Sometimes, it feels as if we are eavesdropping on day-to-day conversations rather than just hearing the usual litany of platitudes and regrets.
Barbara Scharres is the Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In this capacity she is the artistic director for one of the largest cultural exhibition programs of world cinema in North America. She has published articles and criticism in film magazines and journals including American Cinematographer, Film Comment, Chicago Reader, Variety, and the Chicago Sun-Times, and has contributed to books including Hong Kong Babylon, edited by Fred Dannen.
Scharres was named a "Chicagoan of the Year in the Arts" by the Chicago Tribune three times, in 1989, 1991, and 1999. In 2006, the French government awarded her one of its highest honors by designating her a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her role in advancing French culture through cinema.
Another much-anticipated film by one of the big names in this year's Cannes competition premiered this morning -- "Melancholia" by Lars von Trier. It's no secret that this apocalyptic science fiction drama ends with the destruction of the earth, since that is revealed in the first few minutes of the film. The character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, neatly summarizes von Trier's dark pessimism with the line, "The earth is evil; we don't need to mourn for it." What is rather amazing is that a film about the destruction of all life (and von Trier posits that we are alone in the universe) could be so turgid.
That said, I think I rather prefer von Trier's wacko view of the cosmos in "Melancholia" to Terrence Malick's in "The Tree of Life." With the ingredients von Trier had to work with, it's surprising that he didn't make a better film. Following the various forms of desecration and transgression that are the hallmarks of "Antichrist," it's as if he felt the need to top himself with an even more outrageous concept, but forgot to figure out what the outrageous part would be.
"Melancholia" examines the relationship of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the final days before the planet named Melancholia is due to collide with the earth. The story falls into two parts. The first is named for Justine, who is blonde, conventionally pretty, and mentally unstable. The second is named for Claire, who is Justine's opposite in every way, not only in her lean, dark-haired appearance, but in her down-to-earth competence in managing the stuff of life.
Finally Cannes delivers some real laughs! This morning I saw "Le Havre" by Finnish director Aki Kaurismki, screening in competition. After several days of grim and serious films about people who lead grim and twisted lives, I wanted to cry for joy at this funny and good-hearted film. I would normally be wary of a film that anyone describes as heart-warming but this is the real deal.
Kaurismaki ("Lights in the Dusk," "The Man Without a Past" "Drifting Clouds," "The Match Factory Girl") is a master of deadpan comedy. His central characters are often glum, non-verbal types and naive innocents duped by tricksters or beaten down by a world they don't understand. The humor in his films is rooted in the deepest irony. "Le Havre" blithely portrays life as we might wish it to be, and that is the funniest irony of all.
The shoeshine man Marcel Marx is seen plying his trade at the Le Havre train station in the opening scenes of "Le Havre." He makes very little money, and the routine of his daily walk home establishes the fact that he has an overdue tab running everywhere he stops--the bakery, the grocery store, and the corner bistro. He can be a bit of a charmer with the ladies, but his long-suffering wife Arletty (Kati Outinen, a longtime Kaurismaki regular) describes him as "a big child" when she cautions her doctor not to reveal that she is about to die.
Terence Malick's long-awaited "The Tree of Life" premiered in competition today, with an 8:30 am press screening. I anticipated seething crowds, so headed off to the Palais a little early. Entrance areas were jammed, and the Grand Theatre Lumiere was nearly full at only 7:55 am. A friend who had been holding a seat for me estimated that he had been about 200th in line when arriving at 7:30 am.
"The Tree of Life" was announced for last year's Cannes festival, but withdrawn when it wasn't completed in time. Although Malick has directed only four features in his more than 40-year career as writer/producer/director ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," and "The New World), his cult reputation is such that many here were itching to declare "The Tree of Life" a masterpiece before the first frame ever hit the screen.
I think at least a few hopes were dashed this morning. As the film reached its conclusion there was a fadeout that turned out to be a false ending. People immediately jumped to their feet to exit in the dark, as always happens here, and a few dozen loud boos erupted from points all over the theater. Another image came on and those leaving stopped in their tracks and fell silent until Malick's director credit appeared. Applause followed, along with an equal amount of booing.
Following a heavy rain in the late afternoon yesterday, this morning in Cannes was gloriously sunny, the sky becoming more perfect and cloudless as the day progressed. I was hoping for a group of films to blow away yesterday's prevailing images of poverty, oppression, and child abuse. "The Artist" by Michel Hazanavicius, screening in competition, seemed like it could do the trick. It's a romance set in Hollywood; and strangely enough, it's conceived as a silent film.
"The Artist" has the most self-congratulatory press kit I've ever seen--55 glossy illustrated pages of in-depth interviews with all the key figures involved with the production, everyone congratulating and complimenting everyone else for their fabulous work. Could the film measure up to this? Not hardly. It is indeed a black-and-white silent film with musical accompaniment. Director Hazanavicius has attempted to revive the techniques of the silent cinema to tell a story entirely through acting, with text intertitles replacing spoken dialogue.
It's another cool and overcast day in Cannes, but one that promises to be dominated by pirates and outlaws in the morning, and kids in the afternoon. The out-of-competition premiere European screening of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" was scheduled for the Grand Theatre Lumiere at 8:30 am. This meant that European critics would flock, but Americans like me were freed up to roam elsewhere for our viewing. For my first film I opted to walk down the Croisette to see a pirate of a very different kind in "Porfirio," a Colombian film by Alejandro Landes, in the Quinzaine (Directors Fortnight) section of the festival.
"Porfirio" is a scripted and lightly fictionalized account of the life of a man the Latin American press had dubbed "the air pirate." Actual events reenacted in the film by non-professional actors, including the original central figure in the story, Porfirio Ramirez Aldana. Porfirio made headlines in 2005 for hijacking a plane to Bogota.
What attracted Landes to the case after reading a sensationalized newspaper account was the fact that the hijacker is paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair, and was wearing diapers at the time. The director spent five years working with his subject and his family to develop their trust, and only revealed to the man a few days before shooting began that he would play himself.
It's Friday the 13th in Cannes, and that has got to mean something good. An overcast sky threatening rain means that there couldn't be a more perfect day to stay inside and watch movies.
The morning began with the 8:30 am press screening of Nanni Moretti's "We Have a Pope." Hmm...a comedy/drama about the Vatican by a self-professed Italian atheist? Moretti is known primarily for his wry, intellectual, and largely autobiographical approach to comedy in films including "My Diary" and "April, " but also for serious drama in films including his 2001 Palme d'Or winner "The Son's Room." Subjects he has often lampooned include leftist politics, psychoanalysis, water-polo, and the cinema itself.
In "We Have a Pope," the funeral of a dead pope has just taken place and the College of Cardinals is convening to elect the new pontiff from among their number. Moretti goes to great lengths to represent this ritual gathering with great accuracy, but injecting an escalating number of comic moments as the film traverses from the ceremonial pomp of its opening scenes to take on a lighter tone.
As if the voting for a pope were an elementary school spelling test, the prelates cross out names on their ballots, look to heaven for guidance, and even cheat, some slyly spying on what a neighbor seated to the left or right is writing. After a few rounds of voting, the winner is revealed to be a candidate who was not even in the running, a stunned Cardinal Melville (surely Moretti's tip of the hat to iconic French director Jean-Pierre Melville), played by veteran French star Michel Piccoli.
As I approached the Festival Palais early this morning, a light breeze wafted down the fabric of the immense billboard-size banner of this year's festival poster over the facade. The glamorous photo of a leggy Faye Dunaway, by director Jerry Schatzberg from his 1970 film "Puzzle of a Downfall Child," was rippling and creasing in a way that made the sleek legs appear to be covered by a pair of ill-fitting tights. Little did I suspect that Faye's wardrobe malfunction was a bad omen for a seemingly promising day on which three out of the only four films by women selected for this year's Cannes competition were scheduled to screen.
British actress Tilda Swinton, who gravitates to daring roles, plays Eva, a conflicted New York mother "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver. Eva's son Kevin is portrayed as having a deep animosity toward his mother, virtually from the moment of his birth. As an infant, he shrieks hour after hour when alone with her. As he grows, he exhibits a fierce, focused inclination to evil, and that bent will ultimately make him a Columbine-style killer. Kevin might have been a demon child in another kind of movie, but this is not a supernatural story. "We Need to Talk About Kevin," is a psychological drama centered on Eva's guilt.
For me, this was a one-note film. Kevin is thoroughly bad; Eva is thoroughly angry, self-hating and stoic. I longed for some shades of subtlety, but this is a story that relies on blood-red coding in dreams and flashbacks, and a soundtrack that emphasizes grating irritants. Ramsay, who acquitted herself very well with films including "Ratcatcher" and "Movern Callar," seems an ill match for an American setting, letting raucous bluegrass numbers and stereotyped characterizations of Eva's small town neighbors and co-workers stand in for insight.
Arriving in Cannes by bus from the Nice airport provides a thumbnail tour of the town, from the more seedy homes on the outskirts to the swanky hotels on the waterfront. The palms lining the Croisette, the festival's de facto main drag, may be the ubiquitous symbol of city, but a few blocks away the plane trees, cypresses, and the prolific climbing roses of Provence are a more common sight. Walk a short distance from the Festival Palais and there are conspicuously un-chic restaurants where local cops congregate for dinner in the back room and retired couples hang out for a smoke and an evening beer, more often than not, with a fluffy mutt under the table.
In a way, my first reminders yesterday of everyday life in everyday France were a bracing counterpoint to this morning's press screening of Woody Allen's romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris." The festival's opening night film is a colorful valentine to Paris, indulging and gorgeously illustrating the director's every memory and cherished illusion of the city. I've never been a big Woody Allen fan, but "Midnight in Paris" is loads of fun.
The film opens with a morning-to-night sequence of views of the city's most iconic sights: Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge, the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees, the narrow streets of the Left Bank, and the Eiffel Tower. That opening alone is a tourist board's dream. At the press conference later, a journalist asked Allen, who mentioned that he thought of the title long before he had a story, whether these postcard-worthy views were his own impressions of Paris, or were meant to represent the point of view of his characters. Perhaps the French questioner was hoping for the latter, but Allen replied, "I learned about Paris the way all Americans do--from the movies. I wanted to show the city emotionally, not realistically, but through my eyes.
As the opening night of the Cannes International Film Festival approaches, a host of Riviera amenities and services hope to lure my business via solicitous e-mails. Would Madame perhaps like to hire a helicopter for the journey from the Nice airport to the Festival Palais? Rent a limousine with a multilingual driver? Charter a yacht or rent a fully staffed villa with swimming pool (photos handily attached)?
Me, I'm just in the market to rent a no-frills mobile phone with a European SIM card, and I'll be taking an inter-city bus from the airport, but you get the picture. The sparkling goodies of this playground of millionaires are dangled before the thousands of accredited journalists, theater programmers, film buyers, and filmmakers soon to be heading for the legendary festival. Most of us will be pinching the Euros until they scream, but nonetheless enjoying the nonstop spectacle provided by those who get to ride around in helicopters.
The festival opens the night of Wednesday, May 11 with Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." "Monsieur Woodee," as the French are wont to call him, made his first visit ever to Cannes in 2002, when his "Hollywood Endings" opened the festival. Although the film was disappointingly lackluster, it certainly made no difference to his French fans, who hailed him like an emperor. I watched Allen on that occasion from a seat among the hyper-excited audience, marveling at his frail stature, almost inaudible voice, and the shrinking body language that made him seem an incongruous god of cinema.
Entry to the Grande Theatre Lumiere for the press premiere of Rachid Bouchareb's "Outside of the Law" was considerably delayed on Friday morning by heightened security. Heavily-armed members of the French National Guard were stationed in the street and on the red carpet. Water bottles were confiscated by guards; men got full-body pat-downs from head to toe; and women had bags exhaustively inspected at two different points. This was in addition to the usual electronic wanding that we are all subject to upon entering any part of the Palais.