Cannes Film Festival: Fresh, healthy fare

All human life is here at the Cannes Film Festival, off screen as well as on. The crowds this year have boggled credulity. On the first evening the Croisette was so densely populated – people, police, patrol barriers – that you nearly needed a can opener to prise your way to the Cannes opener. That’s assuming you had made the mistake of believing you wanted to see Grace of Monaco, the first and almost only selection folly among the main-event movies so far.

If you think cinema is dead, or its traditional delivery mode of giant images presented to communal adorers, come to the 67th Festival International du Film. Everyone else seems to have.

The continued health of screen art is wonderful, of course, and inspiring. So is much of the art. No doubt about the favourite so far. Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of the 2008 arthouse hit Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, presented another astonishing three-hour chamber epic. Winter Sleep is set amid the rock-hewn houses of picture-postcard Cappadocia, but there’s nothing cosy-scenic about the story and characters. An ageing actor (Haluk Bilginer) has retired to run a hotel. He is also landlord to poor, resentful tenants. When a boy busts his car window with a stone, the fissures spread through his life, his family (wife, sister) and even, existentially, his sense of self.

Long, marvellous, slyly lacerating conversation scenes – Bergman meets Chekhov – unspool in the hotel’s cave-like, lamplit rooms. Unlike Socrates, Ceylan’s hero comes to learn it’s the over-examined life – or the over-planned one like his own – that is not worth living. All the main characters live flawed existences gnawed by inauthenticity: they need the shock, or adrenaline shot, of other people’s hatred or criticism. In the last hour the action breaks free and roams the countryside, seeking catharsis, even a redemptive, epiphanic comedy. As any 200-minute film should, this one grows and grows. By the end it has become a poignant Advent calendar of human hope, fear and battered but embattled optimism.

Before Winter Sleep, we had to get through the festival’s first days. Biopics were fired at us from both barrels. Grace of Monaco, the non-competitive gala opener, had to be endured within the same 24 hours as Mike Leigh’s superior Mr Turner (about the painter JMWT), the first competition film.

At least the first resisted the title “Grace Under Pressure”. That essentially is the plot, as Nicole Kidman’s Grace Kelly, graduated from Hollywood stardom to Euro-royalty, finds married bliss to Tim Roth’s Rainier crumbling. When the Prince vetoes her screen return in Hitchcock’s Marnie, what can the poor girl do? Luckily France threatens to overrun Monaco with tanks and taxes. So Grace finds her “greatest role” saving the Monte Carlo millionaires from the monster De Gaulle. Filled with clottish dialogue and see-to-disbelieve performances (from Kidman Agonistes to Derek Jacobi trilling away as a protocol-coaching Count), this Grace has no grace, though morbid curiosity may tempt you to seek it out.

Timothy Spall, unaccountably overlooked in the current epic-demic of movies featuring Alfred Hitchcock, is compensated with the title role in Mr Turner. He is wonderful. The film is wonderful. A critic says this even though Leigh is rude to critics – unforgivably rude – by pillorying poor John Ruskin. The aesthete and Turner champion becomes a whinnying, grandiloquent booby: “I find myself marvelling at my own depth of perception.” Never mind. Elsewhere this is a blazingly imagined drama of creativity, with Spall’s genius at bay and at play in an England that gives him both philistine human enemies to mock his art and natural marvels (cliffs, seas, sunsets) to inspire and mirror them.

From Mauritian director Abderrahmane Sissako came Timbuktu, a fragmented yet fierily focused and focusing work, like a glass kaleidoscope held under the sun’s rays. Among the beams of the story about sharia oppression in an African community: an adulterous couple condemned to death by stoning, a girl forced into marriage with an elder, a desert-dwelling farmer punished for killing the fisherman who shoots one of his cattle, a Taliban-ish despot coolly swatting away the critiques of a Muslim holy man championing reason and mercy . . . 

Sissako gives each tale equal weight, which for a time makes the movie seem weight-less. It skims from issue to issue; some of the non-professional performances are stiff, gauche, a little impassive. But power gathers near-invisibly. If these victims of religious tyranny appear to offer little resistance it’s because – worst horror of all – resistance is impotent. As so often, those with the vilest beliefs and ideals have the most muscle to enforce them.

Films from and about Hollywood are always catnip at this sometimes austerely nutritive culture do. Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman is a feminist western with gender-tilted cast. Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep and Miranda Otto are among those outnumbering Jones, who plays a good-hearted bandit helping Swank escort three mentally deranged wives back to civilisation from the arduous frontier. Quirky; characterful.

From David Cronenberg, after recent years as a dead auteur walking (A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis), comes the lively Maps to the Stars. Jacqueline Susann meets Bret Easton Ellis – kind of – in a Tinseltown fable written by Bruce Wagner. Wagner scripts with sly whimsy as if he was the fairy waggoner to the movie world. He once, after a fashion, was. He drove folk around the stars’ homes just like his story’s VIP limousine chauffeur (Robert Pattinson), whose spikiest fare, played by Mia Wasikowska, is out to wreck the lives – systematically, slowly, ingeniously – of narcissistic screen goddess Julianne Moore, quack therapist John Cusack and Mia’s mum Olivia Williams.

Everyone in Hollywood is psychotic (suggest Wagner/Cronenberg), even the child stars. If you think you knew that already, you’ve seldom had the wisdom served up with such skewy, clever grace. Put money now on Julianne Moore for Cannes Best Actress. If you lose, I’ll give you a free prizes tip next year.

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