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And the Palme d'Whiskers goes to...


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.

As the festival winds down, images of armed conflict seem to be everywhere on the screen and in front of the Palais. The war in Iraq loomed large in Doug Liman's "Fair Game" and in Ken Loach's "Route Irish." "Outside of the Law," set in Algeria and Paris during the 1950s struggle for Algerian independence, brought with it some rather obvious reminders that this topic is a sensitive and inflammatory one in France. After the struggle for entry, the film itself proved to be anti-climactic. Although well-acted and likely to remain controversial in France for political reasons, it tells the kind of schematic story that has been treated many times before in many different films.


Three brothers of an Arab family that lost its land under French colonial rule end up in Paris, taking different paths in life. Messaoud, a former soldier, becomes a hardened organizer for the resistance. After serving a long prison term Abdelkader spearheads terrorist activities although increasingly wracked with guilt over the murders he's committed. Said eschews political involvement and becomes a boxing entrepreneur and Pigalle nightclub owner. With plodding predictability, differing ideologies bring the brothers into conflict with each other.

Perhaps authorities thought the press would attempt to bomb the Palais from the opposite side of the building, for security measures proved to be equally tight for entry to Hong Sangsoo's "Ha Ha Ha" in the Debussy Theatre a little later on Friday morning. For Hong, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate, conflicts generally play out in the arena of personal relationships. His male characters in particular, are subject to lovesick blunders, miscalculated attractions, and clueless self-serving maneuvers that often backfire.


"Ha Ha Ha" is poignant and low-key, less overtly comic than Hong's 2009 "Like You Know It All," and more similar in tone to his 2006 "Woman on the Beach." The story is told in flashback as two male buddies share drinks and trade stories about their separate summer holidays in the same seaside town. In their present encounter, the two friends are seen only in black-and-white photos with voiceover, while the past is seen in live-action sequences. On vacation, each falls in with some locals, and parallel tales of sexual longing, romantic one-upmanship, and secrets take shape. Personally, I still consider "Woman on the Beach" to exemplify Hong's best work, but "Ha Ha Ha" is an entertaining farce with some endearingly goofy moments.

Hong's fellow School of the Art Institute graduate Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka "Joe" to his Chicago friends, premiered his film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" for the press on Thursday night. This is a haunting and haunted film, quite literally about ghosts. Uncle Boonmee, a man in the terminal stage of kidney disease, is being cared for by relatives in a remote and beautiful forest cottage. One evening at dinner, the family is visited by the ghosts of Boonmee's dead wife and son.


This is a film composed of stunningly imaginative scenes, and of some that come close to endangering the delicate spell of the story. Boonmee's wife enters the tale as a transparent shade and solidifies into a concrete character, but his son is a black, furry figure with light-up red eyes, one of a tribe of spirit-animals that inhabit the woods. Ghosts dressed in what are rather obviously gorilla costumes with light-bulb eyes might be hard to pull off in any film, and Weerasethakul walks a fine line: sometimes this image works, and sometimes it's just plain ludicrous.

On the other hand, "Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" has shown me some of the most lovely and memorable images to be found in all this year's festival. Most awe-inspiring is a sequence in which one of the female characters is seated by the side of a waterfall dressed as a princess. Looking at her own reflection in the water, she is seduced by a catfish. The princess wades deeply into the pool against a backdrop of falling water, divesting herself of the elaborate trappings of her royal garb one piece at a time. She then mates with her seducer, and although it may be hard to envision a sex act between a woman and a fish, this is carried out in a spell-binding way under an aura of folkloric magic.

After the chaotic conditions surrounding a press screening of Ken Loach's "Route Irish" on Thursday, I finally succeeded in seeing the film at another screening. There's an oft-repeated line in that film, "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time." At Cannes, sometimes you're in the wrong film at the wrong time. I felt that way half an hour into Fabrice Gobert's "Lights Out," a superficial French confection larded with sappy pop songs, about teenagers being picked off by a psycho killer. I took off, and instead ducked in to a market screening of the Bulgarian comedy "Mission London" by Dimitar Mitovski.


"Mission London" isn't a great film, but it provided a rocking good time and a perfect antidote to an overdose of the artistic pretension that characterizes a few films in the official selection. This film doesn't pretend to be anything but popular entertainment, and in that it succeeds quite well. The Bulgarian ambassador to London plans to celebrate Bulgaria's acceptance into the EU with a lavish historical pageant presented at the embassy. His nation's imperious first lady has demanded that he guarantee the presence of Queen Elizabeth as a guest or his job is on the line.

There are pole dancers and celebrity impersonators, rare ducks missing from a London park that end up in a freezer at the embassy, the Russian mafia, a chorus line of Bulgarian spear-bearers, pyrotechnics, and more. I had a few good laughs and left "Mission London" thinking happy thoughts about the diversity of world cinema.

market.jpgThe empty film market. (Photo by Barbara Scharres)

A stroll through the film market on Friday afternoon revealed that that most of the marketeers have already packed up and departed. Market stands are empty, literature racks are bare, and packing cases await pickup. Laborers wheel away video monitors on carts and hand-trucks are piled high with shipping cases full of 35mm film prints. Barely more than a week ago the scene was the same, but it was all being set up.

One thing left to do, and that's to attend the press screening of the closing night film, Kornel Mundruczo's "Tender Son--The Frankensten Project." The title in Hungarian is "Szelid Teremtes," and I've dubbed it "Squalid Termites." I wish I could say that the festival closed with a masterpiece, but that's not the case.

"Tender Son" is loosely based (very loosely indeed) on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and it's like a bad parody of a European art film. It sounds more interesting than it actually is. A film director conducting a screen test with a hostile but expressionless 17-year-old boy puts him in a compromising situation with an over-eager teen girl, and tragedy results. The seemingly orphaned boy soon discovers who he is and where he came from, with even more tragic results.


There is no resemblance to real human emotions or relationships. Characters interact by staring at each other blankly, and speak only in terse sentences with l-o-n-g silences in between. To me, this film was contrived and pointless. If the real point in presenting "Tender Son" as the closing film was to make everyone relieved that the festival is over, I guess it did the job.

Another journalist asked me yesterday for my award predictions, and I asked whether she meant my predictions or my preferences. I'm not very good at predicting what the jury will choose, so I won't even speculate in that area. I can only say what I would give awards to if I were voting.

hanyo.jpgIm Sangsoo's "The Housemaid."

My top choices for the Palme d'Or would include the two Korean films, "The Housemaid" by Im Sangsoo and "Poetry" by Lee Chang-dong. One or both of these would also get Best Actress. Unfortunately, "Carlos" by Olivier Assayas screened out of competition, because I would give that film some kind of prize, including Best Actor to star Edgar Ramirez. My choices would also include "Another Year" by Mike Leigh, and "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I'd give the Camera'd'Or for best first film to "October" by Daniel and Diego Vega. But I'm not on the jury, so who knows?

Now, for some fun: it's time to name the winner of the second annual Palme d'Whiskers, my imaginary award for Best Feline Performance at this year's Cannes film festival. The jury was small again this year, just me. These kitties don't have names in their roles, so I'm taking the liberty of naming them. The nominees are:

1. The persistent tabby stalking a caged bird in Manuel de Oliveira's "The Strange Case of Angelica." I'll call him "Manny."

2. The majestic gray cat that was ready for his close-up in Xavier Dolan's "Heartbeat." I'll call him "Puff."

3. The lively ensemble of hungry cats gracing a living room in Agnes Kocsis's "Adrienn Pal." I'll call them "The Budapest Quintet."

4. The chortling pair of striped-and-white kitties in Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme." I've named them "Jean" and "Luc."

5. The black-and-white tuxedo tom in Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy." His big scene involved being cuddled by Juliette Binoche. There's even a hint in the movie that this handsome boy has a name: "Professor Meow."

Second place goes to "Manny" of "The Strange Case of Angelica," for his intense performance in a supporting role.

And this year's Palme d'Whiskers goes to (ta-da): "Jean" and "Luc" of "Film Socialism" for their sustained and witty chirping dialogue that won the hearts of cat-lovers and cat-haters alike, creating goodwill for felines worldwide.

That's all for this year, folks!

whiskers.jpgJean and Luc, or possibly the other way around.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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