INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
This year’s 65th anniversary Festival de Cannes provided the only logical answer to one of the persistent questions in any veteran journalist’s go-to kit: How can Cannes get any worse? Festival-wise, we have a rough idea of what we’re in for under the decade-long reign of Thierry Frémaux: a parade of (mainly) American and French stars on the red carpet in films that have no business being at festivals to begin with; an old boys’ club of established Cannes favourites competing for prizes; a horrible jury, led by a megalomaniacal President and staffed by an assortment of actresses and marginal film personalities, that will do their best to give said prestigious prizes to the most undeserving films in the Competition, e.g., those that “touch them” to the greatest degree; sidebars likewise infected by the most banal tendencies in contemporary cinema. Yes, this all happened during Cannes 2012, but what made it worse than ever was the weather. Combine 12 days of sleep-deprived, stress-ridden yeoman’s work with periodic wind and rainstorms, and, to paraphrase Robert Cray, the forecast called for pain.
There is thus a real-world cause for the lack of sunshine in this piece, and in all honesty, I’m sure there were worse Cannes festivals, but I can’t remember one that was so damned boring, and evidenced quite the excruciating uniformity of taste as the 2012 edition. (No lux post this tenebras.) Yes, there were left-field standouts, and these directors will receive further exegesis in these pages, namely Léos Carax (who made by far and away his funniest film with the clear Competition stand-out Holy Motors), Carlos Reygadas, and to a certain extent Abbas Kiarostami’s whazzit (though most of Like Someone in Love certainly qualifies as boring). But by and large both in and out of Competition, the Cannes selectors—in a decision validated by the jury of No-No-Nanni and the Nanettes—advanced the idea of a safe cinema, one for overly starched tuxedo-wearing bourgeoise to easily fellate. (In Un Certain Regard, Pablo Trapero reinforced this Manny Farber-like theme by actually presenting a film called White Elephant.) Even the better-regarded Quinzaine was more of a snooze-fest under new chief Edouard Waintrop than the last two years; say what you want about Frédéric Boyer, at least the guy had the guts to fail spectacularly.
I’ve written elsewhere about the reasons why major film festivals tend towards the mean, but midway through Cannes, another realization set in that could help explain this tendency: that the Festival de Cannes—in all sections—is programmed by French men. (As much discussed in the French press, there were no films directed this year by women in the Competition.) But to unpack that seemingly xenophobic charge: all film festivals (and cultural apparatuses, whether it’s in the visual arts, film magazines, opera, theatre etc.) benefit from diversity, not just in terms of gender, but also nationality. Cannes is not the only festival to have its entire program chosen by nationals; the same essentially holds true for the bulk of the major (and many minor) film festivals in the world, from Berlin to Venice to Pusan to Karlovy Vary to Buenos Aires and so on and so forth. Along with issues of domestic politics and pressures, what we might call a “national taste” explains why, to a certain extent, all are failures. (It would be worse if the French ran these film festivals as well, but now I’m just being nasty.)
Observers tend to devalue the fact that in Cannes’ storied history, as in every major festival with a history, nationality has always been in play—more so in the past when it was a kind of Olympics of cinema, with each Competition entry waving the flag if its home country, who even went so far as to nominate a film for Competition, which led to a different kind of awful. But now French nationality is even more intertwined with big business; not only are the French selecting the films, French sales agents are forcing their latest products on them (a staggering 15 films across the selections are courtesy of our friends at Wild Bunch), and French distributors have a heavy financial investment in the proceedings, especially in the Competition. Released in France the day of its Cannes debut, the prized first Friday, Jacques Audiard’s borderline ridiculous Rust and Bone attracted the staggering figure of over 600,000 admissions in its first week alone. And not to forget, Moretti gave five prizes to films represented by his French distributor, Le Pacte—including Post Tenebras Lux, the only one of three films that he claimed “divided the jury,” code for “films I hated and so should you, dumb-asses” (the others were Paradise: Love and Holy Motors, which clearly pale in comparison with the comic stylings of We Have a Pope ).
To write about films in this context is a challenge greater than the one posed by the typical Cannes conditions, aptly summarized by a condescending Reygadas in a wonderful interview in the New York Times: “You know, people here are tired, they’re paid to judge, and they think they have to judge before they feel.” Four days later after receiving Best Director, the always-modest auteur stated that he was “grateful to those who love the film, but also to those who hated it.” About a week later and no longer in France, I remain tired, am not being paid for my opinion, and feel less and less about the 50 or so films I saw during the festival, the bulk of which bored me to tears. (Heroically, I only fell asleep in 15 films, better than par for the course. For only one of them I will withhold judgment. I only slept during one of the films discussed below; take a guess which one.) And because I don’t love it—I prefer Mirror (1975), the Tarkovsky film that the cojones-thrusting director attempts to mimic—I guess I still hate Post Tenebras Lux, though my respect for it has grown. But I do have what might seem to be a blatantly obvious proposition: between two marginally comparable films, the funnier one always trumps the tedious one (e.g., give me Carax over Reygadas every day). I’ll attempt to argue this by taking sideways observations at a few of the festival’s highlights and lowlights. Italian films are boycotted. Sometimes it’s best to make a joke of it all and leave the typical criticism to others; I’m finding it too boring these days.
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Hong vs. Mungiu
Hong Sang-soo’s zoomarific In Another Country is itself about culture clash, in the form of how three somewhat similar characters called Anne (a delightful Isabelle Huppert x3, in the first part playing Claire Denis) is treated in her visit to a small Korean coastal town of Mohang by, among others, her past/current lovers, other women, and the local lifeguard who not only croons her a love song, but also, in the line of the festival, vows that if she swims, “I will protect you!” (recent Hong superstar Yu Jun-sang, hilarious and touching, but mostly hilarious). Isabelle Huppert reminds me of that old television commercial where the most non-absorbent substances imaginable are wiped away by a miracle cloth in an effortless swipe. The danger of unbridled Huppert, as witnessed in Berlin in Brillante Mendoza’s messy failure, Captive, is that she tends to control films rather than allowing herself to submit to a structure, turning almost any director’s work into an “Isabelle Huppert film.” Hong’s wonderful, breezy comedy sees the soju-swigging Huppert being fully integrated, if not being completely absorbed, into Hong’s masterful system, without the benefit of invisible late-night special effects. As in the town itself, there is always the threat of rain—“It’s raining,” one character tells Anne, after she has already asked for an umbrella, for which Anne is rewarded by a personal tour of the town—but it never pours.
Critics tend to mistakenly posit that Hong’s formal repetitions and musical variations within and between his films are an ouroboros-like comment on their own natures. Any foreigner who has ever been to Korea can realize the heightened realism inherent in Hong’s prototypical approach, the speech patterns, the repetition of banalities and small talk, the need for men and women to be as clear as possible in the most inconsequential exchanges, and letting loose when it matters (especially if soju is involved). Framed as a screenplay being written by a woman on the run from tax problems, In Another Country is ultimately another recent Hong film about masculinity told through a woman’s perspective (see also the end of Oki’s Movie ). The slight differences between the three parts show that, for example, with a foreigner, Korean men take only as much as they can get, and that even, if they play their cards right, foreign women can have the power. And, that sometimes the only thing that interferes with love is language. The same critics also tend to ask silly questions such as, “Is In Another Country the best of Hong’s recent films?” Who cares? That’s like trying to tell the difference in a blind taste test between bottles of Cass, Max, and Hite. Effortless products of an auteur’s will, Hong’s infinitely pleasurable films reside in another country; he’s too good for France.
From the liveliest to the most excruciatingly boring. Cristian Mungiu’zzzzz Beyond the Hills—a film dull right down to its nondescript title—also sees a woman entering a community foreign to her own, as the orphan Alina (co-Best Actress Cristina Flutur) returns from a work stay in Germany to Romania, attempting to convince her former orphanage friend (and former lover?), Voichita (co-Best Actress Cosmina Stratan), to leave the confines of her monastery and the control of an authoritarian priest. I cannot recall a film with such an unimaginative and tedious mise en scène, all the way up to and including the most wearisome exorcism ever committed to high-definition video. Beyond the Hills, which can generously be read as a parody of recent Romanian art films, downright pissed me off, from the first frame to (especially) the last. It’s unnecessarily bloated on all levels—including the priest’s beard—but mostly that of its own self-importance. (It does have one good scene, where a repenting Alina is read an endless list of all possible sins, and dutifully checks them off until she realizes the futility of keeping track. I’d rather have watched two hours of that.) No surprise, then, two Nannis for (Best Scenarist) Mungiu, and the co-champ of the Screen Daily poll, which for some reason the English-speaking world sees as a sign of quality.
Seidl vs. Haneke
The stranger-in-a-strange-land template was also adopted by Ulrich Seidl, whose Paradise: Love (the first installment in a trilogy) focuses on Teresa (a very game Margarethe Tiesl), a plump middle-age Austrian vacationing on a “comfort safari” to always-sunny Kenya, the “Hakuna Matata” and “Jambo” Swahili-speaking land of zebra-costumed troubadours, wild monkeys, and “beach boys.” This is no mere seaside vacation: Seidl’s clash of cultures creates a fertile dramatic and thematic object, as Teresa is at the same time a signifier of the historic oppressor (in a national sense, as a white colonizer) and the oppressed (in the universal sense, as a woman). Seidl’s lead—to call her revolting or fat is seriously an insult to femininity—starts off, like Kiarostami’s grandpa, looking for a “boyfriend experience,” and in her dealings with the Kenyan beach boys, she at first attempts to recolonize them sexually, hilariously attempting to instruct them in how to make love her way, tender and soft, not pawing like an animal. A fair part of the film is literally didactic, consisting of her constant verbal colonizing of the Kenyans through Austrian German lessons (which is why, of the many nationalities that will despise this film, French and Morettian included, the Germans will hate it the most, not least due to their lack of a sense of humour).
The natives, however, are restless, and Seidl’s naïve heroine repeatedly wills herself to see her situation as anything but a pure economic exchange: what she’s involved in is prostitution, clear and simple, a relationship Seidl clarifies with each man’s increasing financial demands. Paradise: Love is Seidl’s most straightforward comedy, which, more so than Hong, makes sublime use of the foreign tourist’s quandary that in the Third World the locals are simply out to exploit the visitors, who they see as cash cows, figuratively and literally. They are truly the big-game hunters. (The sight of the Kenyans standing on the beach, a few feet off the resort’s property, or circling on their motorbikes like hungry vultures outside the compound’s gate, typifies Seidl’s realist-based political correctness.) Teresa’s journey is her struggle to overcome denial, with her sexual relations assuming a repetitive, therapeutic quality; the tragedy in this is that even once she becomes most aware of her situation, her lover can’t deliver. “Don’t expect too much” is a good motto when approaching any film, and while Paradise: Love does feel slightly elongated, final judgment is reserved until all three parts are on display (Seidl’s original conception was to include all sections in one long film; the next two should unspool in Venice and Berlin). It was, however, a real missed opportunity that the red carpet DJ didn’t spin Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” during the Seidl march: “Jambo! Jambo!”
Austria’s now two-time Palme-winner Michael Haneke, however, stays at home. In Paris. On a set built to resemble his parents’ apartment. Amour never strays outdoors, a metaphor for the complete control the director exercises over his actors and his audience. It’s far more interesting to ponder why people love the dishonest Amour than to actually think about the material of the film itself, a clinical, sterile look at the last days of an elderly couple’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva) relationship after she is felled by a stroke. To read the glowing reviews and see the ceremonial love-fest, one would think that torture is a Haneke trait of the past, and the white-bearded Austrian has turned into a cuddly humanist Haneke bear, if not Father Christmas incarnate. But he ain’t fooling me; his contempt for humanity has only been dialed down a number of degrees. Rather than impastoing his usual sadism, he infuses it, like leaves into a fine cup of high tea, the better to hoodwink his intended audience by foregoing any alienation effect (who among us hasn’t gone through such a situation, or imagines it in their future?). A tender portrait of elderly sacrifice this is not; the title Amour, chosen, so the story goes, by Trintignant, is another trick, as the true love exhibited in the film is Trintignant’s character for himself. Basta.
Cronenberg(s) vs. Dolan
As explicated elsewhere, with Cosmopolis David Cronenberg decided to make a laugh-out-loud comedy, and not many people got it. But the greater gag came from his son, Brandon, who for whatever reason—genetics? funding? cojones?—decided to devote his first feature and a lot of Canadian money to a “near future” storyline about the (literal) virus of celebrity culture that his father would have tackled when he was still sporting his thick, plastic-rimmed glasses. And for whatever reason someone, whose first language is not English, decided to put it in Un Certain Regard. Truly the definition of stay-at-home, the drawn-out short film Antiviral was, Canadian daily press excluded, generally regarded as a failure, if not something of an embarrassment—why the hell would anyone want to remix the films of their father? But I suppose there are worse fathers (Costa-Gavras…CHECK!…does Ken Loach have children?; maybe the only good one is Dario Argento, though I’m sad to report Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D is not nearly amusing enough to consider here). Personally, I found the whole vampiric happening that is Antiviral, with its blanched backgrounds and gleefully incoherent plotting (I lost track of the explanatory speeches), rather amusing and not without merit; featuring the most needle penetrations ever depicted onscreen—needles rumoured to be David’s greatest fetish—Antiviral is the kind of comical cinéma de papa I’d readily have watched as a kid in the ’80s after midnight on Civic TV.
A transvestite Québécois gloss on The Way We Were (1973), Laurence Anyways may be Xavier Dolan’s best film—which is damning with faint praise indeed. Being a Xavier Dolan film, Laurence Anyways is of course at most times a chore, but I wouldn’t say it’s boring: Dolan’s problem may be excess, but for me the length was not a concern, as its 160 (!) minutes went by rather smoothly. It’s inarguable that the running time isn’t necessary to tell the story that he chooses, which perhaps is only an historical epic in the director’s mind (and I suspect this is the main reason the film was left out of Competition); more painful was the frontal cortex onslaught of horrendous ’80s fashion—a combination of period detail and projected poor taste from a guy who wasn’t yet born during the period of the film (and perhaps imagines himself as the offspring of the film’s leads). The frocks find their parallel in the Un Certain Regard-awarded performance of Suzanne Clément, who, unlike the modulated Melvil Poupaud (surprisingly unassuming as a character who on paper could easily have been played much broader), seems to have been directed by Dolan into assuming a state of heightened Streisand shrewishness. Admittedly, some of this barbarousness plays in to the Trois-Rivières thematics of (anti)normality, but this is far from illustrating, as Dolan notes in the film’s similarly garish, unintentionally funny press book, that fashion is the “forgotten child” of the seven arts. (He also states that the inspiration for the film’s “rhythm and ambition” was Titanic .) If only Dolan would find a sense of humour about himself.
Vinterberg vs. Salles
A complete joke of a film, The Hunt is a noxious, single-minded failure that desires to drill home the dangers of groupthink posed by a small Danish community (any Danish community? any community?) that ostracizes one of its beloved citizens (Mads Mikkelsen, Nanni winner for Best Actor) after he’s falsely accused of showing his willy to one, then all, of the hamlet’s preteens. Because Danish society is corrupt. Every scene is telegraphed, and exists to stack up the odds against poor Mads, who deserves better than this; overnight he’s a serial pedophile. Thomas Vinterberg’s “comeback” amounts to no less than emotional porn, as Vinterberg twists his screws to lead viewers to a sadistic identification with the oppressed Mads, up to the point that we’re supposed to cheer when his hardened shell at last cracks, and he head-butts a Danish oaf in the supermarket (one that, quite implausibly, tried to ban him from its premises, even after he has been cleared of all charges). But maybe the last straw was the killing of his dog. About the only calamity that does not befall poor Mads is anal rape, though maybe Vinterberg left that on the cutting-room floor, as we never do see what happens to Mads when he’s in prison awaiting trial. There’s a fine line between depicting injustice and perpetrating it—Don Siegel, for one, knew how to walk this tightrope; Vinterberg should just quit before he does more damage. I’d rather watch a rerun of Law and Order SVU.
A guaranteed bore, Walter Salles’ On the Road is a film I did not see, have no interest in seeing, and will never see. I assume there are some thematic similarities to other films in the festival, for it involves some guys going “on the road,” which likely means being outcast from their community, meeting wacky characters, and being exposed to a culture alien from their own. Maybe they even hit the beach. Likely there are illegal drugs involved, which tend to provide some basis for a comedy of misunderstanding, but I doubt there is any soju consumed. Finally, there was also a rumour going around that the Canadian distributor expected me to pay $2,000 to attend the screening, a figure I felt was slightly excessive. And I didn’t feel like standing in line in the rain.