A TUMULTUOUS CANNES FILM FESTIVAL, marked by constant downpours and frequent boos, ended with the restoration of order. For the most part, the decisions of the Nanni Moretti–led jury were a vindication of recent history and the critical consensus. The Palme d’Or went to Amour, by Michael Haneke, who won the top prize in 2009 for his previous film, The White Ribbon. Cristian Mungiu, a Palme laureate in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, took two prizes (screenplay and actress, split between the two leads) for Beyond the Hills. (The Haneke and Mungiu films were also the joint leaders of Screen International’s annual critics’ poll.) Matteo Garrone’s Reality won the runner-up Grand Prix, the same prize he picked up in 2008 for Gomorrah. And Ken Loach, who inexplicably holds the record for number of films in the Cannes competition, took the third-place Prix du Jury for The Angel’s Share. This is a festival that, through thick and thin, stands behind its chosen auteurs, but at times like this, the Cannes ecosystem feels more like an echo chamber.
In theory Cannes is a balancing act, an attempt to level the playing field. Installed in the firmament of the competition, veteran auteurs and next big things, movie stars and relative nobodys, get to walk the same red carpet in “holy worship of a common transcendent reality,” as André Bazin once put it. (Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, this year’s winner of the Camera d’Or for first film, called Cannes “the temple.”) In practice—with some notable exceptions, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s surprise Palme d’Or in 2010—the hothouse atmosphere of the festival, in bringing certain fault lines to the fore, tends to emphasize the divisions within the art-cinema economy, and the Moretti verdict only underscored the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Cannes can be—depending on your mood, the film in question, deadline pressures, the previous night’s amount of alcohol or sleep, the behavior of the mobs thronging the bottleneck entrances of each screening—the most exhilarating or the most unpleasant place to see movies. An arena of snap judgments, rife with the dangers of groupthink and contrarianism, it is also a particularly challenging environment for the practice of criticism, or whatever it is we zombiefied masses think we are doing when we stagger out of a screening and attempt immediately to offer a coherent opinion, never mind an insight, preferably one that can be expressed in 140 characters or less. It doesn’t help that Cannes’s sense of its own importance tends to infect its attendees, who feel they are part of something special, and are compelled to react with corresponding volume and vigor. Hence the fabled boos, especially loud and belligerent this year and seemingly directed at any film that did not instantly satisfy expectations or disclose its ultimate meaning within a split second of its conclusion.
In the surreal aquarium of Cannes, what sinks and what floats? More than once during the festival, I thought of Manny Farber’s classic 1962 manifesto “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” and especially his detailing of the former category: the would-be masterpiece, the self-aggrandizing work of self-conscious gravitas that thinks of “art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area.” Farber’s classifications don’t exactly apply today (nor were they ever meant to be all that strict), but he did nail the symptoms and traits of what we might broadly term the prestige movie. To a degree, most of this year’s official successes at Cannes fit his conception of artistic elephantiasis: They have legible, laudable, more or less humanist intentions; they draw praise for their obviously impeccable craftsmanship (“well-made” is a common epithet); and they leave little doubt about their streamlined, practically predigested meanings.
Beyond the Hills, which edges the Romanian predilection for farcical disaster procedural into a semiparodic house style, amounts to a single-minded proof of the deadly pieties of religion. Reality has a few thrilling passages of bravura filmmaking—as well as a fairly unsubtle point to hammer home about the vulgarity of Berlusconi’s Italy. Amour is at once the most elegantly wrought and the bluntest example of all, forcing us to face a fact of life rarely shown on screen with such directness or at such great length: the unbearable horror and pain of aging and dying, and of watching our loved ones do so.
Many have observed that Amour is Haneke’s most tender film. True, but I don’t think that precludes its also being his most seamlessly manipulative. The central impulse of Haneke’s work—to confront his audience with something they would rather not contemplate (or, as is often said, to discomfit or even punish them)—is not mitigated here so much as totalized, given ultimate and universal significance. To call the film (which often feels like it was made for the express purpose of winning a Palme d’Or) undeniably affecting is also to acknowledge its screw-turning, Haneke-like aspect. How could anyone fail to be moved by this subject, or by Jean-Louis Trintignant, eighty-one, and Emmanuelle Riva, eighty-four, offering up their fragile bodies as well as the auras of their younger selves? Rarely has Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that a film is a documentary of its actors been so vividly demonstrated. Watching Riva and Trintignant make their way to the podium at the awards ceremony Sunday night, I found myself no less touched, perhaps even more so, than while watching Amour.
Leos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Denis Lavant.
I should clarify that I don’t especially dislike most of the major prizewinners (the exception being Loach’s pointless trifle). What’s objectionable is the amount of critical adulation that these eminently respectable films hog at the expense of those whose ambitions are out of line, whether for being too modest or too wild or too unclearly stated. This year, for instance, relative miniaturists like Hong Sang-soo (in competition with In Another Country) and Wes Anderson (who opened the festival with Moonrise Kingdom) barely made a dent in the Cannes consciousness. Both, as it happens, are filmmakers often accused of making the same film over and over—a reductive charge that came up again during the festival—and to stick for a moment with Farber’s schema, it’s no surprise that, when it came to the prizes, Hong’s and Anderson’s termitelike tendencies stood little chance against the stampede of the white elephants.
But for a Cannes audience of critics, eager to formulate a retweetable aperçu, there is no worse offense than opacity, because really, how many ways can you say “WTF”? The most indignant hooting of the festival was reserved for Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux and Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, a pair of films defined by, among other things, their moment-to-moment unpredictability. I won’t make great claims for either—both demand a second viewing—but even on a first encounter, both films were bolder, more sensuous and mysterious, more willing to challenge narrative conventions than almost anything else in competition. Reygadas’s directing prize was the jury’s one concession to risk taking. Kiarostami left with nothing; ditto Hong, Anderson, and David Cronenberg, whose dense, heady Don DeLillo adaptation, Cosmopolis, was summarily dismissed by the press once the Robert Pattinson frenzy subsided.
But the most egregious jury snub, no question, was for Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which single-handedly enlivened a weak competition and was met with both sustained cheers and jeers. A cinephilic collective dream on the order of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, the year’s other great movie so far, Holy Motors is a film about life as cinema and cinema as life, about the blurred lines between acting and being, a work that transcends pastiche to summon never-before-seen images and real depths of feeling. Matching a philosophically resonant conceit about play-acting—somewhere between commedia dell’arte and the eerie reenactments of Tom McCarthy’s great novel Remainder—to the remarkable shape-shifting abilities of its lead actor Denis Lavant, it’s a film with an all but boundless capacity to surprise and delight, one I can’t wait to revisit.
All told, it was hard not to read the jury’s conclusions as polemical. In picking Haneke’s Amour over Carax’s amour fou, Moretti and company opted for an allegory of the death of the art film (and its audience) over a glimpse of its possible future reanimation. Maybe this isn’t such a bad fate for Carax, a cinéaste maudit in his youth and clearly no more assimilable in middle age. He gave no interviews in Cannes and, at his press conference, was asked one inane question after another about the meaning of his film and the wisdom of making something so strange for a moviegoing public. With one terse, haunting response he captured the moribund gloom of this year’s festival: “I don’t know who is the public. All I know is it’s a bunch of people who will be dead very soon.”
The 65th Cannes Film Festival ran May 16–27, 2012.
MANAGING TO AVOID most of the operatic thunderstorm that hit Cannes for several hours this afternoon, I emerged from my apartment to walk in the rain for the last time to the Palais des Festivals—the bunkerlike compound that comprises the Grand Théâtre Lumière and the Salle Debussy—around 6:30 PM to watch a live transmission of the awards ceremony. Guests of the closing festivities had the pleasure of walking the red carpet to the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” (Who are these DJs? “Sunday Bloody Sunday” played soon after.)
Fittingly, the dampest Cannes in decades ended with a particularly dull closing ceremony (no outrageous behavior, no big upsets). Hosted by Bérénice Bejo, who starred in last year’s festival hit The Artist, the seven palmarès went to six different films. Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, a bleak, powerful Romanian Orthodox monastery–set tale about a friendship between two young women who grew up in the same orphanage, won Best Screenplay. In one of the night’s only surprises, the two leads of Mungiu’s project—Cosmina Stratan, who plays novitiate Voichita, and Cristina Flutur, as Alina, who rages at (and feels betrayed by) Voichita’s love of God—shared the Best Actress prize. Beyond the Hills marks the film debut for both women; in her remarks, Flutur very graciously thanked “everyone who has had an opinion about [the movie].”
That line got a laugh from the journalists assembled in the Debussy, all of whom had been doing nothing but judging and hyperbolizing for the past week and a half. As for my own extolling, I would have loved to see an award extended to Holy Motors, but had to settle for that film’s angelic presence, Kylie Minogue, onstage merely as a copresenter of the Best Short Film award—a task she shared with Belgian director Jean-Pierre Dardenne, in the evening’s only delightful incongruity. But I was certainly happy that the Palme d’Or was given to Michael Haneke’s Amour, my second-favorite title in the festival. Haneke, now a two-time Palme d’Or winner, led his actress Emmanuelle Riva up to the stage; they were joined from the wings by Jean-Louis Trintignant. After all three spoke movingly, Haneke was instructed by Adrien Brody, who presented the top prize to the director with Audrey Tautou, where he needed to stand to get his picture taken. It was the evening’s first—and the festival’s last—objectionable incongruity.
UNSPOOLING FOR THE PRESS THIS MORNING, Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, is the second of two page-to-screen transfers of high-profile American novels playing in competition. Though not as dopey as the first—Walter Salles’s version of On the Road, which screened on Wednesday—Cronenberg’s latest is uncharacteristically inert (especially when compared with his earlier inspired adaptations, 1991’s Naked Lunch and 1996’s Crash). Further to the film’s detriment, the white stretch limousine that serves as a steel-and-metal cocoon for billionaire financier Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he crosses New York to get a haircut in Cosmopolis immediately recalls the vehicle that figures so prominently in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. When Pattinson’s character wonders aloud, early in the film, “Where do all these limos spend the night?” it was impossible not to think of Carax’s answer.
The responses that Cronenberg—witty (sometimes satisfyingly barbed), thoughtful, and eloquent—gave at his press conference proved more satisfying than his film. “To me, the essence of cinema is a person, a face, speaking,” the director noted (a credo especially borne out in his previous film, last year’s masterful A Dangerous Method). Pattinson’s pretty face certainly does a lot of yakking in Cosmopolis, most of it registering as an affectless drone. Before the panel was assembled, moderator Henri Behar made this request: “Let’s try and keep vampires and bats out of the conversation.” The journos obliged, asking Pattinson not about the Twilight series but whether he, as someone who has talked openly about “the difficulties of living life in public,” saw similarities between himself and his character. Pattinson politely considered the query before becoming frustrated with himself: “I’m not the best self-analyst. I can’t seem to consciously bring anything from my life into my work. [. . .] Why can’t I answer the question—this is so annoying!” Cronenberg, who had earlier said of his star, “I always had the feeling he had never seen any of my movies,” gallantly came to the actor’s aid: “The reason you can’t answer the question is because it’s a flawed question.”
“IT’S A CRAZY MOVIE. The characters are all over the place. Zac is in his underwear for half the movie—I was distracted.” This précis of Lee Daniels’s competition entry The Paperboy—and the costuming of Zac Efron—was provided by Macy Gray, one of the film’s stars, at the press conference immediately following the 8:30 AM screening. Many leaving the Grand Théâtre Lumière would not have disputed the singer-actress’s statements (one British journalist behind me made comparisons to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, the succès de scandale at Cannes in 2003). Yet Gray meant her words as praise, concluding her assessment with: “So it’s an awesome movie.”
Daniels, a producer turned director, was last at the festival with Precious (2009), his adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, which screened in Un Certain Regard. The Paperboy is another page-to-screen transfer, based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 swampy noir, set in Florida in the late 1960s. Pedro Almodóvar was once interested in helming this tale of a death-row inmate (played by John Cusack), the sexed-up bottle blond who loves him (Nicole Kidman), and a journalist (Matthew McConaughey) and his kid brother (Efron) who try to help them both. I can’t imagine how the politely stylized and mildly risky Spanish director would have approached the milieu—what Gray, as a maid and the film’s narrator, describes in voice-over as “a nasty white trash swamp.” But Daniels imbues the film with his signature florid insanity, amply evident in his first film, 2005’s Shadowboxer, in which Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. play not just stepmother and stepson but also lovers and fellow assassins.
Gray wasn’t exaggerating about how often we see Efron in his tighty-whities; press-conference moderator Henri Behar asked the young actor if he was “uncomfortable” with being so “determinedly eroticized.” Efron’s response typified most of the vague, anodyne responses—and tortured metaphors—of the cast (save for Gray): “I think it’s like life; this character was learning the ways of the world.” But Daniels took umbrage at the choice of adjective: “Eroticized? Eroticized? He’s good-looking. The camera can’t help but love him. And I’m gay!”
So, too, is McConaughey’s character, Ward James. Though I haven’t read the source novel, I’m fairly certain that Ward’s sexuality and his particular carnal appetite—bottoming to black men who hog-tie and beat him to a pulp—is solely the intervention of Daniels (who coscripted with Dexter). Of his closeted character, McConaughey said he “was never carrying a moral on my shoulder” but instead “hanging my hat on the architecture of reality.” After more nonsensical, hazy talk from the performers about “giv[ing] over to something” and “facing our fears,” Gray offered the most precise anecdote about preparing for The Paperboy: “Even when you go to the bathroom, you pee like your character.”
Leos Carax, Holy Motors, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Edith Scob.
“I DON’T KNOW if there is a French translation for bonkers . . . ,” a British reporter opened her question to Leos Carax at today’s press conference for Holy Motors, which screened last night for the press to thunderous applause. (I can’t recall a film ever being received so rapturously at Cannes.) Part of this enthusiasm may have been simple recognition of the fact that the auteur had finally completed a film after a long hiatus: Holy Motors is Carax’s first feature since 1999’s Pola X (he is best known for his 1991 film maudit, The Lovers on the Bridge). But it was also a display of gratitude for being so thoroughly transported by such an intensely personal, formally virtuosic work.
Operating on the logic of dreams and emotions, Holy Motors—or rather, the experience of watching it—is nearly impossible to summarize. Carax himself, clad in pajamas, appears in the film’s opening scenes, walking through a corridor that leads to a theater. That prologue segues to Denis Lavant—the director’s longtime collaborator—playing a man named Oscar who inhabits eleven different characters (“In my contract, there were ten,” the sinewy, simian actor noted at the press conference), including an assassin, a performer who rehearses a motion-capture sex scene, and a feral leprechaun who is cradled while naked (and with an erection) in the lap of Eva Mendes. Oscar is driven from appointment to appointment in Paris in a white-stretch limo by the soignée Celine (Edith Scob); not on his itinerary is an unplanned reunion on the roof of the abandoned Samaritaine department store with a woman played by Kylie Minogue. When the pop goddess sings “Who Were We?,” a number cowritten by Carax, Holy Motors soars, the song’s melancholy and remorse paradoxically transformed into uplift. (“I stripped myself of being Kylie [. . .] to pretty much be a blank canvas for Leos,” Minogue said—a strategy that worked magnificently.) Oscar returns to his family—two bonobo monkeys—and parked limousines converse with one another.
Literal-minded journalists demanded to know what it all “meant,” but Carax refused, for the most part, to humor them. To the reporter who asked “what the scene with Eva Mendes was about,” he replied, “How would I know?” The director proferred a few evocative definitions, describing cinema as “a beautiful island with a cemetery” and the general moviegoing public as “a bunch of people who will be dead soon.” Later, Carax did provide something of a log line: “This is a film about a man and the experience of being alive”—a perfect summation of an unclassifiable, expansive, breathtaking movie.
A FEW YEARS AGO, a French friend introduced me to an invaluable word: cinephage, or one who indiscriminately consumes—and is consumed by—the movies. Rodney Ascher’s dense yet nimble cine-essay Room 237, which screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight, highlights the results of gorging on and being consumed by one movie in particular: Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterwork The Shining (1980). Five obsessive experts on Kubrick’s film spin out their theories at length (they are heard but never seen), including journalist Bill Blakemore, who declares that The Shining takes on nothing less than “the nightmare of history.” Specifically, Blakemore believes Kubrick is addressing the slaughter of American Indians, proving his thesis by pointing out, among other clues, the prominent placement of cans of Calumet baking powder with its Indian-head logo. Ascher illustrates his fixated interlocutors’ ideas with scenes not just from The Shining (sometimes run in slo-mo, occasionally backward) but other Kubrick works (2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut feature prominently). Blakemore proves to be Room 237’s most persuasive speaker; least convincing (and most unhinged) is Jay Weidner, who insists that The Shining serves as Kubrick’s acknowledgment of his involvement in faking the Apollo 11 moon-landing photos.
Another “nightmare of history”—the Pinochet regime—is the focus of Pablo Larraín’s superb No, also screening in the Directors’ Fortnight. The final installment (following 2008’s Tony Manero and 2010’s Post Mortem) in Larraín’s trilogy on the Chilean dictator, No is set in 1988, when Pinochet, bowing to international pressure, called for a referendum to determine whether he could extend his rule for another eight years. Those who want the tyrant gone approach advertising executive René (Gael García Bernal, in his finest performance) to oversee the “No” campaign spots, allotted only fifteen minutes of airtime on TV (the “Sí” ads take up the remaining twenty-three-plus hours). René, the son of a political dissident—and a composite of the men involved in the actual “No” campaign—uses his savvy in peddling soda, microwaves, and soap operas to craft anti-Pinochet spots filled not with footage of brutality and torture but with rainbows, jingles, anthems, and mimes. Larraín’s re-creations of these incongruously exhilarating (I haven’t been able to get the chant “Chile, la alegría ya viene” out my head) ads are intercut with the originals themselves. That they were instrumental in leading to democratic elections in 1989 after sixteen years of oppression proved one of the most unlikely ways that a revolution could be televised.
Abbas Kiarostami, Like Someone in Love, 2012, color film in 35 mm. Production stills. Left: Takashi and Akiko (Tadashi Okuno and Rin Takanashi). Right: Akiko (Rin Takanashi).
THE RELENTLESSLY CRUMMY WEATHER HERE—this has been by far the coldest, grayest, windiest, and wettest Cannes of recent memory—led to a near international incident last night outside the Salle Debussy, where many in the press corps had waited up to an hour in a downpour for Abbas Kiarostami’s latest Palme d’Or contender, Like Someone in Love. When the scanning of badges required for entrance (and dryness) halted momentarily, multilingual vulgarities and enraged commands erupted, all directed at the khaki-suited guards.
Sodden, grumpy journos may not have been the ideal audience for Kiarostami’s enigmatic film; some booed loudly (or worse, whistled) as the closing credits started to roll. A companion piece of sorts to the Iranian director’s previous movie, the Tuscany-set Certified Copy (2010), his latest takes place in Tokyo; similar to its predecessor, Like Someone in Love concerns role-playing and mistaken identities. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is first heard—on a long cell-phone call with her boyfriend—in an upscale bar before actually being seen; a university student studying sociology and a part-time escort, she’s is dispatched to the home of a new client, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired sociology professor. (Known for his automobile-set long takes, Kiarostami stages one of his greatest during Akiko’s long taxi ride to Takashi’s house.) The elderly scholar, possessing a kind mien and walruslike mustache, has prepared a special supper for his guest, who slips into his bed naked and promptly falls asleep. Dropping her off at school the next morning, Takashi meets Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), a possessive, violent mechanic. Noriaki assumes the senior gentleman is her grandfather—a misconception that neither Takashi nor Akiko disabuses him of.
Ending menacingly, Like Someone in Love has the distinction of being the most unpredictable title to screen in competition so far. “I had no idea what was going to happen from scene to scene,” a somewhat exasperated New York–based colleague said in the Debussy foyer afterward. His comment should be interpreted as high praise: Unlike the bickering couple in Certified Copy—for which an exhaustingly histrionic Juliette Binoche was awarded Best Actress at Cannes—the mysterious central trio in Like Someone in Love never wear out their welcome.
THE TWO COMPETITION films that have screened so far on this uncharacteristically gloomy day have featured festival luminary Isabelle Huppert in unexpected places: in a supporting part and in South Korea. In Amour, her third collaboration with Michael Haneke, another Cannes perennial, Huppert plays Eva, the daughter of octogenarian parents, both retired music professors and still very much in love—a bond that’s tested as Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to care for Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she becomes increasingly debilitated. Huppert’s brief appearance in Amour is a rarity for the performer, who’s usually the fulcrum in all of her projects; that’s certainly the case in her first film with Haneke, The Piano Teacher (2001), for which she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the Huppert-led jury presented the Palme d’Or to the Austrian director for The White Ribbon in 2009.)
At the press conference for Amour, a surprisingly tender movie from a filmmaker usually associated with sadism, Huppert seemed content to defer to Trintignant and Riva, two titans of French cinema, even while contradicting them. Entering in a black leather jacket (surely donned to ward off the rainy chill during her earlier photo call), Huppert sat on the far right of the panel. She smiled slightly as Trintignant genially—but quite convincingly—said of Haneke, who was seated to his immediate left, “I’ve never met such a demanding director. [Working with him] is a very difficult task.” Queried later, Huppert demurred: “Well, I don’t think it’s all that difficult. [. . .] I like to watch myself in Michael Haneke’s films.” But in response to a Chilean reporter’s question whether all actors in Haneke’s films suffer, her response was swift and unequivocal: “No, it’s the spectators who suffer.”
Huppert may find pleasure in watching herself on-screen, but the townspeople of Mohang, South Korea, seem really knocked out by her beauty in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, the prolific director’s thirteenth film in sixteen years—and his first to be made with a non-Korean lead. Many of Hong’s signature touches are found in his latest—intricate narrative tissue links one droll episode to the next, surrogates stand in for the director himself, copious bottles of soju are consumed—yet In Another Country forgoes much of the mortification that defines his earlier works, focusing instead on the playfulness of the stories’ architecture. Huppert plays three different women named Anne, all of whom stay at the same tiny beachside hotel and meet the same lifeguard character. “I’m on my way to the unknown path,” the third Anne—a flighty recent divorcée—says in a text message to a friend who had introduced her to a revered monk. Huppert, playing the lead in triplicate, follows suit.
Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Love, 2012, color film in 35 mm, 120 minutes. Production still.
“I RETWEETED YOUR TWEET,” said an American reporter to a British colleague behind me in antsy press scrum this morning. In response to Ulrich Seidl’s Competition entry Paradise: Love, about a fifty-year-old Austrian woman named Teresa (played by Margarethe Tiesel) on a sex holiday in Kenya, the female UK correspondent had apparently typed, “It made me ashamed to be European.”
That analysis, even at fewer than 140 characters, may not have been the most sophisticated, but the film itself was hardly more complex. Vienna-based Seidl, an equal-opportunity misanthrope known for documentary-fiction hybrids that he has likened to “staged reality,” explores the not especially original question of who is exploiting whom. (For what it’s worth, Paradise: Love treats the topic more intelligently than Laurent Cantet’s similarly themed, Haiti-set Heading South from 2005.) As they waddle along the sand, Teresa and the other middle-aged, corpulent Austrian women she befriends on her vacation cackle among themselves over their racist remarks (they refer to the Kenyan men they meet as “beasts,” “shiny as bacon rind,” or “difficult to tell apart”). The young African beach vendors who sell tchotchkes and their bodies to white women—and who are played in Seidl’s film by nonprofessional actors with firsthand knowledge of the trade—charm these fleshy, pasty Frauen by making them feel desirable, a service that’s eventually followed by importunate demands for cash. And so Paradise: Love proceeds: a protracted cycle of mutual postcolonial debasement.
Another Palme d’Or contender, Matteo Garrone’s Reality, also highlighted sky-high BMI in the euro zone. Gregarious Neapolitan fishmonger and part-time scammer Luciano (Aniello Arena) is urged by his family—a clan that includes several fatties—to try out for Big Brother. After traveling to Rome to audition for the show at Cinecittà, Luciano becomes increasingly consumed with making the final cut. “I feel like I’ve seen that movie before,” a colleague observed on the Rue d’Antibes after the screening. Indeed, Reality recalls not only other satires about simpletons desperate for stardom, like Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), but also Erik Gandini’s 2009 documentary on the Italian obsession for stardom, Videocracy. Though Garrone’s project may not be sui generis, occasional sharp touches—such as the recurrence of a Grande Fratello alum who stirs crowds into a frenzy with his English tagline, “Never give up!”—enliven a sometimes monotonous comedy. If nothing else, the film mirrors the distorted reality I’ll be living in for the next ten days.
TO PARAPHRASE OSCAR WILDE, one must have a heart of stone to watch Jacques Audiard’s outrageous melodrama Rust and Bone without laughing; the Palme d’Or contender is just as ludicrous as its description suggests. Very loosely based on Craig Davidson’s short-story collection of the same name, the sixth film by Audiard, who was last in Competition with A Prophet (2009), stars Marion Cotillard as Stéphanie, a whale trainer in Antibes who becomes a double amputee after a freak accident at the marine mammal park where she works. (Is the whale that errantly lands on the platform where Stéphanie choreographs the massive sea creatures violently protesting against having to perform to Katy Perry’s “Firework”?) She is ministered to by Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a taurine bouncer she met at a club a few weeks prior to her calamity; he carries her in and out of the Mediterranean on his back. Their relationship deepens—so much so that Stéphanie, now fitted with prosthetic legs, becomes Ali’s manager at his amateur ultimate-fighting bouts. There’s more—including children and puppies and peril—and it’s all too much. But what do I know? Rust and Bone was received warmly, and I heard more than one journalist, besieged by the television reporters desperate for reactions at the end of every Competition press screening, declare, “C’est un film extraordinaire.”
The high-pitched hysteria continued with Lou Ye’s Mystery, which opens Un Certain Regard. Based on an online diary, Lou’s film—his first “official” production after running afoul of censors in his native China with 2006’s Summer Palace (the clandestinely shot Spring Fever was shown in Competition in 2009)—centers on a businessman, Yongzhao (Qin Hao), with a secret second family and multiple lovers. Mystery opens with a spectacular hit-and-run and follows with two head bludgeonings (one in slo-mo), slaps (some self-inflicted), shrieking, revenge rutting, crooked cops, and a spectral visitation. Speaking of the supernatural, I credit the publicist who insisted on seeing my badge as I entered the screening with having ESP: She dismissed me haughtily, surely sensing what my reaction to the film would be.
Left: Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, 2012, color film in Super 16, 94 minutes. Production still. Right: Poster for the sixty-fifth Cannes Film Festival.
CANNES, WHICH BEGAN ITS SIXTY-FIFTH EDITION TODAY, seems to be forever in the process of commemoration. Marilyn Monroe, who died fifty years ago, is the icon of this year’s proceedings; a photo of her blowing out a candle on a cake captures her, per a festival press release, “by surprise in an intimate moment where myth meets reality—a moving tribute to the anniversary of her passing, which coincides with the Festival anniversary.” Yet even the very recent past is eligible for celebratory remembrance: Among the titles being shown out of competition is Une Journée particulière (A Special Day), directed by festival president Gilles Jacob, who tracked thirty-four directors when they were at Cannes for its sixtieth year in 2007.
This enchantment with the past is reflected in the opening-night selection, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Set in 1965 in an island off the coast of New England, Anderson’s movie—a love story about two twelve-year-old misfits who run away—bears his signature fetishistic production design and retro talismans, such as Françoise Hardy 45s. Beyond manufacturing nostalgia, Cannes is also about the repetition of certain routines, some more pleasurable than others. (“The Cannes schedule is so impressed in the mind,” a colleague told me on the flight over—a comment I misheard as “a nightmare of the mind.”)
Part of this annual rite of spring is the press conference with the jury, led this year by Italian writer, director, and actor Nanni Moretti. Mostly a forum for banal questions from journalists around the world—many directed at Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose quiff nearly matched that of co-juror Ewan McGregor—the press conference did include a few queries about the exclusion of women directors from the Competition lineup, a shutout protested by the French feminist group La Barbe in a piece in Le Monde last Saturday. When juror Andrea Arnold—a British filmmaker whose debut and sophomore efforts, Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), both won the Jury Prize at Cannes—was asked by a London correspondent whether the festival had a responsibility to include distaff directors, she replied, “I would absolutely hate it if my film were selected because I was a woman.” After adding that “Cannes is a small pocket that represents the wider world”—that is, an industry with very few female directors to begin with—she hesitantly brought up a certain matter of decorum. “It was very interesting that the girls were introduced first,” Arnold said to moderator Henri Behar, in reference to the three other women jurors. His response may prompt a teach-in by La Barbe: “Well, I’m French.”
John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses, 2011, still from a color video, 94 minutes.
THE SECOND FILM FESTIVAL IN TORONTO, the Images Festival, which completed its twenty-fifth edition on April 21, was created as an alternative to the first: the Toronto International Film Festival, that September cine-glut (which is now the largest film festival in the world) whose mandate seems increasingly, relentlessly, to be about generating “Oscar buzz.” (To be fair, TIFF did add Wavelengths, a highly regarded sidebar devoted to avant-garde film and video, eleven years ago.) There are no red carpets at Images—“the largest festival in North America for experimental and independent moving image culture,” per its website—but there’s plenty of ambitious, adventurous programming, introduced by gracious, welcoming hosts. For its silver anniversary, Images presented eighty-eight film and video works of varying lengths from twenty-six countries; most screened at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall—a cozy, calm venue, if one not as memorable as the auditorium of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where I spent most of my time during my first trip to Images in 2009.
The opening-night film, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, like several of the feature-length titles on view, extends, complicates, and enriches the definition of documentary. This ruminant, time-toggling examination of migration from the Ghanaian-born British filmmaker interweaves archival footage of African, Caribbean, and South Asian immigrants arriving and settling in the UK in the 1960s with contemporary footage of mysterious figures in brightly hued parkas, their backs often turned to us, somewhere in Alaska. Though the juxtaposition of newcomers stepping off boats and planes fifty years ago with anonymous beings who appear to be trekking toward the edge of the world is always striking, The Nine Muses also impresses as a densely layered sound (and text) piece. Broken into chapters named after the Greek goddesses of the title, Akomfrah’s work incorporates readings from Homer, Shakespeare, the Bible, Beckett, Dante, and Nietzsche—and intertitles sourced from Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot. Though lofty, The Nine Muses is never grandiose, taking as its subject the primal notion of what constitutes home.
Much smaller in scale, Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s The Strawberry Tree also investigates home—specifically, its vanishing. Just a few weeks after Rapisarda Casanova completed shooting the residents of Juan Antonio, Cuba, in 2008, the fishing village was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The prologue of The Strawberry Tree, Rapisarda Casanova’s first film, focuses on four of Juan Antonio’s now displaced citizens good-naturedly joking with the director, their jovial mood darkening somewhat when they talk about all they have lost. This jocular ease with Rapisarda Casanova runs throughout the prehurricane footage, which immediately follows the brief introduction. Though he is never seen, the director is constantly addressed—and occasionally critiqued—as he captures the quotidian activities in the beachfront hamlet. “What a boring image of the old woman grinding coffee,” says the vieja preparing the brew. A loose, relaxed ethnography, The Strawberry Tree is as much a record of a (now eradicated) place as it is an open dialogue with its subjects.
Daily rituals in a vastly different climate are explored in Jacqueline Goss’s hypnotic doc/fiction hybrid The Observers. A portrait of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory in New Hampshire, Goss’s film is a study of isolation, monotony, empirical data, and merciless elements. Two women—filmmakers Dani Leventhal and Katya Gorker—“perform” as weather recorders, their days consisting of measuring wind speed and temperature, sit-ups, dental care, knot tying, and the occasional instrument-playing. Goss referred to Mount Washington as a “shrine to measurement” during the postscreening Q&A. The fastidious logging by the observatory’s employees may not tame or control that which will always control us, but it does help make sense of it.
Left: Foodgasm. Right: Artist Bruce LaBruce. (Photos: Nguyen Tan Hoang)
THE HALL WAS SET UP to cater to the trashy gay appetites of all who would trespass its borders over the three days in late April when “Camp/Anti-Camp,” a film festival–slash–academic conference–slash–performance orgy–slash–[fill in the blank] took over the Hebbel am Ufer 2 Theater, nestled on the banks of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin’s homey Kreuzberg district. Brushing past the obligatory beer bar, one was greeted with a live, functioning kitchen, courtesy of a duo calling itself Foodgasm (free chocolate muffins for all those willing to submit to a spanking). At the auditorium entrance, a book stall vended the sauciest and latest titles in theoretical faggotry, while at the rear of the room, just before the toilets, an alchemical “altar bar” had been installed, providing an array of dizzying intoxicants in exchange for a couple of coins, with a “no change given, change yourself” policy. (My substance of the week was Russian Cocaine: a lemon dipped in coffee grinds and sugar chased with a tall glass of vodka.)
Inside, several rows of phallic mini-cacti separated Jonathan Berger’s prissy white set from the audience. Seats had been removed and replaced with comfy body pillows, further enhancing the girlfrien’ gossip ambience. Douglas Crimp read to us from his new book, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, using Warhol as a kind of foil for the camp canon. “The incoherence of the discourse on camp is extraordinary,” Crimp said in the ensuing conversation with event co-organizer Marc Siegel, before going on to admit that he actually doesn’t know what camp is. If one thing could be agreed upon, it was that Susan Sontag was way off the mark. Neither Crimp nor Siegel could concede to the grand dame’s notion that doing camp is a means of putting authenticity in quotation marks. While no one went so far as to accuse Sontag’s famous 1964 essay of homophobia, Crimp came close when he stated: “She makes camp a knowingness about others in the eye of the beholder. Which is moralizing. That bothers me.” Perhaps camp can only be defined by its elusiveness. “I was interviewed earlier today, and they asked me why Flash Gordon was camp,” Crimp continued. “I remember when I was a child watching him on television, I just thought he was sexy.”
I wish I could tell you more about the opening night—especially the appearance by Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, which I’m so sad to have missed—but I got my mind blown halfway across the continent by Narcissister’s lithe and livid living sculpture performance. I’m not sure what it had to do with camp, but she did raise the bar for twenty-first-century performance art, dance, and feminism within the course of her forty-minute act of brainfuck ingenuity, which I would need an entire essay to describe.
Left: Narcissister. (Photo: HAU/Dorothea Tuch) Right: The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. (Photo: Nguyen Tan Hoang)
There is a tendency among scholars to become trapped by the very tools employed to investigate a problem—namely, the language that has evolved to accommodate such research, with its conceptual jargon and pronouncements perfumed with opacity. So it’s unsurprising that the one person bold enough to offer up a new definition of camp that weekend was an artist. “The whole goddamn world is now camp,” declared Bruce LaBruce, before launching into an ambitious list of several new categories that certainly exceed anything on Sontag’s radar, such as Classic Gay Camp (Mae West, Joan Crawford, the Catholic Church), Bad Gay Camp (Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), Good Straight Camp (Woody Allen’s dramas), Bad Straight Camp (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Black Swan, Adam Sandler movies), and Conservative Camp (Fox News, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney).
The strand tying each of the three nights together was an edition of Vaginal Davis’s talk show–cum–performance installation Speaking from the Diaphragm, first performed a few years back at P.S. 122 in New York. The Berlin edition was dedicated to the theme of “failuretics,” a field I happen to be an expert in, as lived experience would thus far suggest. So no big shock that I was invited as a guest on the last night of the show, where I was briefly interrogated by the infectious wonder that is V.D. before being shrimped (look it up online if you don’t know) by my hostess. Shoes and socks in hand, I was then rushed off the stage to make room for the grand finale: the debut of Davis’s new band Tenderloin (featuring Hidden Cameras frontman Joel Gibb on drums) followed by the first ever Berlin show (how?) of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.
Whether all this makes a case for camp or anti-camp as the “ideological white noise of the new millennium,” in the words of LaBruce, is for future historians of heresy and decadence to parse. But those of us fortunate enough to ride the wave of this three-day irruption of queer thought, naked flesh, and pretty colors are still stumbling around with dilated eye-deologies and mental boners. Only in Berlin, kids.
Marcel Lozinski, Tonia and Her Children, 2011, still from a color video, 57 minutes.
“THE XINGU WILL NEVER BE BOUGHT.” In recent months the Amazon’s Xingu River has been encroached upon by government development, but Megaron Txucarramãe, an important spokesperson for the Kayapó Indians, vowed his people wouldn’t leave their land. His speech preceded a São Paulo screening of Daniel Santiago’s Heart of Brazil (2011), a sweetly character-driven film in which two older men embark on a voyage they took fifty years prior into the Amazon. Heart played during the seventeenth It’s All True (IAT) documentary festival, which ran in four Brazilian cities. A scene between one of the men and an aged Kayapó chief, in which they note each other’s gray hairs before hugging in front of Xingu couples and children, proved the speaker’s point—people persist.
The festival’s eighty-odd-film selection abounded with present-day scenes of people discussing their pasts, attempting to heal the wounds inflicted via bygone governmental regimes. Throughout, politics are kept current by each film’s distinctly human narrative. The Polish Tonia and Her Children (2011) takes place entirely in an apartment study as a pair of siblings talk with the director Marcel Lozinski about their mother, a Jewish communist, who was imprisoned after World War II on espionage charges, leaving them in an orphanage. As they go through photographs and home movies, and read her letters out loud, they fight with each other and with themselves. The son confesses to changing or repressing memories because they’re too painful; the film ends when he refuses to recall any more of the past. Tonia traverses half a century of Polish history in fifty-seven minutes by showing adults articulating the ways in which it has shaped them.
The Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, recipient of an IAT early career retrospective, has been using film as a way to interrogate people for nearly fifty years. Moving from fiction to documentary at the same time he switched from film to TV, Coutinho began making news specials in the 1970s for Globo, the nation’s largest channel, through the program Globo Reporter. The “Gunman of Serra Talhada” and “Exu, a Tragedy in the Back Country” episodes screened during IAT, show towns overflowing with crimes that police refuse to investigate. “Six Days in Ouricouri” features field workers surviving a drought who return to town for a religious parade during which it rains—the entire episode illustrates faith in a power greater than themselves. The title and structure—six days, no more—indicate Coutinho’s consistently clinical approach to his on-screen subjects, which he would use throughout his filmmaking career: A person appears in front of the camera, addressing the interrogating observer behind it. The story becomes Coutinho’s distant yet developing relationship with his subjects as well as our own evolving relationships both with him and with them.
In 1964, the filmmaker visited a town where police had murdered a political activist; he started shooting a film but was interrupted by a military coup, which predicated Brazil’s ensuing takeover by a military dictatorship. In 1984, shortly before the regime ended, he returned and began the documentary Twenty Years Later, which IAT screened in a digital restoration. The film contrasts the black-and-white fragments with new color scenes and features the former actors, weathered, older, and separated from family members, but still surviving. The irreparable loss of time between the two bodies of film weighs heavily on the documentary and on each of its people, who address Coutinho frankly. Most poignant is Elizabeth Teixeira, the activist’s widow and the former film’s star, now a small, wrinkled woman searching for the children she abandoned when she fled authorities. The film concludes after Elizabeth meets her family again. Coutinho steps out from behind the camera to shake her hand. Forced into invisibility for much of her life, here she is recognized and respected as a human being.
A festival’s greatest joys are often its discoveries, and a retrospective of the work of Argentine Andrés Di Tella proved revelatory for me. Di Tella’s films open up multiple dialectics—group/individual, society/citizen, history/actuality—all of them cross-addressing each other within a live, evolving present. Montoneros, a Story (1995), for example, shows members of a guerrilla group during Argentina’s dictatorship interpreting their own stories—those left out of the newsreels—and describing how they trained themselves to commit violence against a violent state by seeing their victims as less than human, a process that led them to dehumanize their peers. Di Tella himself narrates The Television and I (2002), in which his search to discover all the Argentinean TV he missed while living abroad as a child becomes a consideration of his family’s own business of building televisions and other home appliances. More often than not he finds gaps in his family history, which become metaphors for gaps in communication between his father and his grandfather, himself and his father, as well as himself and his son.
Di Tella, like Coutinho, often creates conflict by putting himself in opposition with forces beyond his control. The struggle continues in his new film, Blows of the Axe (2011). The leading subject, Claudio Caldini, was an experimental filmmaker who left for India during the dictatorship and lived itinerantly after returning to Argentina until settling into a villa as its caretaker and lone resident. Each day he leaves the house with his 8-mm films in a mallet, as a voice-over tells of how “a man carries his work, his entire life, in a bag, on a train from Moreno to General Rodriguez.” He takes out the films to present them to Di Tellaboth projecting and reenacting themwhile insisting that the other filmmaker is recording his work but not defining him. “With film we want to show in images what images can’t show,” he tells Di Tella in the dark after a screening, adding, “and we try to say with words what words can’t say.” No matter how close the observer gets, Caldini refuses to be another’s character. As in other IAT films, one’s political situation influences one’s personality. While Caldini may seem cryptic, reticent, resistant, and at times even irritating, he is also free; for many who have lived under oppression, simply following your own will is an act of defiance.
The 17th It’s All True documentary festival ran March 22–April 1, 2012.
Shirley Clarke, The Connection, 1961, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.
There is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I’ve never made a documentary. There is no such trip. – Shirley Clarke
SHIRLEY CLARKE (1919–1997) spent most of her life trying to figure out movies and how to make them her way. A daughter of Park Avenue privilege who abandoned posh comforts, Clarke started out as a modern dancer—an undistinguished career that led her to make short films about dance in the 1950s. After several more experimental shorts on various subjects, she grew restless, becoming increasingly frustrated by the limits of the form. Before branching out to directing longer works, Clarke and her peers, including Jonas Mekas, began advocating for radical changes in American film, forming a loose collective dubbed the New American Cinema, which issued a manifesto indicting Hollywood movies.
But in her first feature, The Connection (1961), Clarke also had another target in mind: those in the burgeoning American cinema verité movement, such as Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker (former colleagues of Clarke’s), who believed that their style of “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking was an objective attempt to record the natural world. Clarke found this idea of neutrality ludicrous, and wanted to emphasize just how subjective the whole process is.
Based on Jack Gelber’s Obie-winning play-within-a-play of the same name produced by the Living Theatre in 1959 (which Clarke’s sister, the writer Elaine Dundy, then married to the critic Kenneth Tynan, had encouraged her to see), The Connection is a film-within-a-film: A doofus documentarian named Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is chronicling a multiracial group of smack addicts living in a squalid Manhattan loft. The junkies play jazz, nod out, and taunt Dunn and one another as they await their “connection,” a package of heroin to be delivered by Cowboy, played by Carl Lee. (Carl, the son of trailblazing African-American actor Canada Lee, and Clarke fell in love on set; their tumultuous, off-and-on relationship lasted until his death—supposedly of a heroin overdose—in 1986).
The pretense of the virtuous documentarian “capturing” reality is constantly ridiculed in The Connection, underscored by Clarke’s use of multiple swish pans, which give the illusion of an actual vérité project. Early in the film, Jim Dunn loftily claims an understanding of the methods of Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty. He bleats, “I’m just trying to make an honest human document,” pleading with the junkies to “just act naturally.” He cajoles and provokes them: “I gave Cowboy enough money to keep you high for a week. I give you what you want, and you give me what I want.” The addicts—and Dunn’s hip assistant director, J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Brown, in his movie debut)—are constantly reminding this ofay how bankrupt his “exchange” is. Toward the end, Cowboy berates Dunn: “Expect to learn anything by flirting with people? Whaddya think this is—a freak show?”
Though it had been a huge hit in Cannes, where it screened out of competition in May 1961, The Connection wouldn’t open in New York until more than a year later: October 3, 1962—which was also the day it closed, shut down by censors who had objected to the film’s use of the word shit as slang for “heroin” and a fleetingly glimpsed nudie magazine. The maddening experience did not deter Clarke, who continued to take on provocative subjects and radically blur the lines between fact and fiction in two other features from the ’60s: The Cool World (1964), about street gangs in Harlem, and the documentary Portrait of Jason (1967), showcasing a drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler whom Clarke filmed in her Chelsea Hotel apartment—and a movie that says more about race, class, and sexuality than just about any movie before or since.
A newly restored 35-mm print of The Connection, the first release of Milestone Films’ “Project Shirley,” opens May 4 at the IFC Center in New York.