American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
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.
by Barbara Scharres
Cannes has become hot and uncomfortably muggy in a way that has me thinking longingly of the blankets and socks of earlier in the week. As the festival closes in on the final days, I'm hoping for some big excitement on the screen.
When the stiff, futuristic Brandon Cronenberg film "Antiviral" played a few days ago, it gave me cause to look forward even more to today's premiere of "Cosmopolis" by his father David Cronenberg, anticipating that the contrast between generations would also point up the difference between a wannabe and a seasoned master. Boy, was I wrong. I'm sorry to say that they're both among the worst films I've seen here this year. I've never been this disappointed in a David Cronenberg film.
"Cosmopolis" opens with a shot of a row of white stretch limos parked on a city street. The interior of one of them will become a primary location in this film, functioning as the office away from the office for mega-millionaire money manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), an arrogant and powerful 28-year-old. Seemingly inspired by the Occupy movement in the U. S., the story is set in New York in the near future (although what we see of the urban landscape never looks like anything but Toronto; even the CN Tower is seen in the background). The president of the United States is due at any moment, a situation tying up the streets with blockades and large-scale protests.
Big stars were out to shine this morning in Cannes, when "The Paperboy" by Lee Daniels premiered in competition, with a cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, David Oyelowo, John Cusack, and Grammy Award-winning R&B singer Macy Gray. Daniels had a massive hit with his previous film "Precious," which premiered here in 2009 and went on to earn six Oscar nominations with two wins, and countless other awards worldwide.
A director with that kind of success in his recent past has got to have a lot of hopes and fears riding on his next film. Daniels certainly had star power in his corner on "The Paperboy," but the film got a mixed reaction this morning in the Palais, and I'm not sure it's headed for a repeat of the acclaim that "Precious" experienced.
"The Paperboy" is adapted by Pete Dexter and Daniels from Dexter's novel of the same title. The film reportedly takes a few deviations from the source novel (which I haven't read) to result in pretty much a whole new story. There are many shifts of tone, making the film simultaneously a comedy, a mystery/thriller, and a Southern gothic potboiler. It's amusing and frustrating; hilarious and tense; awkward in its construction yet featuring bursts of gripping acting.
The sun is finally shining, and Cannes becomes a resort town once again. Aside from the thousands of film industry visitors, this place is clogged with tourists of all nations and in all manner of beach attire, many of them senior citizens. As far as I can tell, the main thing they do is promenade.
They stroll up and down the Croisette on the waterfront side and then the window-shopping side. They walk up and down the town's main drag, the Rue d'Antibes. They eat ice cream cones; they buy red, caramelized peanuts hot from the vendors' pans, and gummi bears and licorice; they watch costumed mimes perform under the palm trees; and they walk their little ankle-biter dogs, of which there are hundreds. It's a people-watching festival in itself.
Another invitation appeared in my mailbox. This one was on heavy cream-colored paper with fancy gilt lettering. As a result, I went to "East Meets West," an afternoon conversation between Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, best known for "Rouge" and "Center Stage," and Cannes jury member Alexander Payne, recent Oscar winner for "The Descendants." Sponsored by The Film Foundation, it took place in a pavilion at the beach of the Majestic Hotel, where the sound of waves lapping at the sand in the background was a constant reminder of the setting.
Today looks to be a day of renegades and gangsters from the start, with "Killing Them Softly" by Andrew Dominik, the second American film to premier in competition, first thing in the morning. The all-male cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, who also starred in the director's Oscar-nominated "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. " This is a talky tough-guy movie that is heavy on long interchanges among thugs with odd accents and/or speech impediments. Talking like a tough guy means modifying every noun with the f-word (and I wonder what the grand total would be for this film).
"Killing Them Softly" is set in New Orleans, although pains are taken to avoid any distinctly identifying landmarks. The grey, wet, boarded-up desolation of the landscape could only be the post-Katrina lower 9th Ward, and I found the film's fleeting glimpses of that more electrifying than the introduction of Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of lowlifes setting up a robbery with Squirrel (Vincent Curatola).
The two bumblers manage, just barely, to pull off the robbery of a high-stakes poker game, which makes it only a matter of time before they're marked men. It also makes Markie (Ray Liotta), the pudgy mid-level gangster who was running the game a suspect. Whatever higher authority these thugs answer to calls in its enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to sort it out.
The first and only woman, who is also the first and only black person in the story, makes her appearance one hour into the film. She's a prostitute who's treated like garbage in her approximately two minutes on the screen. This is not only a man's world, it's a white man's world.
It's another day for umbrellas and rain slickers, not to mention sweaters. The Riviera is just not delivering the usual idyllic sunshine and warm Mediterranean breezes this year. The film market stands that border the beach in little cabanas have their doors closed for protection from the wet, and their inviting tables and deck chairs on the sand are vacant and dripping.
The first film in competition this morning, "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" by Alain Resnais, didn't deliver either, and I can only hope that the title is prophetic, and that the revered 90-year-old director ("Hiroshima Mon Amour," "Last Year at Marienbad") has some future masterpieces in store for us yet.
For "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," Resnais assembled a large cast of famous French actors with whom he's worked over the years, including Sabine Azema, Anne Cosigny, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Piccoli and Lambert Wilson. This distinguished cast was supplemented by the young stage actors of the fledgling theater company Colombe. The visual techniques and acting style of the stage are pertinent to the look of "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet." In the film's press book, Resnais says, "In my films, I'm constantly looking for a theater-style language and musical dialogue that invites the actors to get away from the realism of everyday life and move closer to a more offbeat performance."
Sunday dawned with a dark and threatening sky and a chill in the air, continuing the dreary weather trend of the past two days. It's a day of heavy-hitters here at Cannes, with two greatly anticipated films by major directors premiering in competition: "Amour" ("Love") by Austrian Michael Haneke in the morning; and "Like Someone in Love" by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami in the evening. Is the weather an omen or just weather? We'll see.
Neither of today's competition films was made in the director's home country. Haneke made "Amour" in France with French stars, but then he has more frequently worked in France in recent years. Kiarostami made his previous feature "Certified Copy" in Italy with an international cast, but "Like Someone in Love" was made in Japan with a French producer, a first for the globe-trotting director.
Michael Haneke has made his reputation on a uniquely transgressive form of cinema. Films, including "The White Ribbon," "The Piano Teacher," and "Funny Games," cross boundaries and break taboos, all the while drawing the audience into complicity with moral compromises and sometimes vile acts. "Amour" represents a new and more gentle and affecting take on that artistic strategy.
In "Amour," veteran French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant ("A Man and a Woman," "My Night with Maud") and Emmanuelle Riva ("Hiroshima Mon Amour") play Georges and Anne, a married couple in their 80s. They are retired music teachers who live in a lovely high-ceilinged apartment, and their comfortable lives are steeped in music and the arts. Their adult daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), also a musician, has a busy life of touring with her British husband.
The sounds of Cannes usually begin for me before daylight, when I'm awakened around 5:00 am by the noise of the big motorized awning of the bistro that's directly under my window being rolled down for the day. That's quickly followed by the watery roaring of the street-cleaning machine as it drives up and down the little plaza where the bistro sets up its outdoor tables and chairs. Then, comes the metallic scrape of dozens of chairs being dragged into place. Finally, some natural sounds: birds, including the big screeching gulls that fly inland from the waterfront a few blocks away. The alarm goes off and it's time to start another festival day by arriving at the Palais at 8:00 am to get a seat for the 8:30 am press screening.
"Lawless" by John Hillcoat, the first of four American films in the year's competition, premiered this morning. Set in Franklin, Virginia, in 1931, this is a Prohibition-era tale of a real family, the Bonderants, who became local legends as notorious moonshiners. Legend is the operative word here, as this is a highly romanticized story of three macho brothers and their apparent talent for besting the law, the competition, or death, as the case may be. This is film in which the good guys can be beaten to a pulp and be OK the next day, or take a shotgun blast to the gut from fore to aft but still get up and walk.
The cast is easy on the eyes: Tom Hardy as the eldest brother Forrest, who, as reputation has it, cannot be killed; Jason Clarke as Howard, the fearless middle brother who's batshit crazy when he's been consuming the product; and Shia Lebeouf as the youngest brother Jack, an aspiring lady's man who still has a lot to learn about the family business. Love interests include Jessica Chastain as a former fan-dancer from Chicago who shows up at the Bonderant enclave seeking the quiet life (!), and Mia Wasikowska as the sheltered daughter of a fundamentalist preacher.
Every day at the Cannes festival opens up the possibility of surprises, upsets, or major revelations. As Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" said, "Nothing is written." Film history is made here all the time, and I think some history was made today with the international debut of the American independent film "Beasts of the Southern Wild," by Benh Zeitlin, screening in the "A Certain Regard" section of the festival.. A first feature, it competes for the Camera d'Or. The world premiere was at Sundance back in January (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), but the high profile Cannes exposure will surely bring the film and its young star the worldwide attention it deserves.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is set in a wild coastal swamp on the Gulf coast, in a watery area referred to as "the Bathtub," where the towers and smokestacks of chemical plants and refineries spread across the distant horizon. It's a post-Katrina allegory that adopts many of the real-life images and circumstances of that disaster to create a purely mythic fable full of visceral visions, primal emotions, and haunting reminders of the inescapable cycle of birth, life, death, and decay.
At the center of the film is Hushpuppy, a feisty, unafraid six-year-old who lives with her sickly and often unstable dad in an isolated wilderness squatters' community where they live off the land by trapping and fishing. Their home, such as it is, is the wreck of a small ramshackle trailer; their boat is the bed of an old pickup truck floating over 55-gallon drums. That mankind lives within nature's unforgiving food chain is a daily reality for these two. As Hushpuppy's teacher Miss Bathsheba reminds her handful of students, "Everything that lives is meat. I'm meat; y'all's asses is meat; all part of the buffet of the universe."
By accident or by design, today's films premiering at Cannes, whether in competition, in the "A Certain Regard" section, or in special screenings out of competition, revolved around relationships, good, bad, or worse. Whether the bond is with a woman who has lost the will to live, an Orca whale (both seen in "Rust and Bone"), a cheating wife-beater ("Mystery"), a ghost ("Mekong Hotel"), or a male prostitute ("Paradise: Love"), things don't always turn out for the best.
French director Jacques Audiard has enjoyed a high profile since his "A Prophet" made a splash at Cannes in 2009, winning the Grand Jury Prize. It seemed like just another prison movie to me, but others loved it. The film went on to win an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and a host of festival prizes. Audiard is back with "Rust and Bone," a star vehicle for Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who came to new visibility by starring in this year's Oscar-nominated "Bullhead."
I was especially looking forward to "Rust and Bone" because Schoenarts had given such a powerful performance in "Bullhead," for which he had bulked up ala De Niro for his portrayal of a violent man whose life is defined by his steroid use. In "Rust and Bone" he's Ali, an unemployed guy who moves to the seaside town of Antibes (just down the road from Cannes, actually) to camp out in his married sister's garage after he's suddenly saddled with the custody of his five-year-old son. A former amateur boxer, he gets a job as a nightclub bouncer.
Above: Bill Murray, madras paparazzo. (AP photo)
The pizza they make in Cannes is unique: a less-is-more creation that is flat and crispy, thoroughly Mediterranean and packed with Riviera flavor. Alleged "European-style" pizzas peddled in the U. S. never seem to achieve that micron-thin crust covered by the faintest wash of tomato sauce, a mere garnish of cheese, and earthy ingredients that can include artichokes or thinly sliced eggplant, generous oregano, and tiny Cannes-grown olives (complete with pits). It's seared in an oven at an impossibly high temperature so that that everything melds into a glorious crackly flatbread that has nothing in common with the doughy excess of American pizza.
The opening day of the 65th Cannes Film Festival is a little like that local pizza, tasty and unique, providing a full range of experiences with just a few carefully chosen ingredients. The various competition events will be in full swing starting tomorrow morning, so today functions as a bit of an appetizer.
Even as festival workers were putting the final touches on the red carpet covering the famed steps up to the Grand Theater Lumiere for tonight's gala festival opening, the opening film, Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," was previewing for the international press at the Debussy Theater next door. Although Anderson is the darling of many critics, the only film of his that I've previously warmed up to was his droll animated feature "Fantastic Mr. Fox." "Moonrise Kingdom" had me enthralled from the first frame, and made me think that I need to take another look at his earlier work.