Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 138 minutes.
STANLEY KUBRICK made 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) during the minimalist era. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) belongs to the period of the mash-up. I’m not sure that anything else needs to be said, and having seen the film only once, I hesitate to go further, but I promised to weigh in on what was the most argued-over movie at Cannes, so here goes.
There are at least two extraordinary sequences in The Tree of Life. One occurs at the opening, just after the introductory inscription from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and the brief image of what I took to be the film’s “great whatsit,” a glowing red object in the middle of the screen. (Is it the heart of the Big Bang, the energy from which all life evolves, or the sign of the Big Guy in the sky who is so mean to Job, or, not to be facetious, the fragment of glass from which Stan Brakhage produced The Text of Light  in its entirety?) And then we depart the Creation of the heavens and the earth to land in the yard of an American suburban house, and the camera is weaving forward through dazzlingly green grass and up and up again and again through the leafy branches of swaying trees, like a light-seeking device, looking for the sun. No one can move the camera like Malick—or, more precisely, no one directs the way Malick directs his great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, or Lubezki’s operator, Jörg Widmer, to move the camera. Handheld or mounted on a Steadicam, the camera never, as far as I can remember, stops moving throughout what we could call the human (as opposed to the cosmic) sections of the film. Its movement is the corollary of the movement of the human eye and of consciousness, the evocation of the ephemeral nature of all life. It is camera movement as philosophy, morality, biology, and more. If Malick had trusted camera movement to carry the meaning of The Tree of Life . . . but better not to go there yet.
Rather, let’s return to this first glorious sequence where eventually we see a woman who is opening a letter or perhaps a telegram that she has just received. She is standing in the middle of a glassed-in porch and as she begins to read, there is the most startling of all the jump-cuts-on-movement, which is Malick’s standard way of connecting shots. The camera is suddenly high above the woman, and the extreme change of angle lets us experience, kinetically, how the bottom has dropped out of her world, even before she collapses on the floor in tears. The woman is Mrs. O’Brien, aka Mother (Jessica Chastain), the wife of Mr. O’Brien, aka Father (Brad Pitt), and she has just learned that her middle son has died. (How he dies or how old he is when he dies is never specified.)
One of the ways to read The Tree of Life is as a memory piece in which Jack (Sean Penn), the oldest of the three O’Brien sons, tries, decades after the fact, to reconcile himself to the death of his brother, and to put this terrible loss in the perspective of cosmic time and space stretching from the big bang to the extinction of the universe. Thus the film segues between Jack’s childhood in Smithville, Texas, in the 1950s to a depiction of billions of years of evolution that unfortunately resembles too many Discovery Channel science programs, occasionally punctuated by the kind of Old Testament illustrations that made Sunday school an aesthetic nightmare. (At those moments you have to ask if Malick is trying to make a case for intelligent design.) This despite the fact that the special effects were supervised by the legendary Douglas Trumbull and contemporary hotshot Dan Glass, and were partly concocted from old-fashioned materials (paints, smokes, liquids, lighting, high-speed cinematography) and sometimes shot on film, rather than being generated as computer graphics (although there’s much of that too).
The adult Jack (a depressed, Armani-suited architect who lives and works in towering metal and granite buildings that obscure all but the narrowest rays of light) does not appear very often in the film. He is like one of those nearly invisible protagonists in avant-garde “trance” films, the filtering consciousness that “stands in” for that of the filmmaker. If, as the production notes suggest, this is Malick’s “most personal” film, then Jack is the Malick figure. And in that case, I’m glad that at the end of the movie his depression and burden of guilt lift as he “gathers at the river” with all the people he’s known in his life, all of them seemingly metamorphosing from youth to old age and back again—as if he’d dropped some really fine acid.
As you may have surmised by now, The Tree of Life is extremely ambitious but erratic in its realization. Its most poignant, engrossing passages center on the young Jack (Hunter McCracken, tough-hearted and emotionally transparent) as he traverses the liminal zone between childhood and adolescence. And it’s here that the second of the film’s transcendent moments occurs. Jack adores his gentle, nurturing mother who tries to follow in the way of Grace, and he is in a rage at his father, whose way is that of Nature. (This is Malick’s dichotomy, spoken in voice-over early in the film. Fortunately, Pitt, who is superb in his first middle-aged role, and to a lesser extent Chastain, who—not by coincidence alone, I believe—resembles the young Jane Brakhage of Window Water Baby Moving , are sufficiently multifaceted in their characterizations to overcome the designations.) Leaning in close to hand his mother a glass of water that he’s just filled from the garden hose, Jack comes nearly within kissing distance of her bare knees. In a confusion of desire and guilt he storms off, breaks into a neighbor’s house, rifles through the dresser drawers, and steals a silky white slip that he then throws into the river where it spreads out and catches the sun as it floats downstream. The action has a psychological specificity, too often absent in the rest of the film, and it’s also a brilliant metaphor for the way Jack will probably displace his Oedipal confusion onto “next-door neighbors” whom he can violate in fantasy or actuality for the rest of his life. No wonder he’s depressed. His brother’s death doesn’t account for all of his misery.
It’s a pity there aren’t more such moments, or that Malick didn’t trust the expressiveness of his images. Instead he loads the sound track with voice-over, couched between prayerful and preachy, and an overabundance of music—most of it with funereal or religious overtones—that makes the film seem like kitsch, beginning to end. I know that Malick was, in fact, born in 1943, but to depict what is, in the context of this film, the essential family as resembling a Norman Rockwell cover and to locate the moment of childhood innocence in the ’50s and the fall from grace (the death of the middle brother) in the ’60s . . . well, that’s going to give comfort to a lot of very reactionary folk living in 2011. No one could value the profoundly religious films of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer more than I do, but as I fled the theater at the end of The Tree of Life, I blurted out a very old joke: “Thank God I’m an atheist.”
The Tree of Life opens in New York on Friday, May 27.
Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Paul Hanganu and Raluca (Mimi Brănescu and Maria Popistașu).
RADU MUNTEAN’S Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) is one of the least showy and most finely crafted movies of the Romanian New Wave. Hardly a date movie, it depicts a situation that, given divorce rates, an overwhelming percentage of adult viewers have experienced or will in the future. A married man with a nine-year-old daughter is having an affair with a woman a few years younger than his wife. He didn’t expect the affair to become serious, but it has and he must deal with the fact that he has fallen in love with his girlfriend and does not enjoy living a double life.
Neither melodramatic nor erotic, the film has an odd kind of urgency. It’s as if one is watching a rehearsal or a rerun of one’s own life, but at a remove and drained of the passion that makes one feel, at the moment in which one is deep in the psychodrama of desire and/or betrayal, that nothing like this has ever happened to anyone else. That the behavior of the characters is so mundane and predictable—and utterly true—is in fact what makes the film unique.
Tuesday, After Christmas opens in medias res. Paul (Mimi Brănescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistaşu) are stretched out naked in bed, having, one presumes, just enjoyed an afternoon fuck. Paul is stocky and dark-haired, Raluca is lithe and blonde, and they have a casual intimacy that suggests they’ve been together for a while. It is the Christmas season and they are going to spend it apart, which makes them unhappy. In the next scene, Paul goes Christmas shopping with his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprişor), an attractive brunette with a lively intelligent face, who clearly hasn’t a clue that her husband is unfaithful, let alone that his lover is their daughter’s orthodontist. Later, in the scene that is the turning point of the movie, the three meet in Raluca’s office; Adriana has at the last minute decided she must look at her daughter’s braces before they are attached. The image of the two women peering into the girl’s mouth while Paul hovers nervously in the doorway might have been, in the hands of a less subtle director, hilarious. Instead, Muntean places us in the uncomfortable position of being aligned with the lovers in their deception of the wife. We know something that she doesn’t. This excellent use of dramatic irony propels the narrative toward the inevitable. Paul, who is not a bad guy (though he has the typical male habit of explaining to the women in his life what they are feeling), comes clean to his wife, who responds with an outpouring of shape-shifting emotions that are like nothing else in the movie.
Shot in scope and composed of long takes with minimal camera movement or editing within sequences, the film gives the actors the responsibility of pacing and shaping each scene, of conveying subtext through silence as well as dialogue. Brilliant acting is what distinguishes most Romanian New Wave movies, and here the interactions of Brănescu, Oprişor, and Popistaşu are exceptional. To risk the kind of metaphor that the movie eschews, Tuesday, After Christmas is much more than a slice of life. It’s an old-fashioned club sandwich in which the three structuring layers of bread are filled with savory and sweet ingredients, juxtaposed to satisfy a contemporary taste.
Tuesday, After Christmas runs Wednesday, May 25–Tuesday, June 7 at Film Forum in New York.
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm.
IN 2005, the first year I covered the Cannes Film Festival, there was a store in an alley near the studio apartment I shared in the Suquet—the old part of town—called the Crazy Shop. The establishment no longer exists, but its name provides the aptest tagline imaginable for the two-week period in mid-May when thousands of journalists, film stars and directors, movie marketers and executives, paparazzi, D-listers, louche heiresses, hustlers, and swindlers all descend on this beautiful Mediterranean city that transforms into a shrine of international auteurist cinema.
The press corps, many of whom had already unraveled from deadline stress and sleep crimes by the festival’s midpoint, are perhaps the Crazy Shop’s most loyal customers. The past two days have been dominated by a particular kind of film-professional lunacy: trying to predict the winner of the Palme d’Or. “The Sorrentino”—This Must Be the Place, with Sean Penn—“is so bad and so mawkish, it’ll definitely win the top prize,” two esteemed colleagues (and longtime Cannes veterans) assured me yesterday.
Fortunately, the nine-member jury led by Robert De Niro, who received a standing ovation from the crowd assembled at the Lumière Theater for the awards ceremony, proved them wrong: Sorrentino’s movie received none of the seven prizes handed out just moments ago. Rewards went to eight different (out of twenty) titles in Competition; the Grand Prize (the runner-up award) was split between the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia, a nearly three-hour-long procedural about a search for a corpse. Most astonishingly (or maybe not: “it’s so bad and so mawkish . . . ”), Maïwenn’s Polisse won the Jury Prize (third place, essentially), the first category to be announced in the forty-five-minute ceremony. The long-maned, equine director panted throughout her excessively long acceptance speech (during which presenter Chiara Mastroianni looked up at the ceiling more than once), re-creating the de trop quality of her film.
When De Niro announced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as the winner of the Palme d’Or, I realized how completely disjointed my sense of time had become in the Crazy Shop: A film I had seen only six days ago now seemed thousands of years old, eclipsed as it had been just forty-eight hours later by the Lars von Trier hoo-ha. Despite the Danish troublemaker’s exile status, he brought good luck once again to his female lead: Kirsten Dunst, one of the main performers in Melancholia, won the Best Actress prize (the other, Charlotte Gainsbourg, had taken home the award in 2009 for her performance in Antichrist; Björk received the prize in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark). Dunst, visibly nervous, smiled and said, “Wow. What a week it’s been.” The Crazy Shop shutters once again—but we’re already counting the days until it reopens for business.
THROUGH PERVERSE, coincidental timing, the Nazi theme at Cannes continued today—fewer than twenty-four hours after Lars von Trier’s banishment from the French Riviera—with the 8:30 AM screening of Paolo Sorrentino’s Competition title This Must Be the Place. The film stars Sean Penn—an amalgam of Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie, the Cure’s Robert Smith, and the titular mentally challenged man the actor played in I Am Sam—as Cheyenne, a fey, retired goth rock star who leaves his home in Ireland to return to the US to track down the man who tormented his estranged father in Auschwitz. Unbearably sentimental—one colleague likened it to this year’s Life Is Beautiful—and consistently ridiculous, Sorrentino’s movie was inexplicably met with warm applause (and, as far as I could tell, no boos). There’s no arguing taste (or cultural differences or festival exhaustion), but figuring out the appeal of a film that includes a Holocaust slide show, Penn’s aggressive scenery chewing (“Not having kids has really, really screwed me over!” he weeps at one point), and every lazy American stereotype (fatties, guns, tattooed hillbillies) will remain forever beyond my ken.
“Performing is a fantastic way of communicating,” Charlotte Rampling says in The Look, an insubstantial hagiographic portrait of the legendary actress by Angelina Maccarone, which played in the Cannes Classics sidebar earlier this week. Penn’s way of reaching out is to overplay an already risible role; Ryan Gosling, in contrast, as the laconic, no-named movie stuntman and part-time heist driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Competition entry Drive, conveys endless appeal through steely silence. Screening for the press last night at the Salle Debussy, Drive provided, if only temporarily, a welcome change of topic from the von Trier fiasco: Gosling’s smoldering foxiness, which hypnotized several colleagues, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, I spoke with afterward (Queer Palm jurors, take note). Gosling’s heat is just one part of the film’s overall seductiveness. An “existentialist road movie,” in the words of my viewing companion, Drive is such a thrilling, taut, visually dazzling exercise in genre filmmaking that even its more gruesome scenes—such as Gosling crushing a man’s skull with his foot—left all of us giddy.
Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm.
L’AFFAIRE DSK has now been supplanted by le scandale LVT. After Lars von Trier’s Nazi remarks yesterday at the press conference for Melancholia, Cannes officials released a two-paragraph statement, which concludes, “The Festival is adamant that it would never allow the event to become the forum for such pronouncements on such subjects.” Von Trier himself issued the following mea culpa: “If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” The filmmaker’s words of regret, however, weren’t enough to restore a celebratory mood; according to the New York Times, both the cast dinner and beachfront afterparty for Melancholia were canceled. Rumors are now circulating that the director’s gaffes may have irrevocably harmed his film’s chances for winning the Palme d’Or (that, and the fact that it may be von Trier’s least thought-out film); just minutes ago it was announced that von Trier has been declared “persona non grata” by the festival.
A much cuddlier provocateur, festival regular Pedro Almodóvar is in Competition with The Skin I Live In; the middlebrow auteur is so beloved that his name in the opening credits alone prompted wild applause at the Lumière this morning (a screening from which I was nearly shut out). Based on Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 novel Tarantula, Almodóvar’s latest reunites him for the first time in twenty-one years with Antonio Banderas, who plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who goes to extremes to punish the man who raped his mentally fragile daughter. Almodóvar has described his film as “a horror story without screams or frights”; I’d add without risk or intelligence. To reveal how Ledgard avenges his daughter would spoil the film’s major “outré” plot thread. Let’s just say that the jurors for the Queer Palm, for which The Skin I Live In is a contender, will find that it follows—to the letter—the criterion of “disturbing the genders’ established codes.”
Lars von Trier, Melancholia, 2011, still from a color video transferred to 35-mm film, 130 minutes.
“I HOPE NO ONE gets a clit cut off in this movie,” a colleague sitting next to me said this morning before Lars von Trier’s Competition entry Melancholia. She was, of course, referring to the self-inflicted snipping of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s tender lady part in Antichrist, which was in contention for the Palme d’Or in 2009 and proved so inflammatory to some journalists that the director was booed at his own press conference.
Melancholia, though it depicts the end of the world in its prelude, is much less provocative than von Trier’s previous film; it’s the flip side to Competition titles like The Tree of Life and Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu, which mythopoeically explores the birth of Japan. (If bad kids and the worse things done to them dominated the first week of the festival, the second has been defined by the big bang and doomsday.) Kirsten Dunst, who replaced Penélope Cruz, plays Justine, a new bride who suffers from crippling depression. Her mental illness is so severe that she drives away her groom during their wedding reception. Justine is tended to by her sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), who grows more anxious about the impending approach of Melancholia, “a planet that has been hiding behind the sun.”
At the Melancholia press conference, von Trier was met not with fourth-estate fury but polite, if tepid, response. When a correspondent from Indonesia asked if he were happy with the film, the director, known for taking none of these press events seriously, responded, “When I saw the stills, I kind of rejected it a little. Maybe it’s crap. I hope not. But there’s a really big possibility that this [film] might not be worth seeing.”
The Q&A proved such a pleasant, dull affair that von Trier couldn’t resist stirring up trouble. In answer to a London reporter’s query about the Teutonic influences in the film—Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is heard throughout—and von Trier’s discovery in 1989 that his biological father was German, the director replied, “I thought I was a Jew and was happy. And then I found out I was really Nazi.” As Dunst, sitting to von Trier’s left, began to squirm, he continued, “I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a little bit. [. . .] I’m for the Jews—but not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass.” After the filmmaker admitted his admiration for Albert Speer, a Canadian journalist decided to jump right in with this crucial question: Did von Trier consider Melancholia his answer to the blockbuster? His response: “Yes, we Nazis try to work on a grander scale.”
L’AFFAIRE DSK continues to dominate the news: The cover of today’s Libération features a grim-faced Strauss-Kahn gazing downward with the simple headline “K.O.”; the right-wing Nice-Matin also has a photo of the embattled IMF chief on its cover next to the words “En prison,” though more prominent placement is given to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—“Le couple glamour du Festival”—on the red carpet.
Of course, sometimes the movies themselves remind the four thousand film journalists assembled here that topics weightier than Terrence Malick exist. Unspooling at 8:30 this morning, Aki Kaurismäki’s Competition title Le Havre, a droll yet compassionate look at the perils faced by illegal immigrants, has been one of the most warmly received films by the tetchy press corps so far. In the Finnish director’s second film set in France after La Vie de Bohème (1992), former artist Marcel (André Wilms), now working as a shoe shiner in the port town of the title, shelters and provides safe passage for Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young refugee from Gabon hoping to be reunited with his mother in London. Kaurismäki’s wry take on immigration—an especially thorny subject in France—moved one journo to talk back to the screen. When a character solicits the opinion of a Vietnamese friend of Marcel’s, he responds, “Hard to say, for I don’t exist”; one row behind me, I heard someone, thrilled to have his own views validated, proudly rejoinder, “Voilà.”
My opinion was too aggressively sought out by an unknown publicist who grabbed my arm as I stumbled out of the Salle Debussy—my eyes adjusting, molelike, to the Côte d’Azur sun—after watching Oliver Hermanus’s Beauty, playing in Un Certain Regard. An overcooked, protracted tale of a married, self-loathing, dangerous top, the twenty-eight-year-old South African director’s sophomore effort is vying for the second “Queer Palm” (the inaugural award went to Gregg Araki’s Kaboom last year); the QP jury will, according to its translated press release, “watch all the movies dealing with the gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, and queer topics and disturbing the genders’ established codes.” But the jury no longer has a lavender watering hole to host its awards ceremony: The legendary Cannes boîte Zanzibar, Europe’s oldest gay bar, closed earlier this year, torn down to make way for something less likely to disturb the genders’ established codes: an ice cream shop.
Left: Bertrand Bonello, House of Tolerance, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 125 minutes. Right: Terrence Mallick, The Tree of Life, 2011, color film in 35 mm.
PUNCTURING THE HIGHLY UNNATURAL, hermetically sealed bubble of the festival yesterday, the arrest of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault in New York was deemed important enough to interrupt the usual coverage of photo calls and obsequious interviews on the Cannes TV station, which broadcasts on monitors throughout the Palais. But for the members of the press corps at 8:30 this morning, no event in France was more earth-shattering—literally—than the world premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the most anticipated title in Competition this year (and in 2010, when several attendees remained delusionally convinced that the infamously slow-working director would somehow finish his fifth movie in four decades in time for the festival).
On a micro level, The Tree of Life, set primarily in the 1950s in Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown), tells the story of a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of three sons, struggling against the rule of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt); on a macro, the film takes on nothing less than the beginning of the universe. Meteors erupt, lava flows, dinosaurs roam the earth; the whispery voice-over of Jack’s beatific mother (Jessica Chastain) implores, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” As expected, Malick’s cosmic grandiosity—often sublime, sometimes ridiculous—proved too much for many journalists, who began booing viciously before the film even ended; not even the rapturous applause of Tree of Life’s comparable number of admirers could fully drown out their disdain.
The origin of the world—in Gustave Courbet’s sense of the term—is also explored in Bertrand Bonello’s Competition entry House of Tolerance, which takes place in an upscale Parisian brothel, the Apollonide, at the very beginning of the twentieth century. “Men really should spend more time staring at a woman’s sex,” says one habitué of the den of vice. Despite derailing more than once, House of Tolerance sustains its mood of lust and languor. Like Malick, Bonello has no qualms about deploying his own absurd special effects (or anachronistic sound track): In the final days of the Apollonide, the prostitutes dance with each other to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”; meanwhile, one physically damaged house veteran, crouched in a corner, cries tears of cum.
CANNES, NOTORIOUSLY, is an event of extreme incongruities, which are nowhere more apparent than during the Competition red carpet screenings at the Lumière Theater. Every movie, no matter how austere or ghastly its subject matter, receives the same tacky treatment: An announcer fervently calls off the names not only of the film’s cast and crew but also those of any celebrities—usually on the C-list, or lower—as they march up the Lumière steps to a medley of deafening American and Euro pop. Only in Cannes could you hear, as I did while racing to find the press queue for Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” before a film about a thirty-five-year-old pedophile who keeps a ten-year-old boy locked in his basement. Just a few yards away, lithe young men and women dressed all in white offered to give free hugs.
Schleinzer’s first film maintains an impressive tonal assurance despite its appalling topic; both the criminal (Michael Fuith) and his prisoner (David Rauchenberger) are precisely observed. Michael continues the festival’s dominant theme so far: children who are monstrous (We Need to Talk About Kevin) or the monstrous things that are done to them (Polisse). The Kid with a Bike by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who are vying for an unprecedented third Palme d’Or, straddles both categories. Cyril (Thomas Doret), the ginger-headed eleven-year-old of the title, earns the nickname “Pitbull” from the thugs who live near his Belgian housing estate, but his ferocity is justified: The boy’s father (played by Dardenne veteran Jérémie Renier) tells Cyril, who’s spent days desperately trying to track him down, that he never wants to see him again; Dad confides to Cyril’s foster parent that his only child “stresses him out.” Though the structuring of the Dardennes’ latest seems both too schematic and haphazard, their young star, in his first screen role, joins the most impressive on-screen talents seen at Cannes this year: those who are years away from getting a driver’s license.
Left: Maïwenn, Polisse, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Production still. Right: Nanni Moretti, Habemus Papam, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Production still.
POLISSE IS THE THIRD of four Palme d’Or–vying films helmed by women, but its director has the distinction of being the only one in the Competition lineup with a mono-moniker: Maïwenn, who decided to drop her surname, Le Besco (she is the older sister of Isild Le Besco, another actress-writer-director). Based on real cases from the Paris Child Protection Unit, Polisse examines the brutal work and messy domestic lives of ten CPU officers, and stands out as the most clamorous, tonally awkward film shown in the festival so far. That the director cast herself in a completely superfluous role as a photographer assigned to document the unit—who later falls in love with its shoutiest member, Fred (the one-named, no-spaced Joeystarr)—typifies the film’s many misjudgments (others include scenes in which the officers crack up, as did the audience, at the misfortunes of two barely teenage girls). One colleague admitted he endured the two-hours-plus running time just so he could hiss at the end; I wished I’d heard him over the stupefying applause during the final credits.
Also confounding were the claps and laughs that greeted Habemus Papam (“We Have a Pope”), another Competition title by another triple threat: Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or in 2001 for The Son’s Room. The director, who co-wrote the script with two others, plays a renowned psychoanalyst summoned to aid the newly elected pontiff, played by Michel Piccoli, who screams, “I can’t do this!” just as he’s summoned to the balcony of the Vatican to greet his flock. The Holy Father, presented as a sweet, sympathetic, frail old man, flees his handlers and mingles with civilians. During his walkabout, he falls in with a group of actors performing Chekhov; back at the Vatican, Moretti’s shrink organizes a double round-robin volleyball tournament for the cuddly cardinals. Only in the final minutes of Habemus Papam does Moretti acknowledge, ever so discreetly, the enormous crises facing the Catholic Church. We have a papam; we also have pap. Why not a pope smear?
“OH! WAS THAT FESTIVAL SEX?” wisecracked a publicist outside the Salle Debussy this morning after he was accosted below the waist by a too-aggressive member of the scrum pushing to get in to see Gus Van Sant’s Restless, which opens Un Certain Regard. The bodily contact along the Croisette was much lustier than what was on-screen: Written by first-time screenwriter Jason Lew, Restless recounts the romance between two teenagers—orphaned, funeral-crashing Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis), and Annabel (Mia Wasikowska), a naturalist with a brain tumor given three months to live. Wasikowska, who gives one of the best interpretations of roiling adolescent passion in the recent Jane Eyre, helps leaven the emo goo of Restless, a film that droops with its own tender earnestness.
Another kind of festival sex—depraved, baroque, and mostly offscreen—takes place in Sleeping Beauty, the first film from Australian novelist Julia Leigh, one of four women in the Competition lineup this year (the highest number in the festival’s history). Emily Browning, who, coincidentally, replaced Wasikowska in the lead role, plays Lucy, a university student with a series of odd jobs: medical-research subject (for which she patiently submits to having a long tube threaded down her esophagus), café waitress, office filer—and an upscale sex worker paid to go into deepest slumber while geriatrics do what they want with her. The white-haired gentlemen, however, are respectfully asked to obey the rules of the soignée proprietess: “No penetration, and take care not to leave any marks.” Slobbering, violent mouth exploration (including possible tooth extraction), and creaky dry humping are permitted.
Bodies—covered in tomato sauce?—also writhe in the dream-sequence opening scene of Lynne Ramsay’s Competition entry We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel about a teenage mass murderer told from the perspective of his mother, played by a hollowed-out Tilda Swinton. Ramsay’s first film since 2002’s Morvern Callar traces the development of the sociopath of the title from infancy. Though Ezra Miller is undoubtedly sinister as the archery-obsessed adolescent Kevin, the festival may need to create a Palme d’Enfant to acknowledge the formidable, creepy talents of Jasper Newell, who plays Kevin at age eight—and is the most baleful child actor I’ve ever seen.
“IT’S A BIG TRAP to think that living in another time would be better,” Woody Allen offered at the press conference this morning following the screening of Midnight in Paris, which opens the sixty-fourth Cannes Film Festival. The director, a Cannes perennial—eleven of his forty-two films have played at the festival; five have opened it—was explaining the misplaced nostalgia of his movie’s main character, Gil (Owen Wilson), a screenwriter and aspiring novelist on vacation in Paris with his termagant fiancée (Rachel McAdams) who finds his wish to live in the City of Lights in the 1920s come true.
While Allen feebly joked that there “was no Novocain, no air-conditioning,” in the era Gil is so besotted with, the left-leaning French daily Libération proposed a provocative question about the future of the esteemed cine-orgy on its cover: Le dernier Festival de Cannes? Though debates will continue about the necessity of film festivals in an age of constantly changing viewing technologies and platforms, it’s highly doubtful that Cannes will ever disappear—especially with so many manufactured crises and outrages to ensure its perpetuity. Robert Guédiguian, whose The Snows of Kilimanjaro screens as part of Un Certain Regard, wrote in Libération that he would not see Allen’s movie out of political protest: Making her film debut, Carla Bruni—Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy—has a small role as a tour guide at the Rodin Museum in Midnight in Paris.
At its best, Cannes collapses past, present, and future. A dramatic 1971 photograph of Faye Dunaway—eyes downward, her left hand clutching her neck, her legs featured prominently—taken by Jerry Schatzberg, who directed her in his first film, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), graces the official poster of this year’s festival. Both Dunaway and Schatzberg were spotted at baggage claim at the Nice Airport yesterday; they’ll be present for tomorrow night’s screening of a restored print of Puzzle. “Will I see you at the Marché?” Dunaway hopefully asked an acquaintance, referring to the film market (the largest in the world) that runs simultaneously with the festival. But will she be buying—or selling?
Pierre Thorreton, L’Amour fou, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes. Production still. Photo: JC Deutsch.
THE TITLE OF PIERRE THORETTON’S documentary on the relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé—who met in 1957 at Christian Dior’s funeral and remained close companions and business partners even after they split as a couple in the early 1980s—suggests madness, passion, obsession. And though the stately Bergé doesn’t demur from recounting the trying times—Saint Laurent’s extreme emotional fragility, his drug and alcohol abuse, his affairs—he doesn’t dwell on them, either. Reflecting on his fifty years as the caretaker and protector of Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, Bergé, in his calm, measured responses, never gives the slightest indication that he regrets the intensity of his devotion to the man considered the greatest couturier of the second half of the twentieth century. As former French minister of culture Jack Lang puts it, the two gave a certain “nobility to love.”
YSL, the subject of two documentaries by David Teboul from 2002—the straightforward biography Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times and the trancelike Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris, which captures the unwell designer at his atelier as he oversees the creation of one of his last collections—remains a haunting, seductive presence in Thoretton’s film. L’Amour fou opens with an ashen-faced Saint Laurent announcing his retirement on January 7, 2002, a heady speech in which he acknowledges his past addictions and quotes his beloved Proust. Footage of YSL from the ’60s and ’70s reminds us of his odd, lanky beauty and charming shyness—qualities Bergé surely found irresistible.
L’Amour fou is organized around the 2009 auction of Bergé and Saint Laurent’s astonishing art collection, culled from their three homes in Paris, Normandy, and Marrakesh. Yet Thoretton’s depiction of the Brancusis, Mondrians, and Ensors being studied, appraised, and packed up never devolves into the glib, gaudy celebration of wealth and excess found in another recent couturier study, Matt Tyrnauer’s slick Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008). Like Bergé, Thoretton’s film is never less than dignified.
If anything, L’Amour fou may be too delicate, its director too deferential to further press Bergé, who once said that Saint Laurent “was born with a nervous breakdown,” on the toll exacted by caring for the genius neurasthenic. Bergé, so often overshadowed by his partner, is rightfully proud when he speaks, briefly, of his own, non-YSL accomplishments: his work on behalf of François Mitterrand, who appointed him president of the Bastille Opera in 1988; his commitment to AIDS activism. But one senses that even Bergé considers his political and civic roles ancillary to his legacy as Saint Laurent’s lifelong helpmate. What’s missing from Thoretton’s decorous film is a willingness to probe the darker side of this five-decade relationship, memorably (but still respectfully) detailed by Cathy Horyn in “Yves of Destruction,” her 2000 New York Times Magazine profile of the designer. There’s plenty of love in Thoretton’s documentary—it just needs more crazy.
L’Amour fou opens May 13 in New York.
WITH A SLATE divided roughly 40/60 percent between nonfiction and fiction films, any foray into the Tribeca Film Festival this year was bound to involve documentary. And an unlucky sampling of dramas could make the docs portion seem all the more engaging. Swede Lisa Aschan’s World Narrative Competition award-winner She Monkeys, for example, was an assured yet inert depiction of two teenage equestrian frenemies, its young actors incapable of sustaining our interest in the trickle of revelation and humiliation (periodically stopped dead by a tone-deaf side plot about a younger sister’s awkward sexual stirrings). Putative showstopper Beyond the Black Rainbow, an anesthetizing megadose of shoestring futuristic dystopia, demonstrated director Panos Cosmatos’s complete and utter mastery of … two or three visual effects. Rwanda trauma meta-drama Grey Matter, in recounting the efforts of a young filmmaker and the grim postwar drama he is struggling to get made, failed to revivify clichés of artistic struggle and madness.
On the other side of the doc/fiction line, Bombay Beach (also a prize-winner) offered an acute chronicle of hard times on California’s dilapidated Salton Sea community, leavened with staged dance sequences. Israeli director Alma Har’el, who also makes music videos, pulls in an ambitious spread of personalities from American past, present, and future. Perhaps none is so poignant as the divergent portrait of youths: there’s the teenager looking to get out through football and currently deep into a bout of puppy love, and then there’s the pint-sized son of an excon, a serious-looking boy zonked on psychotropic cocktails that seem to be slowly flattening his off-the-wall spirit. Shadowing their two portraits is the ancient Depression veteran who makes money reselling cigarettes, the epitome of a go-it-alone survivor, a maverick on his own terms. A fascinating bookend to the hardscrabble Americana was Eva Mulvad’s The Good Life, about a Danish mother and daughter—the once rich and now flat-broke Beckmanns, living abroad in Portugal—whose insularity will inevitably elicit comparisons to the two Edies of Grey Gardens. Markedly less eccentric, their “plight” is epitomized by the baby-faced middle-aged daughter’s blinkered sense of entitlement, toxic arrested development, and bewildering flashes of self-awareness. But the film (Mulvad has called her subjects “bad at being poor”) leaves a viewer feeling queasy about all the class-reinforcing voyeurism.
A rollicking run of old-fashioned escapism was available to the Tribeca-goer who caught Tsui Hark’s Tang Dynasty adventure yarn Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. From the introduction of the premise (the empress’s underlings keep bursting into flames) on through the early moment when a deer opens his mouth to make an oracular pronouncement, you know you’re in good hands, with a rejuvenated Tsui happily embracing a world where the fantastical is second nature.
James Fotopoulos, Alice in Wonderland, 2010, still from a color video in HD, 99 minutes.
“CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER,” said Alice, although I can’t remember exactly where. Was it after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole or when she crossed to the other side of the mirror? No matter: Alice in Wonderland (2010)—James Fotopoulos’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by way of Henry Saville Clark and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children—is an extremely curious object in its own right, and its premiere New York screening is a must-see. If you doze through a few of its ninety-nine minutes, your dreams will be the better for it.
A prolific Chicago-based underground filmmaker, Fotopoulos created a stir with his stupendously creepy feature Migrating Forms. It screened in 2000 in the New York Underground Film Festival, which subsequently renamed itself by borrowing the film’s title. The concept of “migrating forms” has remained a constant in Fotopoulos’s work: In Alice, it applies to the fragments of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Carroll’s Alice books and the bits of Carroll’s prose and poetry that migrate to Fotopoulos’s movie, along with excerpts from the score of Clark and Slaughter’s opera. One might view the slow dissolves between the hundreds of drawings that Fotopoulos created for the film as another layer of migration; so too is the mix of the nineteenth-century score with droning metal–art music that sounds as if it’s erupting from the bottom of a swamp.
Alice is a multimedia opera presented in the form of a single-screen movie. In terms of avant-garde genres, it could be classified, to borrow a term from P. Adams Sitney, as a trance film. At the center of the proceedings is a medium close-up of a very beautiful young woman who appears in two guises. In Part I (subtitled “Alice in Wonderland”) her dark hair curls about her face and is held in place by a white housemaid’s bonnet. In Part II (subtitled “Through the Looking Glass”) her hair is blonde, long, and straight, swept away from her forehead in the manner of Tenniel’s Alice. Although her face almost never changes its expression, it seems very much alive, thanks to the talent of the actress and Fotopoulos’s filmmaking. One fully believes that the drawings (most of them charcoal-shaded outlines on a coral ground), which cross-fade seemingly in front of her face and behind her head, are projected from her psyche. As in many of Fotopoulos’s movies, the narrative is couched as a stream of consciousness. The drawings—most of them of body parts, strange animals, whiskers without a cat, a long-eared rabbit head cut off at the neck, a terrifying featureless face, and other less legible organic forms—evaporate before they can be fully grasped, as do the single words and phrases that pop onto the screen in varying sizes of white typeface, punctuated before they can accumulate into a complete sentence by the word “pause,” always placed, as if it were a stage direction, in parenthesis.
And, occasionally, we see a long shot of Alice I and Alice II superimposed on the close-ups of their respective faces. At one point Alice I slow-dances alone, and the undulation of her torso is among the most erotic images in cinema. Alice II is pregnant, which certainly would have taken Carroll aback. I wish Fotopoulos hadn’t tried so hard in the last ten minutes to reach a conclusion with texts that are foursquare on the meaning, unlike anything that came before. I had hoped that the last text on-screen would be “pause.” Instead, in the movie’s only bow to convention, it’s “The End.”
Alice in Wonderland screens Saturday, May 7, at 7 PM at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.
TRIBECA (THE NEIGHBORHOOD) has evolved so dramatically over the past fifty years—from nameless industrial district to second SoHo to celebrity nesting zone—that it was fitting, if entirely coincidental, that I chose to attend two documentaries about radical transformation in the tenth year of Tribeca (the film festival).
The first, Limelight, directed by Billy Corben, tells the tale of the rise and fall of New York’s club scene—retroactively embodied by ur–club kid/amateur murderer Michael Alig—through a pocket biography of Peter Gatien, the undisputed king of 1980s–90s Manhattan nightlife as owner-impresario of Limelight, Palladium, and Tunnel. A soft-spoken, deadpan Canadian, known for wearing an eyepatch to cover the eye he lost playing hockey as a teen, Gatien bought clubs in Miami and Atlanta in the ’70s before setting his sights on New York. Correctly noting that “the chrome-and-neon thing had been taken as far as it could go,” Gatien secured an unoccupied Gothic Revival church in the no-man’s-land between Chelsea and the Flatiron district and converted it into the most decadent club of the ’80s and early ’90s—Limelight. Dividing the formerly sacred site into different rooms with disparate vibes, Gatien hired club promoters to throw theme nights in the various spaces. Alig was one of his stars, having come to Limelight after “bankrupting all the other clubs in the city” with his extravagant party concepts.
Another key figure was the young Staten Island thug who went by the name Lord Michael and almost singlehandedly imported acid house, techno, and the new designer drug ecstasy from the nascent UK rave scene. Much like LSD, E (or X as it was then known) enjoyed several years of default legality due to governmental obliviousness before being classified as Schedule 1, and during this period Limelight served as a new kind of electric Kool-Aid acid test. (Literally: Ecstasy punch was a frequently served beverage in the club at the time.) This led to clubgoers from oil-and-water demographics—Alig-like club kids, established celebs, well-dressed trannies, and, from Lord Michael’s crowd, hooligan mooks from Brooklyn and Staten Island—to melt together in a giant, nightly love-in. “It was Caligula with music,” one observer recalls in the film. Alig, interviewed from prison and surprisingly clean-cut and sweet-natured, remembers a Limelight game called What’s My Line?, where several rails of different substances were carved out on a table and snorters had to guess which drug they’d just ingested. It was “degeneracy without negative consequences,” he sighs. Not for long.
The ecstasy era was also the crack era, and the gang-related street violence of the latter trade led to the election of former US Attorney and zero-tolerance law-and-order candidate Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Abetted by his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, Giuliani went on a crusade against drugs and deviance in the city, soon alighting on Gatien as the Mephistopheles of E, even though the all-business club owner rarely used substances and hardly even drank on the job. The rest of the film concerns Giuliani’s relentless pursuit of Gatien, the closing and reopening of Limelight, and an absurd trial where witnesses for the prosecution (informants, including the recently imprisoned murder suspect Alig) ended up discrediting not only the undercover cops assigned to the case but also each other. Gatien was acquitted of the drug-related charges but later pled guilty to tax evasion and ended up being deported to Canada in 2003. Corben effectively blends period club footage and news reports with talking-head interviews with Gatien, Alig, Lord Michael, and many others in a club-style “bar” illuminated by acid colors. Like Abel Ferrara’s 2008 doc Chelsea on the Rocks, about the last days of the famous bohemian hotel, Limelight is a paean to a lost New York that was sleazier and more dangerous—but also more fun. In a telling conclusion, it is revealed that the Limelight church is now a luxury minimall.
Focusing on a very different (though equally druggy) underground, French-born, New York–based Marie Losier offers the unique love story of Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV frontperson Genesis P-Orridge and his soulmate, arty former dominatrix Lady Jaye. Meeting in a New York dungeon in the early ’90s, the couple were married in 1993 and soon began to merge their identities, seeking “pandrogyny.” They dyed their hair platinum, underwent facial surgery and other operations (including getting breast implants on the same day), and blended their names and personae to the extent that Genesis speaks in what could be taken as the royal “we” (until you realize that s/he’s speaking for both of them). Shot over seven years in intimate circumstances, the film sutures together different film stocks and styles, with experimental interludes (some reminiscent of a low-budget Derek Jarman) linking the handheld 16-mm scenes.
This makes for a sweet, if bizarre, domestic tableau until, beyond tragically, Jaye dies of a seizure in 2007, about three-quarters of the way through the film. It’s a totally unexpected and uncalled-for moment, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho (1960) or the killing of the son in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). You can’t believe that anyone, not the viewers and certainly not the remaining subject, can go on. But Losier shows Genesis gamely surviving, he/r complete immersion in Jaye’s identity ironically enabling he/r to maintain a measure of positivity. Many people say that their deceased loved ones are “still with us,” but Genesis’s unshakable belief that this is true of Jaye is terribly convincing—and moving. “Reality is just stuff,” Genesis concludes while sitting in front of a sampling keyboard. A lifelong acolyte of the cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, both of whom s/he befriended, Genesis realizes that physical life is just a sample source for endless remixes. This allows he/r to approach the latest version—that of aging pandrogyne, widow/er, retired musician, and currently active artist-writer—as terrain at once familiar and strange.
If anything ties Gatien and Genesis together, it is their stoicism in the face of extreme reversals—an admirable, much-needed quality in these trying times.
Hartmut Bitomsky, Dust, 2007, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes.
THE RATHER WRITERLY GERMAN director Hartmut Bitomsky likes to quote Oulipian writer Raymond Queneau. A work of art, according to Queneau, needs a rules-based structure. If those rules remain invisible, then the unseen and paranoia-inducing regularities will prey on the mind. The audience need not know the creator’s purpose. Neither, then, do the participants in Bitomsky’s new film, who are earnest German housewives, factory workers, construction laborers, scientists, and intellectuals, all of them occupied or preoccupied with dust.
Bitomsky, who is currently working in grimy Berlin after a long stretch teaching cinema in sunny California, has created a work engineered to feast on the anxieties of tidy-minded Teutons. Dust is his meditative, polymorphous essay on the pulverized: that which remains formless, invasive, unprunable, and uncategorizable. Bitomsky’s dust is not mere meaningless bits of fluffy gray trash, but an itchily anal Freudian antisubstance that pours in through every crack in the German psyche.
Bitomsky never coaches his players; he simply sets up a camera and waits for them to do something unheimlich. They consistently oblige him. Most of the figures portrayed here are burdened with formidable academic learning and gleaming, ultraspecialized machinery. There are a few perky, lighthearted ones, such as the grinning female obsessive who collects lint balls and dust bunnies, categorizes them in fake Linnaean fashion, and preserves choice samples within solid plastic as a kind of “jewelry.” She’s clearly having a ball with her stark confrontation with the ineffable.
As for most of the film’s other women—crop-haired cleaning ladies, glum assembly workers, and dutiful, objective scientists devoid of cosmetics and nail polish—they all tote psychic burdens that would baffle Hitchcock. Locked in intimate combat with irrevocable forces of decay, these fading flowers are morosely resigned to the microfilth that besieges them; each softly falling mote of dust weighs on their souls like an anvil.
The queen among them is surely the museum staffer, who is fluent, heavy-lidded, conscientious, and yet touchingly disheveled in Berlin alterna-girl fashion. This punked-out functionary’s melancholy task is to remove the dust from medieval statuary. She is keenly aware, as she reveals to us, that the ancient, crumbling paint on the drying wood is itself just a kind of dust. The polluted air of modern Berlin and even her own human exhalations are integrating themselves into the very substance of Germany’s cultural heritage. She’s in a quiet, ruthless, unwinnable war of camel’s hair and damp Q-tips. It’s painful to see her postmodern penance at the feet of a crumbling icon whose original artisan probably finished in a week, put down his chisel, and went out for a beer.
There’s also an extensive tour of a paint factory, where plastic tubs of pulverized pigment would seem to offer a golden chance for some sticky, Disney-style polychromatic lyricism. That’s a temptation Bitomsky firmly resists: This rainbow factory is a whirring, clanking tomb, which breeds dust in fantastic profusion. There’s no getting away from the stuff, anywhere; it even haunts high-tech clean rooms where bunny-suited metaphysicians have to chase it down with sponges. Naturally the debris they pursue is commonly skin cells flaking off their own bodies. Ashes to ashes.
As the film rumbles on, spewing dense clouds of billowing particles, the scale methodically expands. Closets become echoing clean rooms, dead factories become exploding quarries, and quarries become old battlegrounds bedizened with toxic, fetus-wrecking spews of depleted uranium shells, which saw lavish use in Iraq and Kosovo. The eponymous Dust Bowl also takes its turn on the stage, where yesterday’s hapless Okies endured desiccating woes that make Katrina look like a cakewalk.
As a documentarist whose previous works pondered (among other subjects) bomber aircraft, road construction, and an aging movie studio, Bitomsky is known for his wry repurposing of found footage. In Dust, he’s outdone himself by finding some grainy reels literally eaten up with dust. These are writhing, spotty, and ontologically horrible, like some Man Ray experiment in cinematic autocannibalism.
In Oulipian fashion, Dust is a 35-mm film that tackles the smallest object that can be captured on film. As is pointed out in voice-over, film itself is merely colored micrograins haphazardly stuck to a frail plastic substrate. One hates to contemplate the inspired riffing Bitomsky might bring to digital bits, which are just like dust, only not even visible.
Dust “has its own life,” intones our narrator, who is a definite presence in many of the scenes, although nameless and persistently invisible. This sardonic, gravelly character becomes quite sinister when, still invisible to us, he slyly infiltrates a woman’s home to interrogate her as she twitchily vacuums the upholstery.
Rather than working itself up to a Wagnerian crescendo, the film slows in its closing moments. Dust is finally overwhelmed by its own fine, choking substance, and loses its ability to breathe. One section near the end is downright pedantic, although its topic, the cosmic physics of dust during planet formation, ought to glitter with Carl Sagan–like pop-sci brio. Instead, hapless astrophysicists, trying to get dust to adhere and cohere, find themselves puzzled and frustrated.
Dust is a world of true grit—even our stellar aspirations are grit. We’re compounded of stardust, which, under Bitomsky’s microscope, looks as glumly unpromising as an East German Trabant. Under this film’s shrouded skies—a leaden miasma of coal exhaust, factory smokestacks, and the wind-lofted grains of the perpetually stricken Sahara—we can no longer aspire, or even respire. Our feet are still firmly in the gutter, but the stars are denied us, these days.
Dust plays at the REDCAT in Los Angeles on Monday, May 2, 2011. This essay originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Artforum.