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By Mark Peranson
Yeah, you’re thinking to yourself, where does our correspondent go now? Will he make an at-long-last about-face and christen the S.S. Frémaux with a bottle of Dom Perignon, to celebrate, after 13 years of puddling about in the shallow waters off the Côte d’Azur, its maiden voyage into the high seas of cinephilia? Will he abdicate his throne, rather than continue to risk expulsion from the realm of the French Riviera due to insubordination? Before the vitriol begins, let me be clear about one thing: Yes, I thought this was the worst Cannes I have ever been to, I am not alone in thinking this, and these facts do not give me much pleasure. Yes, the prizes handed out by Señor Spielbergo (he of his own notorious yacht) and his merry band of co-conspirators again prove that filmmakers and actresses know little about adjudicating cinema. But in the spotlight that follows, there are reviews, even positive ones, of some of the films that will surely go down as films of the year: the right films from the right filmmakers who deserve to be at Cannes, even if they were slotted into the wrong section (e.g., the almost universally acclaimed works from Alain Guiraudie and Lav Diaz).
Part of my job as editor of this magazine that is still called Cinema Scope (not Cinemascope or Cinema-Scope) is to decide how to cover this festival and what to write about it. So rather than seeing the typically vulgar rant that follows as indicative of an editorial attitude to Cannes, please see it rather as simply initial impressions in a dossier of carefully planned-out, interconnected coverage that places the bad alongside the good alongside the evil. Or just put the magazine down now, especially if reading anything negative about the Teflon-coated objet that is Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner La vie d’Adèle—chapitre 1 & 2 (en anglais, Blue Is the Warmest Colour) will put your knickers in a knot. But yeah, despite being one of the gayest Cannes ever, Cannes sucked. Next year I promise I’ll be nicer, but for now I’ll let it all hang out.
It sucked because yet again Cannes persists in its mainly conservative selection (aesthetically and politically) by Frémaux, Christian Jeune, and their shadowy programming team, favouring big names (or the big names that Frémaux tends to favour, because I guess if you put all these people together you have an idea of his taste [sic] and isn’t that a frightening thought: Roman Polanski, James Gray, Joel and Ethan Coen, Arnaud Desplechin, Paolo Sorrentino, Nicolas Winding Refn, the Mexican shit-disturber of the moment, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne—and by the way, enough already with the yokels, Alexander Payne) and surrounding them with first or second films by directors with no talent but with some tangential connection to Cannes, or who proved some talent with earlier work that a conservative programming team can easily overlook. In this latter category, we have the sole Canadian entry in the Official Selection, Sarah préferè la course, which despite a semi-beguiling albeit emotionless bi-performance from Sophie Desmarais has no business in a major festival, but was directed by Chloé Robichaud, who had a short film in Competition last year; Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central, a general failure in comparison to her first film Belle épine (2010), which debuted in Critics’ Week; Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Death March (no comment, though there will be a few later); some German monstrosity I’d rather not get into (the reviews are out there); and a William Faulkner adaptation by James Franco (just what Cannes needs, James Franco—and Cannes is just what James Franco needs. You two dudes are perfect for each other, why don’t you just get it over with and make out already).
This selection will prove even more mysterious over the coming months, as the line-ups of other festivals reveal which films Cannes could have slotted in but took a pass on, for whatever reasons. One Competition example out of many: Miike Takeshi’s Shield of Straw over Real, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s batshit-crazy version of Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), which is well-known to have been submitted to Cannes, screened in the market, and is in current release in Japan as of early June. Even Miike defenders (and there were a few, but they were few and far between, and not a single one of them was Japanese) must admit that, if it comes down to it, the first theatrical feature by Kurosawa in six years has more of a place in Cannes than the sixth feature by Miike in 12 months.
Cannes sucked, but then so does the world, some of the most interesting films presented in Cannes seemed to say, from Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (my red carpet march at the official screening was accompanied, with full props to the resident DJ, to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”) to Claire Denis’ incredibly divisive and equally irate attack on late capitalism, the appropriately named Bastards (perhaps less intriguing than Jia’s, as China has more presence in the public’s consciousness today than France) to Mohammad Rasoulof’s Iranian torture-squad thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn (how is this guy going to avoid being assassinated before he gets the chance to return home?), to Lav Diaz’s masterpiece, Norte, the End of History. One could say that this year the predominant focus was on neither the male nor the female gaze (more on that later), but the angry gaze—which I take as a sign that cracks are starting to appear in the walls of Euro-arthouse filmmaking (which includes those Asian films made with an eye to the Western market). I suppose this also holds true for Amat Escalante’s surprise Best Director winner Heli, which, upon seeing it as the first film screened in the Competition, I could only think to myself, “What do Steven Spielberg and Nicole Kidman think of this?” Heli, I guess maybe they even enjoyed it. (Kidman made a quip at the press conference about watching a film after 10:30pm for the first time in her life that made her see the world in a different way—I’m guessing this moment came with the flaming junk in Heli’s torture scene. And does anyone believe, as Kidman also stated, that she made other members of the jury watch films twice?)
By contrast, Grand Prix jokesters Joel and Ethan Coen, in what might be their least nasty and therefore best film since their only masterpiece, The Big Lebowski (1998)—not high praise—treated us to something like an indifferent gaze. (So indifferent were they that they didn’t even bother to return to pick up their prize.) The Coens seem to have structured Inside Llewyn Davis, yet another in an interminable line of Coens films about nothing, as a formal exercise to see how they can make a film wherein the first scene and the last scene are one and the same. The focus is on another Odyssean schlemiel (Oscar Isaac, who counts as a real discovery), who spends far too much time (a) trying to find somewhere to sleep, as this is the early ’60s and he’s a struggling folk musician, don’tcha know, (b) screwing around with a Jewish Columbia professor’s lost cat (paraphrasing the Coens: “We didn’t have enough plot to fill the film so we threw in a cat”) and another folkie played by an unrecognizable Carey Mulligan, (c) driving from New York to Chicago in a car with a corpulent, logorrheic John Goodman (as Dr. John?) to meet a Jewish concert promoter played by the Arab F. Murray Abraham, (d) singing the same song, in its entirety, four times. Nevertheless, the Coens get props for reeling in the derision, keeping it light and relatively tight; with immaculate framing, photography (this time from Bruno Delbonnel, as Roger Deakins was off Bonding), and, well, mise en scène, Inside Llewyn Davis proves the Coens to be the most Kubrickian of contemporary filmmakers—that is, if you consider Kubrick to be funny. (Bet the Coens do.)
Ke-sheesh! Where to begin with this wholly overpraised, underdeveloped, and, it goes without saying, way overlong 177-minute plunge into the make-believe wonderland of filmic ridiculousness? (We could instead begin with François Ozon’s likewise unintentionally exploitative take on young female sexuality, Jeune et joli, but let’s not.) By now, any one who cares enough to read about film has already heard an in-depth summary of the “plot” of La vie d’Adèle, has heard the passionate reactions (Standing ovation! At Cannes! An unprecedented shared Palme d’Or between its director and two actresses! An epic three hours of intimacy and a step forward in naturalism!), has gobbled up the vicious counter-reactions from critics like the New York Times’ always perspicacious Manohla Dargis (in a report from the battlefield that should have been harsher) and Julie Maroh, author of the original graphic novel (graphic being the key word here) on which the film is based, Le bleu est une couleur chaude, which largely criticize Kechiche’s film on feminist grounds, specifically in regard to three highly graphic lesbian sex romps which, it turns out, were aided by prosthetics in the places that count; bye-bye vaunted naturalism. (Maroh specifically takes Kechiche to task for wringing out all the politics from her “militant”—her word—story. I’m sure she was not at all amused by Kechiche’s take on a lesbian bar; I’m also sure that Kechiche has never been in a lesbian bar.) And maybe some of you have also heard that Kechiche himself is a taskmaster who, in the course of his needless hundreds of hours of shoving digital cameras into the perfect faces of Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux while they are eating spaghetti Bolognese and making them cry and drip snot from their noses, treated his crew like slaves. (Adèle and Léa are the ladies to his tramp.) That last point was less reported in the North American press, though the closing credits of La vie d’Adèle currently consist solely of a website URL, and on the day of the premiere at Cannes there were protests from Kechiche’s team outside the Palais.
Once again, the newsiness of the situation, compounded by ongoing discussions on so-called “social media” by people who haven’t even seen the film but have their own agendas, distorts anything that I might have to say about the film. (In many ways, La vie d’Adèle is a film custom-made for Twitter, just as Cannes is a festival custom-made for Twitter.) But as I am granted a press pass so as to avoid standing in even longer lines than necessary in horrible weather, it behooves me to say just how ridiculous La vie d’Adèle is, an unremitting ridiculousness that begins well before the “groundbreaking” lesbian sex—such as, to choose a scene at random, the one where Kechiche films his actresses on a park bench, heads slowly approaching to kiss, as the sun is literally (literally, there is no such thing as subtlety in Kechiche’s universe) photographed flaring outwards between their lips. Said ridiculousness continues with the comparison between oyster slurping and cunnilingus, and reaches its height as we enter the ins and outs of Lille’s highly competitive art market. (Seydoux’s blue renderings of the naked Adèle defy description.)
For a director who seemingly expresses an interest in the relationship between literature (again, he shoves Marivaux in our faces), painting, and real life, Kechiche shows absolutely no interest in filmmaking or editing, needlessly shooting La vie d’Adèle—which, for much of its three hours, consists of close-ups of women’s faces (and asses)—in widescreen. You want a trend, here it is: the rampant overuse of 2.35:1 aspect ratio (or, as they once called it, CinemaScope) in contemporary arthouse cinema—unless, and this is well within the realm of likelihood, Kechiche chose to shoot in Scope because it’s the best way to capture two titillating women in the sweaty throes of 69ing. The film could conceivably exist without the sex scenes, yes, and would be less interesting of a failure, because Kechiche would have deprived his audience of the pleasures of watching two hot chicks go at it. This all may sound horribly flippant, but so is the film, which is entirely predetermined and utterly banal, just as banal as those sex scenes with their prosthetic pussies get by the twentieth minute. Kechiche’s bold new leap into novelistic naturalism or realism or whatever (I can’t wait for the forthcoming chapters in the ongoing saga of Lille) is a bunch of garbage, the director thinking the sheer fact of letting scenes play out for a long time (as if no filmmaker had ever discovered real time previously) will create an intimacy between the audience and poor Adèle. It doesn’t. And I’m truly fed up with the righteous indignation of the film’s defenders, who read any attack on the film as tantamount to the Paris protesters’ weekly attack on gay marriage. In the end, La vie d’Adèle amounts to nothing more than Thierry Frémaux taking note of the criticisms directed at the Festival de Cannes for not having enough female filmmakers in Competition and responding by giving us girl-on-girl action. (Give him some credit, though: there were seven over in UCR, though that number includes noted cineaste Valeria Golino.)
There’s not as much physical intercourse (a mere two hardcore sexual acts) in Alain Guiraudie’s L’inconnu du lac, but as two films that demand comparisons go…Simply put, Frémaux doesn’t have big enough balls to put a film like Guiraudie’s in Competition, even if the insanely politically correct UCR jury led by Thomas Vinterberg awarded the gayest film ever to screen on the Croisette—let’s retire the Queer Palme now—with the Prix de mise en scène. (Fellow award-winners included films made by a Black American, a Palestinian, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and one starring a trio of non-professional Guatemalan teenagers in yet another Mexican film positing Mexico as an out-and-out shithole.) It’s doubtful that Guiraudie would mind being charged with having a “male gaze,” as for, say, 80 percent of the film his camera looks at (but doesn’t leer at) male bodies, most of the time naked, behaving casual and relaxed, often spread-eagled, penises dangling as they lounge on the sand by the lakeside, knees up, in an idyll that will soon be violated by one of their own.
This cruising beach is one of a sparse number of locations, not including the lake itself (five to be exact: a parking lot, the woods where the men vanish to fuck, the paths leading to them, the main beach, a second part of the beach off to the left), that Guiraudie employs; the entire film is constructed around the lack of reverse shots on a macro-level. Our hero is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a frequent cruiser, who one day (Day Two of the film’s ten-day time span) notices the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou), a vision of Tom Selleck-moustachioed masculinity, lounging with his current lover. A strange kind of love triangle develops between Franck, Michel, and the older Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), the other “stranger by the lake,” who sits off by himself staring quietly out over the water until he is befriended by the naturally curious Franck.
A beguiling sense of mystery pervades L’inconnu du lac, a function of the precise editing, the atmosphere, and the controlled action; a Hitchcockian ambience is established prior to the event that motivates the film’s action, a sudden murder in the lake (explicated further in Guiraudie’s conversation with João Pedro Rodrigues that follows, so I’ll refrain from any spoilers). An adult fairy tale that’s grounded in reality, it’s a close-to-perfect film, gorgeously shot using natural light (on the Red Epic, in meaningful widescreen!), meticulously constructed—there’s only one close-up in the entire film—and emotionally developed. L’inconnu du lac was ultimately the pride of Cannes, a film with matter-of-fact militancy straight out of Bataille that should last in cinema history well after Kechiche’s follies have been forgotten. In his cinema of passion and beauty, Guiraudie draws out that fine line between danger and desire that is sometimes crossed when we enter the cinema and surrender ourselves to its pleasures and pains, especially in the Grand Théâtre Lumière or the Salle Debussy.