At a press conference here after Friday's world premiere of "Fast Food Nation," Richard Linklater's adventurous effort to make a narrative feature film out of Eric Schlosser's nonfiction bestseller, a Canadian journalist got up to thank Linklater for his contribution to the craft of adapting books into movies. "We all saw that take quite a hit a couple of days ago," the reporter added.
He got a big laugh. Yeah, two days into the 59th Cannes International Film Festival, journalists here are still cracking wise about "The Da Vinci Code" (a film not many of us actually saw). But as the two-week onslaught of cinema on the Riviera begins to hit its stride, that shared object of ridicule is fading in the rear distance. The common experience at this point is more about absorbing a bad sunburn while waiting outside in a long, motionless line (often a line that entitles you to wait in another line) and confronting implacable phalanxes of tuxedo-clad security personnel whose favorite words are "Non," "C'est complet" (it's full) and "J'suis désolé, m'sieur" (I'm sorry, sir, said in a manner that very clearly conveys and now go away).
I waited in just such a line for a screening of Lou Ye's Tiananmen-era Chinese romance, "Summer Palace," before being dismissed, so I can't tell you much about it (although the trailer sure is pretty). Along with Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," an earnest, gloomy, by-the-numbers historical work about the Irish revolution and civil war of the 1920s, Lou's film opened the Palme d'Or competition, screenings of the 20 films up for Cannes' biggest prize. Reviews of both of those have been mixed (in the case of "Summer Palace," rather less than that), and the consensus seems to be that they were post-"Da Vinci" palate cleansers rather than serious contenders.
With Linklater's "Fast Food Nation" and Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver," however, which both premiered Friday, the wine-soaked, sun-baked throngs finally got to sink their teeth into some meat. In the case of "Fast Food Nation," the metaphor is pretty much literal. Linklater's film (co-written with Schlosser) is an episodic docudrama about a large group of fictional characters connected to the corporate beef industry in a single Colorado town -- from a fast-food chain executive to burger-flipping high school students to ranchers and undocumented immigrant workers -- and concludes with horrific real-life scenes of cattle being slaughtered and rendered into hamburger in a meat-packing plant.
"Volver," on the other hand, is a classic Almodóvar female-centered melodrama of buried secrets, love and death, anchored by stunning performances from his longtime gal-pals Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. The title itself means "to return," and in returning to the most basic themes of his career, especially the struggles of women who seek to build dignified lives without men and without much money, he's made perhaps his most graceful and accomplished film. It's the smash hit at Cannes so far. The applause at this morning's screening was uproarious, and the mood at the overcrowded press conference afterward was one of giddy triumph. ("Volver" is already a huge hit in Spain, where it was released in March.)
There's no point writing full-fledged reviews of either of these films, since they won't open in the United States until the fall. But it's safe to say that "Fast Food Nation" is both a controversial movie and a problematic one. Linklater told the press conference that the fast-food industry has already mobilized P.R. firms that may try to describe the film's anti-burger message as anti-American propaganda. "I've never made a film before that was supposedly going to affect somebody's corporate bottom line," he said in a tone of bemusement. (That hasn't stopped Fox Searchlight, subsidiary of a supposedly conservative corporation, from signing on as U.S. distributor.)
Beyond that, the question of how audiences will respond is unknowable. Although "Fast Food Nation" has the clean, crisp look of Hollywood cinematography, it deliberately defies storytelling conventions, dropping some characters as it goes and picking up others, and refuses to deliver any normative plot resolution. The so-called lead character, a conflicted executive (Greg Kinnear) at a McDonald's-like chain who discovers that the burgers are contaminated with fecal bacteria, pretty much disappears halfway through.
Other characters, including a high school student-turned-activist (Ashley Johnson) and an undocumented immigrant (Catalina Sandino Moreno) forced to work on the slaughterhouse killing floor, are left suspended, their "story arcs" unresolved. Ethan Hawke and Bruce Willis appear in spotlit cameo roles, then vanish again. Whether the net effect is total incoherence or "the 'Nashville' of meat" -- as Linklater jokingly put it -- will very much be in the eye of the beholder. One can imagine this film becoming a campus sensation, or sinking without a trace.
Schlosser said that the implausible notion of turning his book into drama came from an equally implausible source. Malcolm McLaren, once the impresario behind the Sex Pistols (and before that manager of the New York Dolls) suggested it. "It seemed like an insane idea," Schlosser told the press conference, "but it was a very bold idea and that was what I liked about it. It was not a logical idea, but it required making the film completely outside of the normal Hollywood production system."
"I was a fan of the book," Linklater said, "and when Eric came to Austin, Texas, where I live, we talked about it. I asked him: 'Is this a documentary?' I mean, it was a terrific piece of nonfiction, but I don't do documentaries. When he told me that he was thinking of doing it as a narrative film, all set in a particular place, I said, 'Well, that's what I do. I do character dramas. I do ensemble dramas.'"
"Fast Food Nation" definitely will not carry one of those little Humane Society notices proclaiming that no animals were harmed during the making of the production. Under conditions Linklater seemed unwilling to discuss, the filmmakers shot two hours of footage inside a Mexican slaughterhouse, where Sandino Moreno's character, among others, played workers. Without venturing into lurid detail, you see the entire process by which a living, terrified four-legged creature is reduced to the source material for many identical little high-fat patties. None of the cast members who witnessed this personally (those present insisted) has eaten a fast-food burger since then.
"Eric and I felt that the film had to deliver that final blow," Linklater said. "We have this idea in our heads, 'Oh, meat comes from some cozy little farm somewhere, they've got corn and maybe a few chickens running around,' and it's just not like that. The industrialization of food is everywhere, and we wanted this movie to be about opening your eyes to that. It's really, really tough footage, but we thought we needed it."
After a series of didactic and borderline-ponderous films to open the festival, I suspect everyone at Cannes was well prepared for the lush and generous emotions of "Volver." At times in Almodóvar's early career, his films seemed stylistically awkward. His characters and themes were almost always appealing, but he relied too much on shock value, sexual confrontation and self-conscious quotations from classic movies. This film exemplifies how far he has come since then; it's an elegant and mature tragicomedy by an artist at the top of his form, fully ripe but not too sweet.
If, as Almodóvar told us at the press conference, he wrote Penelope Cruz's working-class mom role in tribute to the kinds of women Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale used to play in Italian films, it never feels remotely like shtick. Done up in hoop earrings, heavy makeup and a wondrous variety of cleavage-enhancing garments, Cruz gives a startling and moving performance as Raimunda, an enterprising Madrid woman with a deadbeat husband, a rebellious teenage daughter, and long-buried family ties calling her back to the dusty, windy rural region of La Mancha, where she was raised.
Although "Volver" is set more or less now, Cruz says Almodóvar instructed her to study the classic Italian realist films of the postwar years when Loren and Cardinale became international sex symbols. "I loved doing that homework!" she said. "I have respected those women all my life, and I hope I was able to capture some of that earthiness, some of that representation of motherhood, all those elements of southern Europe."
La Mancha is also the home of Don Quixote (referenced in a few shots of the region's ubiquitous wind turbines) and indeed of Almodóvar himself, who lived there as a small child. He flirts with Buñuel-style surrealism in depicting the region as dark and isolated, plagued by wind, wildfire and insanity, closer in spirit to the 1920s than the 2000s. If the people of Raimunda's village believe in ghosts, they may have reason to, since her mother (Carmen Maura), who died in a fire years ago, seems to have made several recent appearances.
In balancing the realistic family dramas of Raimunda's present-tense life in her Madrid neighborhood with the faintly supernatural atmosphere of La Mancha -- and the unexpectedly comic appearance of Mom's ghost -- Almodóvar captures contemporary Spain's competing impulses toward modernity and tradition. More than that, he told us, "Volver" is a highly personal film. "This is a very deep return to my roots," he said. "I was born in La Mancha, and this film above all has reconciled me to my childhood. The inspiration for the whole film is my dead mother, and I feel her presence in every scene. When I talk about La Mancha, and what it means to me, I'm really talking about my mother."
His marvelous cast also includes Lola Dueñas, who nearly steals the show as Raimunda's reserved older sister Sole; Yohana Cobo as Raimunda's daughter; and Blanca Portillo as a beloved old friend from the village who is dying of cancer but holds a crucial secret from Raimunda's past. There are almost no men in the story at all, and those who do show up are either evil or irrelevant. Almodóvar insists this too is true to his memories of childhood. "I was educated by women," he said. "There were no men. They were out working in the fields, I never saw them. The women around me sang, they told extraordinary tales. They were strong, powerful women who had to overcome fate and a great deal of pain. They are the origin of all my work."