Reality at the margins

Nearly everything is larger than life at the Cannes Film Festival, which explains why life sometimes disappears here. For days on end. Afraid of being bullied or outshone by super-life – by the amplified drama on movie screens and the glitz and glamour around them – it hides in the hills or drinks quietly in back-street bars. It waits for the festival’s close. Or it befriends those fringe movies that prefer the real to the hyper-real.

The 64th Cannes Film Festival has had more super-life than most. The fireworks display nearly blew the roofs off Nice. The non-stop sunshine makes Hawaii look like Hoboken. And so many stars have walked the red carpet that Hollywood must be depopulated: Woody Allen, Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz; and of course Brangelina. Brad looked a deftly aging demigod, while Angelina still has world history’s most glamorous pout.

Super-life has manifested itself too in the new Pedro Almodóvar movie. The Skin I Live In is a horror thriller outsize, outrageous and out in a class of its own, even by this man’s standards. A sinisterly experimental plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas returning to his Almodóvar roots) kidnaps a young man he suspects of being his daughter’s rapist. How far will he go with him on the operating table...?

How far should I go without spoiler alerts? Let’s just say everything is possible: murder, identity change, polymorphous sexuality, nudity and, as usual, the most gorgeous colour palette in modern cinema. (The soaring music isn’t bad either.) For Almodóvar, the film is a shift towards genre-movie fun and games after a deepening recent oeuvre. But everyone is allowed a holiday. On this particular away-break, the Spaniard makes sure to take a concordance of erudite movie references, notably to the classic slice-and-dice frightener of French cinema, Les yeux sans visage.

Likewise you can forget realism in two other competition films making a late charge for prizes. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has been a Cannes favourite, a pastiche silent comedy – black-and-white, no spoken dialogue – whose French star Jean Dujardin plays a Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckler in 1920s Hollywood, threatened with extinction as the sound era looms. Bright gags, bubbly style, good supporting stars (John Goodman, John Cromwell, a dog): the film is already in the bag for world release. Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is doomier and more blood-spattered. But the 3D specs (first time ever accompanying a Golden Palm contender) tell us that this new tale of revenge and massacre from the director of the prodigious 13 Assassins insists on putting the “melo” with the “drama”.

Yes, real life is absent in much of Cannes and in most main-event movies – it was there in the Dardenne brothers’ perfectly crafted Le gamin au vélo but not in Terrence Malick’s pantheistic pack-leader for Palme d’Or attention The Tree of Life (both reviewed previously). If you want reality, you must seek it on the margins. Two of the best low-key, high-impact films have been Mohammad Rasoulof’s Au revoir from Iran, and Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan. Both showed in the fringe section “Un Certain Regard”, a sort of overflow tank for the competition.

Rasoulof is one of the two jail-condemned Iranian directors, banned from working, who have defiantly sent films to the festival. (Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film is the other.) Au revoir is a fiercely claustrophobic tale, shot on an almost visible shoestring, about a woman law graduate (Leyla Zareh) anxious to leave Iran. Her husband, a human rights activist, is in jail. She herself is threatened. Desperately, clandestinely, she scatters bribes money – perhaps she can obtain a visa for an overseas conference – in the hope that she can outwit and elude her persecutors. The escape dilemma is doubled, almost literally, when she discovers that she is carrying a baby. It’s a spare, unsparing film: a bold glimpse into a country that is a controlled hell for artists, free-thinkers, humanists and humanitarians.

Hors Satan is almost a reverse image of the world. Dumont, twice a winner of the Cannes Grand Jury Prize (Humanity, Flanders), presents windblown northern-French landscapes that are almost violent with nature’s freedom. The characters alone create their own prisons, living out their spiritual dramas in laconic dialogue and repetitive choreography (lots of walking!). Hors Satan is a tale of redemption with a Hardyesque knot of characters: village girl, stepfather, itinerant poacher. It is tense, implosive, poetic.

Even back in the competition, modest technique – or a coiled austerity of style – can bring rewards. I loved Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre. What is the secret of this Finn’s filmmaking? His stories seem slight, sometimes silly, often stylistically derivative. This one is a dockside drama about a stowaway African boy stuck in the title port amid shadows borrowed from a Marcel Carné movie. A retired author working as a shoe-shiner (!), played by Kaurismäki regular André Wilms, tries to secure his escape from the law. Everyone stands around delivering stilted dialogue; the colours might have been applied with poster paints; the music has bizarre Hollywoodish swells. Yet the result is a kind of faux-naif enchantment, a magical madness, the screen equivalent of a Chagall painting.

But let’s not be fooled. Artists can’t always do a lot with a little. That austere French auteur Alain Cavalier (Thérèse) comes horribly unstuck in Pater: a virtual two-hander in which Cavalier and actor Vincent Landon – as themselves – chat, swap aphorisms and play-act a party-game scenario (“If I ruled the country”) in which Cavalier is president and the second prime minister. Arch, witless and long-winded.

So perhaps we need the “larger than life” after all. Lars Von Trier supplied it in Melancholia, and in reality. The director’s outrageous public remarks at a news conference on Wednesday have made him persona non grata at the festival but his film is still in contention – and if I were lord of the awards at Cannes, I would give it the top one and a few more. Here is a work of crazed and insolent ambition, its grasp equalling its reach. A weekend wedding party in a country home by the sea; a bride tormented by post-nuptial depression or worse (Kirsten Dunst); a sense of gathering social doom (worthy of the film’s Danish-directed stablemate Festen); and, to top it all, a planet called Melancholia moving towards Earth on collision course.

On the soundtrack the film begins with Wagner’s Tristan chord, that three-second revolution in music foreseen by Shakespeare: “That strain again, it had a dying fall,” the bard said; and we get the strain again, and again, first over the film’s own prelude – a series of extraordinary tableau-still images prefiguring apocalypse – then over a story that begins as caustic comedy, with strong cameos from John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, before becoming a combination of sci-fi disaster film and Wagnerian twilight-of-the-world. There is a touch too of Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Near the close, the characters sit on the terrace exchanging resonant verities as the end of civilisation draws near.

With every reel Trier plants a new twist or adds a fresh insight. The horses in the stable whinny and then more ominously go still. The last character expected to commit suicide does just that. A moment of quiet horror takes, literally, the characters’ breath away: “It’s stealing some of our atmosphere,” explains Dunst’s science-boffin brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). At the catastrophic end an unexpected story touch – small but utterly inspired – teaches us the lesson of all art and possibly all existence: that the only thing larger than life, and more long-lasting, is the power of human thought and imagination.

Cannes Film Festival ends on May 22

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