I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
A woman completely upends her life after her house is broken into; quirky character acting ensues.
Ben Kenigsberg: One of the common things I've heard about this year's Cannes is that it had a very even-keeled lineup. There weren't many disasters (apart from Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives," 90 nearly abstract minutes of Ryan Gosling posing, Kristin Scott-Thomas being foul-mouthed, and people getting their throats slit). But there were also few revelations. I never felt caught off-guard the way I did with "Che," "Inglourious Basterds," or "Certified Copy" — all recent Cannes premieres that toyed with structure in new and thrilling ways. I left those screenings exhilarated, convinced I'd seen future classics. Not every festival will have those, of course, but that's always the expectation with Cannes.
Michał Oleszczyk: I was only a sophomore at Cannes, so my frame of reference is not as wide as yours, but even I experienced the feeling that, compared to last year, the main competition was unexciting in how even it was. Hardly any duds, hardly any history-making masterpieces. Save for the laughably atrocious Winding Refn, most films were mediocre to good to exceptional. The two movies I liked most, Steven Soderbergh's "Behind the Candelabra" and James Gray's "The Immigrant," both represent supreme work by contemporary auteurs who are as close to classicism as possible. While last year's competition had "Holy Motors" to shake things up, this year it was only Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin" and (so I hear) Alex van Warmerdam's "Borgman" that could be called truly experimental work.
MO: Of all the competition films I saw (and I missed four, so nothing I say here should be treated as my final judgment), "Blue Is the Warmest Color" seems to me the most overrated one. I feel like I'm virtually alone in disliking it, even though I was a huge fan of Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain." "Blue" had two great female performances, for sure, but nothing in the story supported the 179-minute running time. The way the relationship is set up is almost painfully banal and cliched. The class differences are signified in the crudest of terms (one family gobbles shellfish, the other cheap spaghetti), and Kechiche uses virtually every supporting character to make a blunt rhetorical point. No one has a life in this movie except the two women. Adèle's peers show up to serve as a homophobic mob, then disappear. Her gay friend dissolves after having served the narrative function of taking her to a gay bar. The same goes for parents and everyone else. For all its aspirations to be a romantic epic, I found the film thin and lacking in texture. My private Palme d'Or would go to "The Immigrant," which I know you weren't crazy about.
BK: I like "The Immigrant" and James Gray's work generally, but this one struck me as slightly undercooked at a screenplay level. There's no doubt it's beautifully crafted, but I had some of the same problems with focus that you have with the Kechiche. To me, "Blue" is a film almost entirely defined by small interactions; I don't think the supporting characters are essential to showing how the central relationship evolves. Kechiche is interested in language, expressions, gestures. "The Immigrant," to me, never quite decided what it wanted to be about. The prostitution angle struck me as unimaginative, and the film kept hinting at grander themes the plot architecture didn't support. I suspect one reason people respond so strongly to the ending — and we should tread lightly here — is that it hasn't been properly set up.
MO: But see, there's the difference: About 20 minutes in, I felt like I knew exactly what Kechiche was up to, and nothing that came afterwards can really qualified as a surprise. He's being praised on observing detail, and I certainly saw that in "Secret of the Grain," but here I thought the near-constant use of extreme close-ups was actually limiting. Watching the Gray, on the other hand, felt like a real journey in that I kept trying to figure out where the director is taking me. You are right in saying that his intentions don't come into full focus until the final shot, but that's partly what made the movie seem so fresh to me. Gray is a bit like Altman in that he's not afraid to make what is basically a period piece, and still try out new things. "The Immigrant" is similar to "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (as well as to Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"), in that it offers a singular vision of the American past, as filtered through the director's personality. Incidentally, how did you feel about another competition entry by a highly distinctive American director, Alexander Payne's "Nebraska"?
BK: I don't understand how the Coens routinely take criticism for "condescending" to their characters, yet Alexander Payne gets held up as a humanist when he does exactly the same thing. I didn't mind "Nebraska" but found the movie's father-son road trip both contrived and sentimental. Only
BK: It's funny. I think "Inside Llewyn Davis" is one of the Coens' most poignant works, in that it acknowledges the precariousness of an artistic life. While the the directors are fortunate enough to have found their audience, the film seems to suggest that their luck could have easily gone the other way. And although the movie puts its protagonist through a Kafka-esque wringer à la "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man," the tone is more empathetic than sardonic. Meanwhile, I think the satirical aspect of Payne's work has diminished steadily since "Election," to the point where it's barely discernible in the new film. But the jurors apparently liked both flavors, awarding Bruce Dern for his "Nebraska" performance and giving the Coens the second-place Grand Jury Prize. Were you satisfied with their picks?
MO: I guess what I react allergically to in the Coens is the broadness of their strokes.
BK: Spielberg said citing stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux for the Palme win an "obvious" way to go — and in this case, it felt gratifying, since there's little question that they drive the engine of the film. If you pressed the jurors, I suspect they'd probably admit the decision was a way to work around a relatively recent (and, I confess, new to me) rule change in Cannes, which is that the top prizewinner is no longer allowed to take any other awards. It was always frowned on when a Palme winner received additional prizes (which happened with "Barton Fink," "Rosetta," and "Elephant," for example). Now, as with Venice's Golden Lion, that scenario is actually impossible. Still, crediting the actresses as auteurs made more sense with "Blue" than it would have with most of the competition titles. So much of the movie depends on their chemistry, their conversational rhythms, their much-remarked-upon physicality. By contrast, "Inside Llewyn Davis," "A Touch of Sin," "The Immigrant," and "Behind the Candelabra" are also clearly triumphs of cinematography, production design, soundtrack, and so on. That doesn't mean Kechiche is not the true artist behind "Blue," or that "Blue" is less "directed" than those movies just because its methods are less obtrusive. But what is clear is that Kechiche's collaboration with his actresses was absolutely critical to this film's success.
MO: I found that citation fascinating; I do believe it's unprecedented. Had they had Golden Palms in the old days of "
BK: The main improvement with this restoration was that they rolled back some of the distracting Foley effects from the version released in 1996, when the film was remastered for DTS sound. So it's no longer jarring whenever Jimmy Stewart slams a car door or, especially, when the body falls from the tower and you hear a pronounced *clank* as it hits the Spanish tiles. Still, I was spoiled by having seen "Vertigo" in 70mm at Chicago's Music Box as recently as February. The Cannes restoration was digital, and I'm skeptical of the hyper-clarity, hazy edges, and smoothed-over look of the new medium, at least for older films. (A few moments even played differently; when Scottie, just out of the hospital, spots not-Madeleine at Ernie's, the scene had a lesser effect, since the woman he stares at is now visibly not Novak even in long shot.) It's astonishing to think that of the 37 movies I saw at Cannes, none was shown on celluloid. I've seen great digital projection at the festival — like the 2009 restoration of "The Red Shoes" — but it's sad that even Cannes has lost touch with this crucial aspect of film history.
BK: Most of my favorites ("Blue Is the Warmest Color," "A Touch of Sin," "Inside Llewyn Davis") were represented, though not necessarily in the categories I would have chosen. I wouldn't have minded seeing James Gray's "Immigrant" direction recognized, and while it screened too late to figure prominently in the festival discussion, Jim Jarmusch's stone-faced vampire story "Only Lovers Left Alive" casts a distinctive, woozy spell. Jury prize, maybe?
MO: Well, to my own shame I skipped the Jarmusch, but I hope to catch up as soon as possible. For me, the complete omission of Gray was very unfortunate and that’s probably the only thing I would rectify, had I had any say in the verdict. But overall, I think the festival was strong and varied. All that remains to be seen now is whether the Kechiche makes it to a theater near you in an uncut version. The sex scenes were so crucial to its narrative and character development, any bowdlerization of them would seriously damage the film. Let’s hope international distributors won’t be prudes.
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