Thursday, May 28, 2009

Princeton at the Cannes Film Festival: The Award Winners

Well, the 62nd Cannes film Festival has come to an end bestowing its prestigious awards to films across many different national cinemas and genres. After watching 31 movies (16 of them in competition for the Palme d'Or) in my nine days at the festival, I wondered: were the best films awarded or were some gems unjustly left out?

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon) dir. Michael Haneke - In Competition (Palme d'Or Winner)

The White Ribbon Clip

With The White Ribbon, Austrian director Michael Haneke crafts a visually beautiful black and white tale about a quaint though very tense German village on the cusp of World War I. While sometimes narratively obtuse, the film is surprisingly straightforward never relying on the innovative visual conceits that have defined much of Haneke’s recent work (particularly the surveillance-driven Caché). Its selection for the top prize is a decidedly safe choice in a year where the best films shocked.

Seen largely from the perspective of a young schoolteacher, the film examines the dissolution of a seemingly immutable community. The façade of harmony is first shattered after the town's doctor becomes seriously injured in a horse riding accident that smacks of foul play. This is only the first of many events where some of the town's most innocent denizens, such as a mentally retarded boy, are exposed to a mysterious onslaught of violence. Many of the adults in the community stringently attempt to maintain order. One desperate preacher decides to tie white ribbons around his adolescent daughter and son's arms to remind them of their innocence and purity. Although the cast is expansive, the slow-moving film amply develops the most peripheral characters allowing the differing tensions of the village to resonate on a grand scale.

The youngest child actors in the cast beautifully evoke a lingering sense of disquiet. In a futile effort to understand his increasingly wayward son, the morally superior preacher lectures him on the dangers of masturbation. As the rehearsed lecture wears on, the son soon begins to lose his composure adopting a pained expression. The finesse of the young actor to so effortlessly toe the line between taciturn and anguished brings to light the stifling emotional disconnect that exists between him and the elders who attempt to console the mind of a troubled soul with meaningless platitudes. Such sudden flurries of emotionally raw performance come unexpectedly over the course of the film. When a toddler, who typically serves as the main influx of cute in the usually heavy story, asks his sister about the nature of death, his innocent temperament momentarily evaporates. Hearing the news that he will someday die, his infantile features contort into a piercing glare. This short though powerful scene saliently depicts the loss of blissful innocence and is emblematic of a thoroughly excellent young cast capable of expressing the overwhelming fear created when the purest elements of life become tainted.

Haneke's high contrast black and white imagery amplifies the underlying darkness at the heart of the community. Inside the parlor of a manor, a tormented young boy stares at his strict mother playing the piano. As he makes his trek around the room, he fades momentarily out of the light provided by the gas lamps into shadow, a visual that hits upon the growing emotional malaise of the younger generation. Later on, a fire breaks out on the estate of the town's hated baron creating an image where white flames dance against the night sky. For all his successful attempts at visually depicting a village teetering on the edge of chaos, Haneke sometimes presents overly idyllic imagery. When the narrator reflects upon the reigning peace before the outbreak of World War I, the film presents shot after shot of pristine winter landscapes drenched in sunlight. The sometimes clichéd ideals imagery of peace, the final moments of the extended 19th century, speaks to a film whose overarching historical thesis is troublingly simplistic.

An Undeserved Win

Haneke poses with his award

Whenever The White Ribbon references the Great War, the usually unsentimental film finds itself in overly saccharine territory. In its attempts to use the central story of generational divide as a means to encompass an entire historical period, the film begins to falter. At the heart of Haneke's reconstruction lies the argument that social repression will lead to a wider oppression. Essentially, angry and repressed children of World War I are bound to become Nazis (the white ribbons of the past will inevitably transform the black armbands of the fascists). There is something profoundly disconcerting in the way the film tries to condense history in such pat terms. The White Ribbon's sweeping simplicity is not the hallmark of great art, but rather of a work that propagates the easiest of answers creating a recipe for ignorance rather than insight.

Un Prophete (A Prophet) dir. Jacques Audiard – In Competition (Grand Prix Winner)

While the prison drama The Prophet is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic films in the festival, it had to settle for second place (which may not be all that bad considering Monty Python's dark comic masterpiece The Meaning of Life had previously won the Grand Prix). With its pulsating energy and broad ambitions, The Prophet represented the best the festival had to offer.

The film follows Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) who has been sentenced to six years in prison for a minor offense. Slowly, the French Arab makes his way up the echelons of penitentiary power, playing all sides of an ever changing war between a dominant Corsican gang and upstart Muslim groups. As the almost divinely lucky Malik gains respect, he earns the nickname "The Prophet." Director Jacques Audiard injects the well-trodden prison genre with a dose of magical realism infusing the work with an evocative, uncanny life. Malik is continually haunted by the first man he killed on the inside, Reyheb, who coolly dispenses advice with a giant gash in his throat. The most bizarre scene takes place when the ghost whirls around and around praising Allah. As he spins, the camera follows the ghost's outstretched hand moving around the cell. This disorienting perspective lends the sequence a perverse fever dream ambience and captures the twisted high that comes through the sudden attainment of authority.

Tahar Rahim deftly plays Malik combining a deep fear of failure with a growing sense of confidence. The actor's unique vigor allows Malik to be charming even as he very clearly manipulates those around him. After being accused of abusing his connections with some Muslim prisoners for personal gain, he asks what's the harm in a little exploitation if everyone benefits? With his easy smiles and motor-mouth intonation, the actor puts a uniquely charismatic imprint on the Machiavellian gangster archetype. Underneath the disarming charm, lies a deeply angry performance as his character grows to despise the Europeans who see him only as a servile Arab. His rage becomes clear when, after telling his Corsican boss how to assert his power, he adds "But I'm just an Arab who only thinks with his dick" repeating one of the chief's many racial epithets. The pain of Malik's ascent is made clear through Rahim's tortured eyes.

Under Audiard's careful direction, the film becomes a mélange of visual styles continually shifting its aesthetic to mirror the protagonist's grand transformation. This film is appropriately unflinching during the character's first murder capturing the gruesome act in a long take. During a transcendent moment when Malik escapes from underneath the barrel of a gun, the film becomes far more ornate employing both slow-motion and a throbbing Arabian score that fills the soundtrack. The sudden moment of extreme calm within a previously fast-paced, tense scene perfectly illustrates the character's divine inspiration. With his complete grasp of how the visuals can accentuate the emotional core of the story, Audiard takes a familiar premise and makes it profoundly engaging.

As powerful as the film is on a visceral level, it remains most intriguing in its meditation on the divisions of contemporary French society. That the individual capable of crossing racial lines is labeled a prophet shows the impossibility to achieve such cross-cultural dialogue on an everyday basis. Malik's constant isolation from both the Western Corsicans as well as the near Eastern North Africans indicates that such a quality is seen less with reverence than suspicion. On a metaphorical level, Malik's difficult experiences within the realm of the prison stand as a damning indictment of a French society still struggling with rather than embracing multiculturalism

The Prophet proved so riveting, that nothing could distract me from the screen including the exceedingly sharp pain I experienced in both my knees while sitting in the cramped theater (my stream of consciousness inner-monologue went something like this, "Wow, this movie is great! Oh, my knees!! How will I ever realize my dream of becoming a professional tennis player? This movie is really spectacular!" This continued for the entire running time).

Thirst dir. Park Chan-Wook - In Competition (Jury Prize Winner)

Of the top winners at Cannes, Thirst is the most of the festival. The film, about a priest infected with the virus that transforms him into a surprising since Park Chan Wook's vampire thriller was one of the most critically maligned vampire, is an overlong and sometimes derivative affair that has its strongest bite when embracing comedy.

Chan Wook-Park has established himself as one of the more intense voices in contemporary Korean cinema. His latest is a departure from thoroughly dark films like Old Boy and Lady Vengeance where humor was the exception and not the rule in the director’s theater of the macabre. At times, the struggles of the monstrous though fundamentally kindhearted priest are delightfully twisted. To suggest how the vampire is haunted by his lover's husband whom he murders, the film turns into a strange version of Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell Tale Heart." The smiling corpse lies blissfully between the two lovers as they attempt awkwardly to copulate in bed. As the vampire attempts to navigate over the dead man's body, the vampire reminds himself that it's all "psychological." Many of the sharpest moments of humor occur during the sex scenes of the film. After the creature initially throws himself onto his soon-to-be lover, he bites her neck and breasts. In between her moans of ecstasy, the woman asks "Am I a pervert? Are all women like this?" The scene gleefully plays with the eroticism traditionally central to the vampire myth and, in the process, spits in the face of films like Twilight where the romantic and the vampiric are made one.

A Good Approximation of the Best Aspects of Thirst

When Thirst attempts to be a more traditional vampire movie, it becomes completely run-of-the-mill. At one point, a blind priest begs the Catholic priest-turned-vampire to transform him into a monster so that he can finally see. The uber-serious scene feels more overdone than affecting. Unfortunately, the film resorts to this serious tone far too often (notice how the trailer has no indication of the film's more engaging comedic side). It is a shame that the filmmaker feels the need to go through the motions of the genre as Park occasionally crafts very gripping moments. The film expertly ramps up the suspense in one polished sequence where the murdered husband's paralyzed mother tries desperately to show family friends that the killers are stand in the room. Such moments of genuine suspense are disappointingly few.

Even with its odd charm, Thirst is an imperfect film that ranks far below the best in competition and is undeserving of any prize.

Now that the main festival winners have been detailed, in the next blog post I will examine the competition's ignored gem, look at some of the best performances, and distinguish the worst film presented at Cannes.