Thursday, July 9, 2009

Final Cannes Thoughts, and a look at the Anti-Cannes

More than a month has passed since the 2009 Cannes Film Festival came to a close
awarding Michael Haneke’s "The White Ribbon" the Palm d’Or. In the sun drenched Riviera setting, world cinema had its annual collision with the glamour of Hollywood. Now that the hubbub surrounding the festival has died down, I can more fully consider whether or not Cannes lived up to its reputation as the world's best film festival. Watching over 31 films at Cannes revealed a surprisingly inconsistent film festival that, despite several stand outs, too often flirted with mediocrity.

To gain an insider’s perspective on the Cannes experience, I sat down with Semaine de la Critique Selection Committee member Pierre-Simon Gutman. The Semaine de la Critique, or Critic’s Week, is a side bar of the festival that runs alongside the main competition. Gutman said, "The purpose of the Critic’s Week is very simple. We are there to find the new guys who will win the Palm d'Or in four years." Critic’s Weeks participants have included acclaimed directors like Bernardo Bertolucci and Jacques Audiard (director of 2009’s “Un Prophete”). To program the annual series, the selection committee watches over 900 movies from around the globe.

Gutman explained that the film festival provides an unparalleled and exhaustive look at the full breadth of contemporary world cinema. At its core, Gutman described Cannes as “a marriage of disparities, a strange mix between glamour and cinema which is not glamorous at all." He stressed that the more chiq aspects of the festival such as celebrities and big name films are not superfluous but vital in helping draw the world’s eye to smaller films that would otherwise never find a global audience. Gutman asserted that this confluence of artistic and commercial interests, what he called “a truly delicate alchemy,’ will always define the festival.

Regarding this year’s films in competition, the programmer felt that there were,”Too many famous directors, not necessarily the best pictures." His ambivalence towards the films in the official competition echoes my view that Cannes was far too enthralled with already established names. It became clear that Cannes prided its love for the single artistic vision during a revealing moment of meta-commentary in Quentin Tarantino’s bold reimagining of WWII, “Inglourious Basterds.” After being lauded by a Nazi for presenting German directors at her Parisian cinema, the French film enthusiast heroine coldly remarks,”France respects its directors, even the Germans.” Hearing this, the theater erupted in applause delighting in Tarantino’s clear homage to a French festival where the auteur rules. Both the merits and pitfalls of this artistic philosophy became apparent during the competition.

Some cinematic heavyweights like Von Trier delivered in a big and enormously shocking ways. In its masterful exportation of the violence inherent to the horror genre, Von Trier's darkly beautiful "Antichrist" stands as a cutting meditation on the darker aspects of his artistic philosophy. Other well-known directors seemed entirely devoid of this ambition producing works notable only for their stunning mediocrity. Italian director 's sixth film in competition "Vincente" depicts Mussolini's Fascist Italy with all the subtlety of a propaganda film. Even worse than its shallow take on history is its maudlin narrative about the Italian dictator's estranged wife that unfolds like a cloyingly melodramatic TV movie.

The sharp disparity in quality existed even in competing films created by less prolific artists. Jacques Audiard’s "Un Prophet" feature encapsulates what Gutman described as the ideal Cannes film - one which has critical merits but remains viscerally entertaining. Adding spark to this well trodden genre, the film deftly melds the familiar prison setting with a bizarre reality where supernatural forces linger. This unconventional marriage of tones gives the work an exhilaratingly fresh ambience. Underneath the narrative about one man's rise through the ranks of the prison lies a thorough exploration of the sharp cultural tensions at the heart of an increasingly heterogeneous French society. "Un Prophete" never ceases to engross or transcend the boundaries of its genre.

Another revelation by a competition newcomer was Spanish director Isabel Coixet's “The Map of the Sounds of Tokyo”. The film, which unfortunately flew under the radar of the mainstream press, focuses on a young Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) whose quiet exterior hides a surprising secret- her life as a hitwoman. The noir tale allows the director a chance to fully explore the eccentricities of Tokyo and Japanese life. A subplot of a sounder engineer obsessively following the heroine gives the director free reign to tweak the frequency of urban life and explore the mystique of a city balanced between the modern and ancient, the urban and natural.

Handedly matching the film's direction is the superb Rinko Kikuchi who creates a demure woman that pulsates with a quiet ruthlessness. This ensures that the film's bizarre premise remains surprisingly believable. In the hands of a lesser actress, the combination of quiet femininity and steely reserve would make for a schizophrenic character, and yet Kikuchi achieves a balance between the two sides of her character’s personality refusing to play her with a Jekyll and Hyde duality. The very sharp film exposes the sensuality of a city and the allure of silence.

These riveting features clashed with lesser films that utterly lacked such bold and confident execution, none more disappointing than “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.” Focusing on the liaison between the famed French designer Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) and Russian composer Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelssen), the French film appears to have the ingredients of an absorbing biopic. The narrative explores the period when these artistic luminaries where on the cusp of their greatest successes. Lazy performances, however, create a film that lacks any compelling dramatic tension.

Actress Anna Mouglalis transforms the fashion phenomenon that created the iconic perfume Chanel No. 5 into an easy caricature of a frigid woman. To express Chanel’s self-confidence, Mouglais seems only capable of gazing coldly at the camera. When Chanel talks about the perfume that will make her name, Mouglalis speaks with all the conviction of a disinterested telemarketer. As with every facet of the production, there lies no sense of passion or fire in Mouglalis’ Chanel. That the empty and lifeless “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” closed the festival only reinforced how many of the films in competition were blasé rather than innovative.

Coming out of the screening of Ang Lee’s unremarkable comedy “Taking Woodstock,” I stumbled on a sight that was uniquely Cannes. Stretched before me was the blue Mediterranean Sea glistening under the mid-afternoon sun. My eyes’ adjustment to the piercingly bright environment magnified the vistas’ beauty. With its ideal Riviera setting, marble interiors, and red carpets Cannes certainly lived up to its reputation as the most glamorous film festival out there.

But was it the best in the world? Cannes could not claim this title. After all, this was the year where the Palm d’Or winning film “The White Ribbon” which finds disturbingly simple causes to the horrors of the Second World War beat out far more challenging works like Von Trier’s “Antichrist.” The competition of Cannes 2009 will be remembered less for its myriad successes than its decidedly safe, unmemorable choices that revealed a film festival with a disappointing lack of audacity

Visiting the anti-Cannes- Karlov Vary International Film Festival

Although Cannes has come to a close, there are still many festivals taking place on the continent. Over the course of July, I will be covering two decidedly different European film festivals - Karlov Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic and the more niche Giffoni Film Festival in Southern Italy. This film-oriented excursion through Europe should put the Cannes experience in perspective while providing a thorough look at often unsung national cinemas.

For the past week, I’ve been staying in the quaint spa town of Karlovy Vary near the Czech Republic’s border with Germany. Unlike Cannes which was only open to press and industry professionals, the Czech festival is completely open to the public. Due to its lack of any sparkle and glitz, The Hollywoood Reporter dubbed the town’s film festival as the anti-Cannes. The laid back city sharply contrasts to the bustle of Cannes and the roar of traffic has been replaced by quiet sound of a passing river. The French city’s taut and tanned denizens are gone; instead, hordes of the elderly roam the streets sipping the restorative elixir of Karlovy Vary’s famed hot springs.

Whereas Cannes seemed to have been imprinted with the presence of cinema, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival has had negligible impact on the town’s aesthetic. The Czech getaway has such a strong 19th century feel that the monolithic 70s style festival center feels glaringly out of place. Karlovy Vary can be defined, at least in part, by this strange disconnect between the festival and its very quaint setting.

Although the glamour of Cannes is nowhere to be found, at least one thing hasn’t changed, the mid-afternoon snack. Whatever the quality of the films in France, I could always rely on a fortifying crepe filled with sugar or sweet, sweet nutella to get me through my next slate of films. What could Czech cuisine offer that was as compact, as delicious? Apparently, the very same thing! Every Czech restaurant has a dessert dubbed in the English menu as Pancakes. This dessert is typically slightly thicker than its French variant and, in the case of the example photographed below, filled with surprisingly tart custard. Many a screening has been supplemented by this deliciously different though familiar treat.

So far I have been able to catch 28 films, and will identify some highlights in forthcoming blog posts. Stay tuned for the latest from British auteur Ken Loach and one 4 hour epic about a Japanese Peeping Tom that just might be the festival’s most original and best film, “Love Exposure.”


Tasnim Shamma '11 said...

Thanks for sharing your insight on the Karlovy, looking forward to the next post!

Pierre-Simon said...

For Fareed

Well well, what do I see ! My interview on the net without me knowing anything about it. Fareed, weren't you supposed to let me know about this ? And, by the way, did you get my mail ? I have a question to ask and my mail adress is

See you

Pierre-Simon said...

For Fareed

What do I see ? My own interview on the net, and I didn't know about it ! T thought you were suppoed to tell me when tis would happen. Did you, by the way, get my mail ? I have a question to ask and the great interview I gave is well worth a little answer.
Contact me at

PS Gutman