Alice Through the Looking Glass
There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…
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.
BK: It's not that there weren't strong films. For me, that list includes the Coens' poignant "Inside Llewyn Davis"; Jia Zhangke's gorgeously photographed (and unexpectedly violent) "A Touch of Sin"; and Abdellatif Kechiche's Palme winner "Blue Is the Warmest Color." But I'm not sure I saw anything I'd truly call "Palme worthy."
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 June Squibb, as Will Forte's mom/Bruce Dern's wife, emerges with real complexity, and while I enjoyed the wistful mood to some degree (here's to movies shot in black-and-white), I ultimately felt as uneasy with the film as I did with "About Schmidt," another awkward mix of broad comedy and sentiment. Payne's potshots at tilapia-eating Midwesterners seem jarring when placed in the context of a story about an aging alcoholic who's losing his faculties. As you said regarding "The Immigrant" — which, again, I like on the whole — I'd much prefer to see a flawed, eccentric vision that leaves some mystery than a bland, polished one like Payne's.
MO: I agree with you on "Nebraska," at least up to a point. I do think it's a minor work, with Payne falling back on sudsy conventions of father-son reconciliation movie. Still, I think the Coens really are mean to their characters, treating them basically as punching bags, whereas Payne is more into satire than he is into mocking.
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. Carey Mulligan got a particularly thankless role as Llewyn's ever-bitching sometime-girlfriend. Every time she opens her mouth, a toad jumps out. There is a sense (at least for me) that the Coens are setting up the entire universe against the main character, so that he truly stands no chance of winning. (They're pretty frank about it: That's what "Burn After Reading" was explicitly about.) I think Payne is more flexible, in that he's not dead-set on tormenting his characters. He may pile adversity upon them, but he lets them breathe, too. Dern succeeded in creating a character whose drive is based on an idiotic misconception, but whose quest still gets presented as an attempt to preserve dignity. Had the Coens directed "Nebraska," I feel the opposite would have been true. I liked Dern's performance a whole lot, though I preferred Michael Douglas' chameleon-like turn as Liberace. How did you like the history-making sharing of the Palme d'Or by the director and his two actresses? Too bad Andrew Sarris is not around. It's a movie with no fewer than three auteurs, at least according to the jury!
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 "The Passion of Joan of Arc," I guess Falconetti would have been cited alongside Dreyer. Speaking of great performances by legendary leading ladies, how did you find the new restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," presented by Kim Novak? I think it's great that the Cannes Classics section helps to connect cinema's present to its past. Even a technical glitch in the form of slight distortion of the screen didn't destroy the mesmerizing magic of "Vertigo" for me.
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.
MO: I certainly envy you seeing "Vertigo" in 70mm, as well as agree that the hyper-clarity worked against the film at times (San Francisco as seen from Barbara Bel Geddes's window is such an obvious fake it threw me every time). I miss celluloid, too. The whole room applauded when the old Paramount logo appeared before "Nebraska," and in black-and-white. I'm sure an old-fashioned reel change would have people dancing in the aisles. What would you say is the most glaring omission in the final verdict? I remember last year's shunning of "Holy Motors" and all the Twitter-based indignation that followed. Do you feel there's a competition movie that got wronged by the jury?
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.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
Separating the artist from the art isn't as easy as it sounds.
Part two of Jana Monji's essay about the portrayal of Asian characters in cinema.