Thursday, May 21, 2009

Princeton at the Cannes Film Festival: Days 3 & 4

Over the 3rd and 4th day of the Cannes Film Festival, I dealt with the unique rigors of student journalism (in that I still needed to take exams for class... does Roger Ebert ever have to do such a thing?), saw Almodovar's latest, and came face-to-face with French politics.

Reflecting on Antichrist

All the while, I've engaged in debates with other journalists regarding Von Trier's latest film Antichrist. If you have read any of the other reviews from the festival, you have probably noticed that this is the event's whipping boy. It has been labeled as nothing more than simple shock, and pure intellectual drivel from European cinema's enfant terrible. I've been more than a bit confused by this argument, which seems to be most disturbed by the extreme confluence of gore and sex in the production.

As I've said in an earlier comment, to so ably disturb a room full of journalists who have everything that cinema offers stands as a success in itself (one journalist told me that Antichrist marked the first time that she ever screamed aloud while watching a film). Furthermore, that shock is somehow emblematic of lesser art ignores a fundamental artistic philosophy that views the emotion as a catalyst for change and insight (Dadaism comes for example). The current critical consensus towards Von Trier's latest ignores its nuance in favor of a rather superficial assessment. To get lost in the visceral aspects of Antichrist (or any Von Trier), is to ignore its profound artistic stakes.

Day 3

Studying for my final exam of my Princeton career (as Homer Simpson would say "Woohoo!"), I had to take a breather from movies for the day (again quoting Homer Simpson, "D'oh!"). I did see one film, however, during this most unproductive day.

Tzar dir. Pavel Lounguine - Un Certain Regard

Focusing on the head of the Russian Orthodox Church who stands up against the 16th century monarch Ivan the Terrible, Tzar's most striking feature is its glorious color palette. The film has the same visual excess of golden religious icons and is always visually captivating. At the same time, every performance has a disquieting theatricality about it. While capturing history in operatic terms could have been interesting conceit, the film seems lost within its constant bombast. Instead of pulsating with emotion, the central narrative of a cleric's break away from the clutches of power comes across as oddly empty.

Day 4

With an exam looming in the evening, I set out to view at least a respectable number of films (though the tensions of French life made this simple goal oddly difficult to execute).

Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces) dir. Pedro Almodovar - In Competition

Another day at Cannes, can mean only one thing: another big name auteur in competition. With Los Abrazos Rotos, Spain's premier director Pedro Almodovar creates a compelling noir tinged tale that manages to cover a myriad of subjects: voyeurism, cinema, sexuality, and (most interesting of all) the filmmakers' fetish for Penelope Cruz.

The film centers on a charming Harry Caine, a successful blind screenwriter who beds women as effortlessly as he writes in the story. Yet Caine has a dark secret, he is nothing more than a pseudonym for the former film director named Mateo Blanco. Slowly, the film unveils the complicated life of the two-faced hero whose life was ruined when he fell in love with Leda (Penelope Cruz), an aspiring actress tied to the deranged millionaire named Ernesto. Through shots that contain acrylic tableaux of revolvers looming behind characters, the filmmaker accentuates the noir elements of the story quietly suggesting how close the characters linger on the precipice of destruction while involved with a scheming millionaire.

The Spanish auteur employs his dark story to commit a very meta-exploration of his medium. The film telegraphs its introspective intentions in the very first shot: an extreme close-up of an eye watching director Mateo. During such moments of reflection, the film gains an affecting sway it otherwise lacks. In one scene, the image of Matheo and Lena embracing is projected onto a TV screen. When the frozen embrace fills this frame, the blind man's hands touch the screen as though he finds the texture and the soul hidden within the image. The film more directly exclaims its love for the medium through such lines as "a film must always be finished, even blindly!" Fittingly, considering the genre of Los Abrazos Rotos, the filmmaker also shows an interest for the more uncomfortable elements of his art.

Almodovar explicitly references the classic film Peeping Tom, a work devoted to all aspects of the obsessive gaze. These allusions illustrate that the filmmaker seeks to play with his almost perverse fetishization at the core of his artistic relationship with Penelope Cruz. No other director lingers so luxuriously on Cruz’s curves and seems so captivated by the actress. Highlighting the inception of the camera for the actress's filed body, the film presents x-rays of Cruz's skeleton. It's a powerful moment where the director confronts his deep-seated and penetrating ardour for his muse.

Penelope Cruz plays Lena as an innocent femme fatale: part loving daughter and part prostitute. When Mateo initially photographs Lena, the actress exudes a convincing radiance. She adopts different wigs and expressions which quietly highlights Cruz's ability to so effortlessly transform when caught under Almodovar's gaze. But unlike her Oscar nominated performance in Almodovar's Volver, Cruz never shows the fierce sensuality nor does the actress ever need to imbue her character with any raw emotion. Due to Cruz's relatively quiet performance limited by the constraints of the narrative, Los Abrazos Rotos lacks an emotional anchor becoming nothing more than a cinematic essay. Like the best essays, the film is intellectually pleasant, but remains more than a bit sterile.

Vincere dir. Marco Bellochio - In Competition

While I have never seen any other of Italian director Marco Bellochio's films, he has been in the competition six times. I initially thought this to be a sign of a filmmaker of remarkable quality and innovation. Boy, was I wrong! Vincere, detailing the struggles of Mussolini's abandoned wife, is a flawed biopic. Nothing more.

The show opens promisingly enough with a scene where the young dictator speaks against a church council. With verve and brio he announces "I defy God!" and asks the creator to strike him down. If he does not end Mussolini's life within five minutes, it will be proof that He doesn't exist. It's an intense scene that stands as a high point in the film which presents the dictator with remarkably little complexity. To detail young Mussolini's grand ambitions while he sits staring straight ahead in bed, the film presents images of war and fascist rallies accentuated by a foreboding and loud score (in case the audience doesn't understand that Italian fascism was, in fact, a bad thing).

Worse still, the film keeps most of its attention not on Mussolini, but upon his abandoned wife Ida Dalser whose union with the dictator has all but been erased from the history books. After their initial dalliance and marriage, Dalser spends the rest of her life trying to get acknowledgment from her fascist love. During her scenes with Mussolini, the woman stares longingly into the distance. When he is off-screen, which is unfortunately far too much of the film, she stares desperately ahead at nothing. In truth, the script gives the lead actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno little to work with outside of the requisite "I'll never give up!" line. Furthermore, the film becomes dramatically dead when she is forced into a mental institution. For long stretches of time, nothing at all happens and the viewer is forced to put up with her overwhelming angst.

Part of the "drama" of the thing is that Dalser is separated not only from her husband but also her son, Benito. You know a movie has failed to resonate emotionally when it uses large portions of the abandonment scene from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid to evoke sympathy from the audience. The film cannot stand out its own.

Vincere is the first selection of the festival to evoke the worst response from me, "meh"... otherwise known as pure indifference. The film actually adds fire to the argument against the selection committee for choosing established filmmakers who have been to the dance before. Director Marco Bellochio's sixth entry should have stayed far away from the festival. Its driving mediocrity makes it by far the worst film I've seen in competition.

Fareed's Unfortunate Brush with French Politics dir. Fate - Out of Competition

Wanting to wash the taste of that blasé production from my mouth, I decided to search out a random action movie D13 Ultimatum (sequel to District B-13) playing in the Marche du Cinema. I thought some spectacular escapist fare would do me good after the pretentious fluff that was Vincere.

Unfortunately, this was a day when French workers decided to express their political right to strike against the Man. In some ways, I guess 'the Man' was me since I certainly felt the consequences of their wrath. Soon after walking into my movie theater's lobby, the lights went out. It was a odd power outage given that Cannes was still enjoying some of that famous Riviera weather. Moments later, the workers at the theater informed the increasingly frustrated journalists in attendance that the strikers had cut off the power. No power=No movies. A devastating formula!

Had I been in negotiations with these people I would've broken down instantaneously and given into all of their demands. After all, you know people are serious when they're willing to take random French action movies away from innocent journalists like myself.

Workers on strike making their presence felt

Rushing to a theater on other side of town, I came face to face with my tormentors. They looked serious and I hoped that they might show some mercy and not completely turn off the light fantastic. Luckily, they showed their generosity towards the other theater and I was able to catch an Israeli comedy Matter of Size playing as part of the Marche du Cinema. Though not quite an action movie, it did serve its purpose as a cinematic tonic. The film about a group of overweight men who form a sumo club in retaliation against the Man (see a theme here?) that is an oppressive diet club, is a fun culture clash film. Although it sometimes needlessly falls into the tropes of the sports movie, where losers somehow go the distance, it did contain one especially subversive and memorable joke.

As the protagonist recounts the death of his equally overweight father, the film flashbacks to the fateful day. Standing on the balcony, the father tells his son to grab a newspaper inside. While the boy completes the chore, the balcony breaks off and the father falls to his death. Rather than react with horror, the son breaks out laughing. This moment of unfettered delight mixed into such a serious situation comes out of nowhere striking an undeniably humorous tone while brazenly defying narrative convention. I laughed so hard I almost wished the scene was longer. Let me tell you, this moment was far better than the entirety of Vincere!

Following these two days of relatively few movies, I'm now back into the groove of things! And let me tell you, movies have been watched. Stay tuned for thoughts on Tarantino's most surprising, political and offensive film Inglourious Basterds.


Marie Therese said...

What you write makes me want to go to the movies.... You are the best film-critic I know.....Vive Fareed Ben-Youssef

Raj R. said...

Have you been able to catch anything else from Un Certain Regard? I've read a lot of critics that seem to think that the competition slate this year is bogged down by famous auteurs working on autopilot, while films in Un Certain Regard from younger directors (like Bong Joon-Ho's Mother and Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective) are the real successes of the festival.

Please tell me that you caught Michael Haneke's new movie too.

Fareed Ben-Youssef said...

While I haven't caught either of the films you mentioned, Un Certain Regard contains some very interesting pictures whose worst thankfully never falls to the mediocre levels of some of the films in competition.

Haneke's latest has been watched and is very different from some of his previous work (though no less intriguing). A review of that film will be in a forthcoming edition of the blog.