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Cannes #6: Palme d'Odds

Cate Blanchett plays an American on vacation in Morocco with her husband (Brad Pitt) in "Babel," favored by some oddsmakers to win the Palme d'Or.

CANNES, France – Like any good bookie, Derek Malcolm carries his odds in his head. He revises them after every screening of a film in the official competition. Wednesday morning, the odds got a little longer for Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which is tipped as a front-runner for the Palme d’Or.

“Almodovar’s chances up a little, Coppola down a little,” Malcolm informed me. He is a British film critic, long with the Guardian, who early in life was a professional jockey. At Cannes he quotes the odds, you place your bet, he pays off at the end of the festival. This must be legal, since he makes no secret of it. Like all good bookies, he usually makes money no matter who wins.

Pedro Almodovar is now the front-runner at 9 to 4,” he told me. “Next best chance is ‘Babel,’ by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, at 7-2. ‘Marie Antoinette’ is 5-1.”

Almodovar’s “Volver” has been a favorite since early in the festival, but “Marie Antoinette” was expected to roll into town and swamp the competition. After its first press screening, it is no longer a sure winner. There was some applause but more booing, and although a French film critic at the Coppola press conference blamed the booing on “petit bourgeois,” other classes may also have been implicated. Variety, the showbiz bible, reported the booing was “Gallic-accented.” As a test I have been trying to boo with a French accent. I think a Gallic boo sounds like BOOoo! starting strong and fading abruptly, while an American boo sounds like a prolonged booOOO!

In any event, I did not boo. But I sensed some discontent. “I wanted to see heads rolling,” groused Baz Bamigboye, the famous Daily Mail columnist, and there seemed to be disappointment that the film ends well before the king and queen are beheaded.

“Marie Antoinette” is an ambitious film, visually splendid, with some of the most elaborate costumes in movie history, and the real Versailles as a location. Kirsten Dunst’s performance is perfectly suited to Coppola’s view of the role: Marie Antoinette as an unschooled 14-year-old princess from Austria, wed to the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) and marooned in the sadistic rituals of the French court (she is dressed and undressed with a roomful of courtiers; in bed on their wedding night the newlyweds are blessed by an archbishop and given a pep talk by her father-in-law, Louis XV).

The movie shows husband and wife paralyzed on the brink of sex for months, maybe years, until Marie’s brother (Danny Huston) visits Versailles and explains the conjugal mysteries to Marie’s husband in terms of the young man’s favorite hobby, locks and keys. Versailles is a court sealed against real life; Parisians starve and riot, while Marie shops, parties, gambles, and fools around with a Swedish count who is an expert locksmith.

All of these qualities in the film are real and tangible, and have a fascination. Yet I sensed a vague dissatisfaction not only at the lack of a guillotine, but at pacing which lingers over the early years of Marie’s marriage and then hastens toward a conclusion it never quite seems to reach. The film doesn’t fail, but neither does it triumph.

* * *

Now what about “Babel,” at 7-2 the runner-up in the Cannes derby? This is another powerful group of interconnected stories by Inarritu, whose "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" dealt with lives jolted by accident and joined by fate. In “Babel,” what the characters have is a problem in communication.

“Did you count the six languages in the film?” Cate Blanchett asked me at lunch. She plays an American tourist, married to Brad Pitt, who is shot and gravely wounded in Morocco. The bullet into their tourist bus is fired by a kid who is supposed to be protecting his goats from jackals; he shoots at the bus because he thinks the bullets won’t reach that far. Other stories in “Babel” involve Mexicans, Americans, and a Japanese deaf-mute girl.

Six languages? Well, the languages of the Moroccans, the Mexicans, the Americans, and the Japanese , and sign language. That’s only five.

“The subtitles,” Blanchett said. “In every scene, there is somebody who doesn’t understand what somebody else is saying. That puts the audience in the position of knowing more than the characters, because we can read the subtitles and they can’t.”

For example, I said, when the doctor says you will bleed to death and the translator tells your husband you will be fine?

“Exactly. The tragedy is, in countries like Germany, the whole film will be dubbed into German, so they’ll miss the additional dimension of the subtitles.”

* * *

Gael Garcia Bernal, a rising star ("Amores Perros," "Y tu Mama Tambien," "The Motorcycle Diaries") has personal experience with the situation of Mexicans who work in the United States.

“I have my visa renewed regularly,” he said. “I’ve had what we call Little Room Moments. They call you aside: Where do you come from? I say, Mexico. Where do you really come from? Mexico? My mother? My address? Are you here on business or pleasure? How can anyone be anywhere for only business or only pleasure?”

Bernal said both countries share the responsibility for the problems over illegal entry into the U.S. “America needs cheap labor or its food chain fails, and with undocumented workers, employers can pay low wages and not worry about insurance and health care. Yet the dollars these poor people send home are Mexico’s second-largest source of income, after oil. So both countries profit from these ‘invisible workers.’ And when Mexicans wire their money home, the banks take a 20 percent commission.”

American banks?

“Western Union, mostly.”

* * *

Inarritu, the director, said he is making progress: “Six years ago, when I was here with ‘Amores Perros,’ they wouldn’t let it in the competition. Now at least the jury can see it.”

He said his film is about borders and barriers: The American tourist almost dies because American authorities assume she was shot by a terrorist; a Mexican nanny’s American children almost die because her nephew recklessly flees a border check, and the Japanese girl desperately seeks sex as a way of breaking through her alienation.

“The one language everyone speaks,” he said, “is touch. That is another language in the film. When the wife touches her husband’s hand, when the Moroccan father lifts his child into his arms, when the Japanese girl is hugged by her father, then they understand. A doctor told me that when we touch one another, we cannot lie. If someone hugs you but they don’t really like you, you can tell.”

Maybe that was Marie Antoinette’s problem.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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