Monday, May 18, 2009

Princeton at the Cannes Film Festival: Days 1 & 2

After four years at The Daily Princetonian, I have been able to cover a few interesting film festivals (New York, Tribeca, Philadelphia, Telluride). Now, I set my sights abroad to cover the most venerated cinema event in the world, the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. The festival contains a competition for the prestigious Palm D'Or as well as several sidebar series. It runs concurrently with the Marche du Cinema, where dozens of distributors hawk theirs movies quality to potential buyers.
With over a week at the festival, I'll try to get past my all-consuming giddiness (which, don't get me wrong, is very difficult) and uncover whether or not the event actually meets the hype (and I also plan on watching a lot of movies).

This bi-daily multimedia blog is intended as a platform to share my impressions of the festival and should give you an idea of what it's like to be on the ground. A more focused, more traditional feature piece will be posted on the front page following the event. So keep checking out this blog for quasi-exclusive reviews (Princeton is, after all, the only US University covering the festival. We might not be able to beat them in football, but at least we have the movies covered!). I invite you to post your own rants and raves in the comments section.

Day 1:

Free from the burden of comprehensive exams, I made my way to Newark with a spring in my step imagining myself looking over the glittering beaches of the Riviera. Upon my arrival in Nice, I discovered that my preconceptions about the place were right. Southern France really is all about Sun and white beaches. But the best part is that everyone attending Cannes eschews the perfect weather to go to the movies. It's a testament to the festival's allure that such perfect climate can seem so secondary. If this isn't cinema's nirvana, what is?

With its many charming, murals of past movie stars and preponderance of movie theaters, the city of Cannes has clearly been marked by film culture. No theater complex looms larger, then the festival's massive central hub, the Palais du Cinema. The drab cement façade belies a beautiful interior made primarily of pristine marble that continually shimmers under the huge skylight. The tinge of glamor lingers on every facet of the festival from the numerous red carpets to the suit wearing staff members (who, disconcertingly, seem to be better dressed than me).

The whole event is nestled in a pier that embraces the clichés of Mediterranean life with its numerous cafés, pizzerias, and old Frenchmen playing intense games of boules. Whenever you need a freshly made crepe to give you a burst of energy for the last movie of the day, the premier French dessert is always available. Ah, the comforts of a tourist trap!

Kinatay dir. Brillante Mendoza – In Competition

My first film of the festival was the Filipino horror film Kinatay about a police officer-in-training
struggling to support his growing family who becomes embroiled with a gang of corrupt policemen. Kinatay could have been a bold and shocking experiment with the documentary aesthetic if only it had a tighter pace and did not make use of omr cloying horror genre convention.

Although the film has a bold premise, using the horror genre to expose the extremes of Filipino corruption, the slow pacing creates an experience that's more ponderous than engrossing. In an attempt to create the visceral shock of the gruesome acts presented, the film deliberately wallows in the silence that precedes and follows terrible violence. While this initially ramps up the dramatic tension, the film repeats this motif of lingering silence so often, it quickly loses its impact (my jet lag and three hours of sleep might have made things worse).

The stifling pace was somewhat counterbalanced by the film's distinct documentary style. The film never adds a Hollywood style panache to the brutality inflicted by the cops preferring instead to present many scenes of violence almost illegibly. When a girl is bound and gagged in a car, the film shows only interplay of shadows amplified by a few muffled screams. The hand-held style footage adds a heft and authenticity to the extreme violence. What undercuts the power of this snuff film rawness is an ever present horror movie score that attempts to amplify every scene with a foreboding pulse. At its worst, the music makes me meticulously rendered gore appear almost overdone and theatrical.

Kinatay is a film that emphatically illustrates how Cannes does not shy away from more controversial works. Its various flaws left me hoping that the rest of the selection had more substance to support their compelling ideas.

Day 2:

My second day of the festival revealed the controversial trend about this year's competition - it consists mainly of established auteurs who have presented films at Cannes before. Even more exciting was my discovery of a theater that had leather chairs. That's right, real leather chairs. It's all in the details...

Bright Star dir. Jane Campion - In Competition

One of the more buzzed about films in the festival is New Zealand director Jane Campion's Bright Star focusing on the tumultuous romance between the revered 19th-century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Campion manages to uncover the power behind Keats’ romantic lyrics through her camera lens which imbues its view of the English countryside with a quiet sumptuousness.

Once Keats and Brawne fall in love, Campion presents a sequence that shows the female staring longingly into her billowing curtains over what room. This image is followed by one where the poet lies atop a sun soaked treetop, brimming with quiet satisfaction. Such juxtaposition evokes an emotional transcendence powerfully bringing the characters' inwards passions outwards. Although not a single ounce of flesh is shown, these images of a wild and beautiful nature exude a palpable sensuality.

Besides the lush visuals, Campion's brings out many rich performances from her cast particularly Abbie Cornish, as the increasingly obsessed Fanny. The actress articulates her ecstasy by a small twitch of her hands when her character touches Keats's lips for the first time. Cornish acts with a finesse that ensures her character's ever-increasing ardor never rings false.

At one point in the film, the two lovers walk hand-in-hand freezing in place whenever a young girl looks back at them. This quiet moment, where time briefly stands still, encapsulates a film that perfectly captures the passion of love.

Jaffa dir. Keren Yedaya – Out of Competition

Jaffa is an out of competition film that deftly maintains its suspense throughout its 110 minute running time while chronicling the destruction of a family. Through the increasingly troubled relations between a Jewish car repair shop owner and his Arab employees, the film brings to light the underlying tensions of the everyday Israeli life. While hampered by an unnecessarily showy direction, the film’s cast delivers full bodied performances that lend a texture and life to the film’s often cruel world. As the wife of the elderly car repair shop owner, Ronit Elkabetz gives a terrific angry performance especially when her character attacks her lazy son. With a striking disgust, she spews forth an angered rant against her son's attitude. In an often volatile film, this actress was the most combustible element. I intended to leave the movie early to get a good place for Taking Woodstock, but the film was so gripping, I could not budge from my seat until the credits rolled.

Taking Woodstock dir. Ang Lee – In Competition

I originally saw a few minutes of the film at a screening with the director in Berkeley. The wise cracking clip, where conservative man meets a transvestite, had me worried that the film would never be more than anything but a broad comedy. The final product confirms that, while certainly engaging, the film fails to be up to the caliber of much of Mr. Lee's oeuvre.

This film examines what went on behind the scenes of the famous rock festival Woodstock. Comedian Dimitri Martin stars as Elliott, the ambitious son of parents who own a failed motel. After Elliott provides the Woodstock organizers with the means to host the event in his conservative New York town, his family life is turned upside down. Dimitri Martin shows that he can do more than awkwardly crack jokes, as his quiet demeanor perfectly illustrates the impact of the era-defining event.

Other actors do not fare quite as well particularly the usually consistent Imelda Staunton as Elliott's mother. Her over-the-top performance is too broad for too long ensuring that she comes off as a mere caricature of a home wife rather than a fully realized personality. Staunton points to the difficulties of depicting an iconic event like Woodstock bustling with protesters and millions of hippies. Lee has filled his film with stock characters recognizable throughout pop culture; all are mildly amusing but most unmemorable.

For all its shallow characterization, the film has one scene that makes it worth a look. Taking Woodstock reaches its high, both figuratively and literally, when the protagonist trips out on acid. Lee manages to defy convention here creating a memorable scene of bold colors and oh-so subtle surreal effects. As the protagonist feels the effects of the drug, he sees the colors inside the Volkswagen van slowly blend together. Following these initial strange moments the film cuts to a close up shot of a bright, pulsating mural. When the drugged up Elliott finally happens upon the hundreds of thousands in attendance, tiny figures crowd around a pulsating beam of fluorescent light that is the stage. Remarkably, the filmmaker crafts a sequence that saliently frames the luster and magic of the era. The film rarely reaches such heights of inspiration coasting by on its charming, but forgettable story about a straight-laced guy colliding with the hippie revolution.

Antichrist dir. Lars von Trier - In Competition

There are a few directors I find more exciting than the polarizing Lars Von Trier. He has the uncanny ability to thrive within limits, whether in genre or form, and create films that are at once intellectually engaging and deeply visceral. His latest horror film Antichrist"is no exception.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as an intellectual couple who struggle with the loss of their son. The analytical psychologist tries desperately to uncover what drives his wife through a series of tests. Attempting a return to normality, the therapist husband decides to take his wife on a trip to the deserted cabin in the woods, a move that only amplifies their existing fears and neuroses. Increasingly, the shell-shocked wife gains a new dangerous life. She begins to reveal the root of her desperation saying that the forest" once beautiful" was now "made horrible." Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg fully inhabit into their characters, fearlessly exploring the depths of human perversion and malice.

One of the definitive features of many of the director's films are their very intense violence and sex. Here, Von Trier takes these elements to a whole new level of shocking the credit. As though he reevaluates the oft-used phrase "torture porn," the filmmaker intertwines sexuality and violence creating images of gruesome suffering that have rarely been projected on the silver screen before. How do you make a group of jaded film journalist gasp in unison? You show them this almost unbearably violent film.

Yet the frights often go far deeper as Von Trier exposes the twisted and hideous side of everyday nature. When Dafoe comes across a deer within a clearing, he approaches only to discover that its unborn offspring hangs limp outside of it. The film captures the animal hopping away in slow-motion making this quick encounter with the dark side of creation especially searing. Even the landscape is rendered strange constantly distorting as the characters move about it. The image suggests that the forest does not provide any base of reality and remains as mutable as the fragile leads themselves.

Underneath the exploration of the genre, lies a film that poignantly meditates on his artistic failures. In his last film, the comedy The Boss of It All, Von Trier poked fun at his decision to move towards realism with the Dogma 95 movement. His disenchantment with the artistic philosophy manifests itself here in the tension between the scientific psychologist and the fragile wife who embraces the unknown. As they grapple with each other, Lars Von Trier delivers a damning indictment on the movement he created suggesting that any philosophies that claim to be more real are pathetically misguided. Beyond these aesthetic questions, Von Trier confronts the perception that he is a misogynistic filmmaker. By creating a work so deeply vested with the wild and untamed female, the filmmaker explores the troubling ramifications of using femininity as the object of aggression and lust.

The film quickly provides a measuring stick as to whether or not you will enjoy the film. In the first scene, the filmmaker juxtaposes shots of a baby falling to his death with an exquisitely filmed, graphic sex scene marking the first of many memorable penetrations in the film (and not just the kind you're thinking). With the intense and ever audacious Antichrist, the director lays bare the horror genre as well as his art, pondering upon the machinations and merits of both.

Your Reporter

Well, Campion and Von Trier delivered in my first two days at Cannes! Check back Wednesday to find out who really deserves to be at the Cannes Film Festival.


Anonymous said...

What an awesome writeup, nice job

Raj R. said...

Glad to see that someone liked Antichrist - other press reports seem to indicate that those famous Gallic boos were in full force (how was the reception at your screening?). Do we perhaps have this year's Southland Tales?

Eric said...

Interesting that you liked Antichrist - from what rottentomatoes tells me, the overall response to the film has been pretty negative. What do you say to those who are Anti-Antichrist?

Tasnim Shamma '11 said...


Fareed Ben-Youssef said...

The reaction to Antichrist was interesting in its insistence that the film was shallow "shock."

First, to shock those who have seen all that cinema has to offer is an achievement of itself.

Secondly, few critics that I have spoken to have found that the visceral nature of the film can serve as a spring board for serious commentary. Art (Dadaism, for instance) has suggested that only through this reaction can insight be achieved.

While the merits of this statement can be argued, it should at least be considered when examining a work by Von Trier.

More in my forthcoming post!

Raj R. said...

IFC picked up Antichrist for distribution! After reading about certain instances of violence in the movie (a handscrew? REALLY?), it's safe to say that IFC has giant brass balls.