Everyone seems to believe that Tim Burton and his festival jury did the best they could with slim pickings. The 2010 winners at Cannes were for the most part fair, well-distributed, uncontroversial and safe. You could say the same about the films in the festival.
Last year I left Cannes having seen "Up," "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," "Antichrist," "Inglourious Basterds," "Broken Embraces," "A Prophet," "The White Ribbon," "Police, Adjective," "Thirst," and many other good films. Of the first "Antichrist" screening, I wrote: "There's electricity in the air. Every seat is filled, even the little fold-down seats at the end of every row."
This year, I saw some good films, but felt little electricity. The opening night fun of "Up" was replaced by the drudgery of "Robin Hood." I was in awe of Mike Leigh's "Another Year" and the the South African "Life Above All," but not much else. I didn't see some of the winners, including "Of Gods and Men" and Kiarostami's "Certified Copy," for boring reasons having nothing to do with my desire to see them. Of the other films I saw, the only real enthusiasm I felt was for the Inarritu's "Biutiful," Bertrand Tavernier "The Princess of Montpensier," the first Chad feature "A Screaming Man," the South Korean "Poetry" and the out-of competition documentary "Inside Job."
I await a second viewing of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's winner of the Palme d'Or, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." I felt affection and respect for it, but no passion. But reflect that when you see a subdued and challenging film late in the festival, you come to it dazed with movie overload. I know myself well enough to suspect it will play much better first thing on a Monday morning at a press screening here in Chicago.
Weerasethakul (photo at top), who says we can call him Joe, has made a film about a man who moves through planes of existence that involve humans, animals, spirits, memories, dreams and fantasies. The man is in the last stages of kidney failure, being cared for by a male nurse in an unexplained house that seems to be surrounded by jungle. His dead wife and son come to visit. Mystical characters materialize and interact with nature. The voices are mostly muted. The forest is enveloping.
There are many theories about the film. I have one that may be completely off the wall. If the dying man is on pain medication, this may be a literal transcription of his hallucinatory dreams. At stages of my own surgeries, I was on a good deal of pain med, and had dreams or fantasies that remain, to this moment, more vivid than many of my actual memories. Even without drugs, he could be moving toward a mental reconciliation of death and nature. Then nothing needs to be explained, not even when his son appears as an ape with glowing red eyes. It is all his mind sorting through available images. The key, I think, is to declare the film to be entirely from his point of view, and not an objective one.
Of other winners, all are honorable except one, which is inexplicable. The jury awarded the best director award to Mathieu Amalric for "Tournee" ("On Tour"), the story of a failed TV producer touring France with a troupe of American burlesque performers not in the first bloom of youth.
I like the situation. The women are road warriors, experienced performers who work hard, party a little, laugh a lot and like each other most of the time. They look like the real thing because they are; they've performed in revivals of old-time burlesque. They're deliberate parodies of the bump-and-grind artistes who used to parade at houses like the old Follies on South State Street. They trowel on so much makeup they would make drag queens look fresh-scrubbed.
They're natural and convincing, and the footage involving them feels like it belongs in a documentary. Nothing feels very scripted, and there's a lot of spontaneity. The problem is with the surrounding plot involving the tour manager, played by Amalric himself. The development and resolution of issues in his own life makes an awkward fit with the strippers, who are so defiantly real they resist standing in for any needs or deprivations of his own. The two threads of the film never come together, and that's why it's strange that the jury should have chosen it for Best Direction.
The jury prize went to "A Screaming Man," a film from Chad by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun that I greatly admired. In a way, it was Murnau's "The Last Laugh" transplanted to an African nation in recent times, torn by civil war. I respond warmly to films that closely observe a few people and how they work and live, and this one supplied a human context for year after year of news about war and unease in remote places.
Adam was the swimming champ of central Africa years ago and now rules in his handsome uniform over the swimming pool of a luxury hotel. As perilous times come, he is demoted to the post of guarding the hotel gate. "But the pool is my life," he cries. The unique quality of the movie is to look at Adam's life, the way he values his job almost more than his son, and the way status conferred by a Western hotel has bewitched him. The film is well-made, but that isn't the point: It has a world to tell us about, it opens our lives, and for some it will be the first experience of Chad they have ever had.
Apart from the films themselves, a general cloud of gloom and doubt seemed to hang over the Croisette. The films that Cannes favors are hard to finance this year. Serious directors find themselves frustrated. Everything is falling apart. Manohla Dargis wrote of her complex feelings upon discovering that Cannes, even Cannes, seems ready to abandon film for video.
While the festivals was underway, the announcement came that some studios want to release their big first-run films to On Demand TV within a month of their theatrical openings. This is bad news for theaters, bad news for what seeing a movie has traditionally meant, and bad news for adults, because that distribution pattern will lend itself to easily-promoted "high concept" trivia.
I've been to 35 festivals in Cannes. I'll tell you the truth. I doubt if there will even be a Cannes Film Festival in another 35 years. If there is, it will have little to do with the kinds of films and audiences we grew up treasuring. More and more, I'm feeling it's goodbye to all that.