by an Anglo-Commonwealth cast (Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman); Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, the second Austrian film with “love” in the title, a prurient, pseudo-unsparing look at sex tourism in Africa.
Escaping the main event for the fresh air of the fringe, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was the big ticket, festooned with Sundance prizes and coming to the Un Certain Regard sideshow like a full-sailed success story yet to be tested by international exposure. The film is often winning, sometimes wearing. The Sunday Painting frescoes of shanty-town life in a flood-prone American south are easy to love: gorgeous images of colourful nature and rickety civilisation. So are the feelgood score and the black heroine’s overvoice, in an aw-shucks vernacular poised between Carson McCullers and Mark Twain. Less winning is the pantheistic God stuff and the sense that the apocalypse, when it comes, is whooped up to give real horror a cosmic or biblical acoustic.
The Directors’ Fortnight had some skittish entries, none more than Rodney Ascher’s 237, a documentary for Kubrick geeks about the hidden meanings in The Shining. Did you know – take a pinch of salt right now – that the film is in part a coded confession of the director’s role in faking Nasa’s Apollo moon landing footage? (Kubrick can’t sue. He’s in that giant hotel in the skies.) Nuttier in style, but saner in content, was Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, a black comedy from the lauded Kill List director. The lead actors (Steve Oram, Alice Lowe) wrote the script about a murder-prone English tourist couple. The giggliest moments are reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May, though Leigh didn’t need multiple killings to get us laughing.
Back in the competition, the heavyweights have been entering the final days. Brad Pitt, as a philosophising hitman in Killing Them Softly, re-teams with director Andrew Dominik, who won him a Cannes Best Actor award for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. If there were a fashion-and-design prize for violence, Killing would win it. The shoot-outs and punch-ups are styled in lyrical slow motion as Dominik, adapting a George Higgins novel, develops the thesis that America – whatever Obama’s electioneering idealism may have said in 2008 (cue contemporary TV footage) – is a business first, a nation second. Facile cynicism, perhaps, but flamboyantly put over by a cast including Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and a terrific James Gandolfini.
Murder abounds in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, a fantastical thriller adored by the public but handled with nervous gloves by critics, who haven’t been sure how to treat this film-maker since Les Amants du Pont Neuf. Motors, like Amants, mixes the cerebral and sentimental, art and showbiz. Its Borgesian and bewitching fable of changing identity – Denis Lavant chauffered around Paris becoming, inter alia, a street beggar, leprechaun, millionaire businessman and hitman – has interludes for a Kylie Minogue production number and a riot of digitised monsters. The talking limousines at the end were either the last straw or, for admirers, the icing on the cake.
Two new films from Latin American directors couldn’t be more mutually antithetical. Walter Salles turns Jack Kerouac’s On The Road into a lumbering drama-biopic. In Kerouac’s mémoire à clef the author is “Sal Paradise”, played here by oddly cast British actor Sam Riley (whose check shirt surely hides a T-vest with the words “I look like Leonardo DiCaprio but I come cheaper”), while hipster heart-throb Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s bosom pal, is “Dean Moriarty”, played by actor-hunk Garrett Hedlund. The actresses run away with the movie, Kirsten Dunst outstanding as Cassady-Moriarty’s mistreated wife. But spare attention too for Viggo Mortensen. He gets two minutes in which to draw a spot-on caricature of William Burroughs.
Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas is a maddening director. His odd-numbered films are good: the first, Japón, and the superb third, Silent Light. Even-numbered films are excruciating. Battle in Heaven was a multi-directional mess. So is Post Tenebras Lux, his fourth feature, a quasi-autobiographical portrait of Reygadas’s family, featuring his own kids, who are allowed to showboat ad nauseam. The story is given wider intended resonance – which slowly becomes helpless obscurity – by scenes of misty-mystical endangered countryside (chainsawed trees), the organised conflict of sports symbolised, bafflingly, by an English rugby match, and scenes of full-on eroticism. The sequence in an orgy club with a “Hegel Room” and “Duchamp Room” accessorises its voyeur appeal with cultural name-droppings worthy of On the Road, where the camera keeps catching worn copies of Woolf, Schopenhauer or Proust.
Good Cannes? Bad Cannes? Lovely Cannes? Ugly Cannes? A bit of everything. Perhaps you should now all go quietly home, before the prizes are announced, and put money on Haneke’s Amour for Palme d’Or with a side-flutter on Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. Remember, as always, where you read the advice first.
Ends on Sunday. www.festival-cannes.com
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