10 from Cannes, with love

From "Che" to a rowdy Paris high school to a murderous "Tony Manero," here are Cannes' 2008 hits-in-waiting -- and a few more that deserve a second look.

By Andrew O'Hehir
May 27, 2008 3:00PM (UTC)
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Clockwise, from top left: "Che," "The Class," "A Christmas Tale," "Gomorra," "Hunger," "Lion's Den," "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," "Tony Manero," "Two Lovers" and "Waltz With Bashir."

CANNES, France -- Staying in town after the film festival that bears this city's name has closed up shop is always an odd, bittersweet experience. (I got a much cheaper flight home by waiting an extra day.) All the badge-festooned buyers and sellers and publicists and journalists have abruptly vanished, their outdoor tables seized by hordes of underage Scottish girls caterwauling karaoke versions of mid-'90s hits. Cannes almost instantly reverts to its year-round form as a jet-set resort run slightly to seed, where would-be fashionable people from all continents come to get blitzed, get sunburned or get laid, or at least to watch other people doing so.


Along the Croisette, the enormous billboards for international co-productions that may never be made, let alone seen by the paying public, will quickly come down. This year's most ubiquitous and puzzling ad was pushing an Egyptian-made thriller (or something) called "The Baby Doll Night," featuring a tank on a ruined street with a woman's slip hanging from its cannon. It asks: "Can one night of pleasure mend 60 years of pain?" Well, I'm just not sure. Another total baffler was a film called "The Seven of Daran: The Battle of Pareo Rock," which appears to feature a baby giraffe, two kids, a helicopter and the slogan "A myth never been told." (Fellow blogger and Cannes drinking buddy Glenn Kenny prefers the tag line for the Jason Statham vehicle "Transporter 3": "The rules remain the same. Except some changes.")

Those films and thousands of others were for sale in the vast Cannes film market, which runs concurrently with the festival and, from an economic point of view, is far more important. By most accounts, the market this year was almost as dismal as the damp Riviera weather, especially for American buyers working with the magical melting dollar. With the recent demise of Picturehouse and Warner Independent, IFC has become almost the only American independent distributor shopping for art-house films. Its acquisitions here have included Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale," Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir," Steve McQueen's "Hunger," Josh Safdie's "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" and Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours," with several more rumored to follow.

On the other hand, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Magnolia and the Weinstein Co. all went home, as far as I know, with nothing but their souvenir tote bags and duty-free wine from the airport. (Sony has the United States rights to Atom Egoyan's competition title "Adoration," but that deal happened before the festival.) Several major Cannes titles leave here with no U.S. distribution deal in place, including Steven Soderbergh's two-part "Che" ("The Argentine" and "Guerrilla"), James Gray's "Two Lovers" and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York."


I'm sure that's disappointing to the people involved, but it's hardly calamitous. Those films will find their audiences eventually, and in all honesty the U.S. has become a marginal market for serious-minded cinema. Kaufman's and Gray's films could well make more money overseas than at home, and "Che" certainly will. I can only hope that Soderbergh has the self-confidence to resist any U.S. deal that requires him to edit his two films down into one standard-length biopic. Messy as it may seem, the four-hour version of "Che" has an elliptical, asymmetrical structure that is entirely purposeful, and matches the film's breadth and daring.

Disentangling art and commerce at Cannes is virtually impossible -- such is the nature of the place -- but when you back away from the gloomy business-speak this was a strong festival, full of dark, strange and personal filmmaking. Before I punch the clock on another year here, spend a few inflated euros on cute French clothes for my kids and crawl aboard a plane, here are my top 10 films from the 61st Festival de Cannes. First and foremost they're movies I liked, but they're also films that come out of here with some critical momentum, and that ought to show up on art-house-type screens all over the world in the coming year. I've tacked on a handful of more problematic films that didn't thrive here but deserve a second look, away from all the overcaffeinated, underslept craziness of Cannes. (Both categories are listed alphabetically and not otherwise ranked.)

A couple of words about films not on my list. "Indiana Jones and the Time-Traveling Martian Mummies" definitely doesn't count, and Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (or whatever it may be called), while perfectly OK, didn't wow me and doesn't need my help. Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" might be his most commercial effort in years, but it has all the problems of late Woody Allen films. Egoyan's "Adoration" and Wim Wenders' "Palermo Shooting," along with Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness," were big disappointments. I didn't see the competition films "Serbis" (with its apparently memorable boil-bursting scene), "My Magic" or "Il Divo," and I also missed several smaller films I heard were terrific, including "The Desert Within," "Tulpan," "Liverpool," "Four Nights With Anna," "Better Things" and "Lake Tahoe."


"Che" How will posterity judge Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour, resolutely non-psychological Che Guevara epic, which was made quickly and on a relatively low budget under arduous circumstances? When and in what form will American audiences get to see it? (As planned, it will be released in Europe as two separate films, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," scheduled four to six weeks apart.) Those are questions without answers. But I'll tell you this: Seeing the premiere of "Che" as a double bill here made the trip worthwhile all by itself, and forced me to readjust my opinion of Soderbergh.

Benicio del Toro won the festival's best-actor award, playing the ruthless, brilliant physician-revolutionary with prodigious grace and consistency. It's a role so demanding and physical it leaves no room for showboating. Even when facing defeat, capture, torture and death, his Che seems absolutely confident, as if he understands the secret of history and other people don't. By hewing so closely to verifiable, historical fact and actions, Soderbergh, del Toro and writer Peter Buchman thrust the burden of interpretation entirely onto us, which I think made some viewers uncomfortable. From our pseudo-enlightened perspective we may choose to view Che as a rebel prophet or a misguided fanatic, but the movie has no preachifying and, almost miraculously, no ironic distance from its subject.


With this mesmerizing but almost journalistic portrait of Che's greatest success and greatest failure, Soderbergh's indie-experimental side and Hollywood-craftsman side have come together as never before. This movie has already launched spirited political and aesthetic debate, in itself a noteworthy accomplishment. Nobody would expect this film to be universally loved, but the naked hostility of a few prominent reviewers is puzzling. "Che" seems to have galvanized a reactionary and mean-spirited element in some corners of the film world, which apparently objects to the subject matter, the approach and even the underlying ambition. As Soderbergh said here last week, critics often complain that movies are all the same, but when a prominent director tries to do something unusual, he's vilified for defying convention. If it's true that no publicity is bad publicity, the tides of backlash and counter-backlash should carry these movies around the world.

"A Christmas Tale" This star-packed, talky, tragicomic family drama from French art-god Arnaud Desplechin was embraced by local critics, but dissed by Sean Penn's jury, and will end up as a niche art-house film outside the Francophone world. (Desplechin's "Kings and Queen," arguably the critical fave-rave French picture of this decade, grossed just $350,000 in U.S. release.) Catherine Deneuve plays the leukemia-stricken mom whose three adult children come home to the provincial city of Roubaix (Desplechin's hometown), partners, kids and rejected former lovers in tow, for a rocky Yuletide reunion. Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud and Emmanuelle Devos are all terrific. Those with the patience for Desplechin's wild shifts in style and tone, along with all the introspective chatter, will find this a richly rewarding experience across multiple viewings. And yes, in its own incomplete, painful and utterly distinctive fashion, this really will be a tremendous Christmas-season movie. (IFC will release in the U.S.)

"The Class" ("Entre les murs") Screening on the last day of competition, after many journalists and executives had already fled the dreary Riviera weather, may have limited the buzz on Cantet's collectively improvised drama set in an inner-city Parisian high school. But it didn't stop Penn and company from awarding this film the Palme d'Or, and for once there was little controversy about the choice. "The Class" was the most immediately gratifying film in the festival, and (along with "Waltz With Bashir") perhaps the only foreign-language title that ought to do killer box office in the United States, if correctly marketed. Starring a multi-ethnic cast of actual high-school students -- playing fictional characters they developed themselves -- alongside writer and former teacher François Begaudeau, Cantet's portrait of conflict, tragedy and triumph across a single school year achieves an effortless clarity that's far more convincing than most of the talky, self-conscious documentaries about similar subject matter. Dramatically rewarding, often hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking, "The Class" has international hit written all over it.


"Gomorra" Matteo Garrone's chaotic, engrossing drama about the world of the Neapolitan criminal empire called the Camorra will no doubt frustrate as many viewers as it thrills, but it might be one of the rare Italian films that can penetrate the U.S. art-house market. Winner of the second-place Grand Prix award, "Gomorra" definitely isn't a "Godfather" or "Sopranos"-style crime opera, in which the lords and lieutenants are developed as complex characters. Garrone just flings us into the middle of five separate subplots focused on various Camorra footsoldiers and employees, which ultimately add up to a portrait of a society poisoned from root to branch. Shot by Marco Onorato, "Gomorra" is a tremendously assured, often stunning film, which takes us from the appalling slums of suburban Naples to the city's high-fashion ateliers. If Antonioni had ever made a Mafia film, this would be it. (No U.S. distribution has been announced.)

"Hunger" I've already written about English artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen and his semi-experimental film that's sort of, kind of, about Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army prisoner who died in a 1981 hunger strike. In a way, the strengths and problems of "Hunger" are similar to those of "Gomorrah"; the historical value of McQueen's film is limited, but it's a harrowing cinematic experience, plunging you into a world of paranoia, terror and violence that is both specific and almost eternal. McQueen won the Caméra d'Or for best debut film in the festival, and "Hunger" is bound for art-house play all over the world -- and will surely incite controversy in Britain and the U.S. (IFC has acquired the American rights.)

"Lion's Den" ("Leonera") Argentine director Pablo Trapero's marvelously crafted drama of prison motherhood got this festival restarted after the tepid reception accorded "Blindness" on opening night, but it was thrust in the shadows a little by the more adventurous pictures that followed. I still think it was one of the better films in Cannes competition. While "Lion's Den" might sound on its face like a conventional drama about a woman's fall and redemption, it's a lot more complicated than that. Trapero is a director of tremendous skill and subtlety, and avoids any judgment or pop-psychoanalysis of Julia (Martina Gusman, his off-screen wife), his damaged, angry central character. While the picture is certainly about a human being reawakening to the possibilities of life, it's also about the unknowability of human character, and about freeing oneself from the prison of the past. (No U.S. distribution as yet.)


"The Pleasure of Being Robbed" By turns delightful, exasperating, goofy and opaque, this debut feature from New York writer-director Josh Safdie and the collective known as Red Bucket feels like the Amerindie breakthrough of the year. "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" has been called a mumblecore film, but either that's totally wrong or the term means nothing beyond an inexpensively made indie about people in their 20s. Nobody sits around talking about relationships in Safdie's film, and in fact most of the talk in the movie consists of lies, misdirections and driving instruction. His main character (Eléonore Hendricks) is either a kleptomaniac or a semi-professional thief, and as such is constantly in motion. She's both an appealing, wide-eyed gamine and a borderline sociopath; viewers who insist on a likable protagonist (or who assume that Safdie is celebrating her behavior) may be displeased. Shot guerrilla-style on the streets of New York and Boston, "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" is both a fresh, original work and one that bears the marks of New Wave-era art cinema. I have been asked not to reveal the "special effect" fantasy sequence near its conclusion. (IFC will release via video-on-demand and a few big-city theaters.)

"Tony Manero" Under the Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s, a 50ish Chilean finds solace in his dream of becoming his country's leading Tony Manero impersonator (i.e., slavishly mimicking John Travolta's dance moves from "Saturday Night Fever"). Pop culture can bring hope and beauty to downtrodden lives, right? Up with people, right? Not exactly. This pitch-black comedy from young Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín falls decisively on the down-with-people side of the spectrum. If this story of a demented psychopath (Alfredo Castro, in a brilliant and disturbing performance) willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to fulfill his Manero fantasies has any message to deliver about the power of pop culture, it isn't an uplifting one. One of the biggest surprises at Cannes this year, this Directors' Fortnight entry has definite midnight-movie cult potential. (No U.S. distributor yet.)

"Two Lovers" James Gray, the 39-year-old New York writer-director who's become something of a Cannes regular -- this was his third premiere here, after "The Yards" in 2000 and "We Own the Night" last year -- remains an enigmatic figure in American film, neither a top-line Hollywood director nor a beloved indie auteur. With this romantic drama about Leonard (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged 30ish Brooklynite living with his parents, who must choose between a nurturing, socially appropriate girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw) and a drugged-out, unavailable shiksa goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow), Gray adapts his obsessions with fate and destiny to a new genre. I liked "Two Lovers" a lot, partly because it's an uneven, unsettling film that's not entirely realistic and subject to multiple interpretations. Still not the great movie Gray is struggling toward, but a fascinating experiment. (No U.S. distributor as yet.)

"Waltz With Bashir" This haunting, dreamlike animated film by Israeli writer-director Ari Folman, based on his own struggle to remember what he saw and did as a young soldier during Israel's ill-fated early-'80s occupation of Lebanon, was among Cannes' biggest surprises. It's a profoundly personal film, aimed first and foremost at an Israeli audience, that transcends those origins to become a riveting and universal fable about the pointless cruelty of war and the untrustworthy nature of memory. This film should have a long international afterlife, and the testy but respectful exchanges it sparked here between Arab, Israeli and Western journalists provided an example of Cannes at its finest, as a cultural United Nations where all forms of political cant and dogma are open for discussion.


Honorable Mentions, or Four Films I Need to See Again

Film festivals are both the best and worst places to see films, and every year at least a few movies premiere at Cannes that are ill-served by the experience. This is especially true for films that demand the audience's concentration, or that defy conventional audience expectations, or that require some stillness, space and time around them to be appreciated. One perfect example is "Birdsong," a new film by Catalan minimalist Albert Serra ("Honor of the Knights," aka "Quixotic"), nominally a story about the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem but better described as an experiment in near-total cinematic abstraction.

French underground filmmaking legend Philippe Garrel came to the Cannes competition for the first time with his semi-supernatural romantic fable, "Frontier of Dawn" ("La frontière de l'aube"). It's a half-cracked reworking of Garrel's 1990 "J'entends plus la guitare," mired in French mythic thinking about love and haunted by a horror-movie ghost. Even Garrel's fans admit it's nowhere near his best film. But the black-and-white cinematography of William Lubtchansky is spectacular, and the performances by Garrel's son Louis, Laura Smet and Clémentine Poidatz are terrific. Garrel retains his poetic affinity for the hypnotic rhythms of youthful infatuation and alienation, and there's no way this film deserved the boos and whistles heard at its press screening.

As I've already written, the hostile response here to Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman" only served to illustrate the movie's point. How strange: A subtle, elliptical fable about the invisibility of class privilege sailed right past an audience of woozy, hung-over globetrotters on the French Riviera!


As for Charlie Kaufman's overwrought and ultra-ambitious directing debut, "Synecdoche, New York," it suffered from being the next-to-last film shown in competition and utterly failing to provide the comic relief many exhausted festivalgoers were hoping for. I haven't written anything about it until now because, in all honesty, I'm not sure what to say. My original response was that it was an enormous folly and almost a total failure, but in succeeding days I've been viewing it more generously, as one of those enormous, bizarre, original "Baron Munchausen"-scale projects that brushes against transcendent greatness without quite getting there.

Critics have been comparing "Synecdoche" to Fellini's "8 1/2" and Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," but Kaufman says he's never seen either film. I don't know whether he's seen "Hardcore" or "The Matrix" or "2001: A Space Odyssey," but those are in the mix too. Beginning as an exaggerated satire about a beleaguered small-town theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose marriage and physical health are imploding, and who no longer notices the passage of time, it gradually expands into a nightmarish, worlds-within-worlds parable about a man so immersed in his artistic creation that he loses all connection to the real world.

Unless it's about the existential notion that we all create our own worlds and there is no objective reality, or about the idea -- expressed by Arnaud Desplechin, while talking about his own film -- that art is an orderly realm that's preferable to life. It's definitely about aging and loneliness and decay and mortality and the ungraspable transience of everything, and, boy howdy, is it grandiose and depressing. For now, I'm arguing that it's Kaufman's version of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," only without the little cookie that makes everything seem OK, and that trying to accomplish that in a two-hour movie is an impossible task. Like I say, I need to see it again.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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