By Gavin Smith
It was a year with plenty of firsts: French triple threat Agnès Jaoui co-wrote, co-starred in, and directed the first decent Woody Allen movie in 20 years. Wong Kar-wai unveiled his first Lewis Klahr film. Michael Moore gave us the first motion picture that will certainly influence a U.S. election. And for the first time in long while, opening night featured a superior film by a major auteur.
That would be Pedro Almodóvar, who takes a bold leap sideways with the uncharacteristically somber, intricately structured Bad Education, which played out of competition. This reckoning with Church and Cinema, the filmmaker's twin formative influences, revisits the territory of his early career with the matured sensibility and formal control that have distinguished his work from Flower of My Secret onward. As intoxicatingly stylized as any of Almodóvar's recent films, it forsakes swooning emotion for a cooler, Chinese-box approach as its movie-director protagonist uncovers the backstory of a long-lost boyhood friend and fellow Catholic-school survivor who shows up one day with a dynamite screenplay under his arm. Bad Education is both teasingly autobiographical and, in its emphasis on the terrible burden of the past, overtly Hitchcockian, almost immediately invoking Vertigo and Psycho. It shades from melodrama into murder mystery by way of a succession of doublings, reversals, and unreliable narrators. The action takes place during the twilight of the Franco era and the dawn of Spain's transformation into a modern democracy—and that's no accident. "This society puts my freedom above your hypocrisy," one character declares, and this line resonates throughout the film as Almodóvar employs an elaborate flashback construction to square the circle between Catholicism and cinephilia, mirroring regimes that forge together trauma and nostalgia, oppression and rapture.
Two competition standouts, Lucrecia Martel's continuously astounding The Holy Girl and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's exquisitely oneiric Tropical Malady, incontrovertibly demonstrated that Argentina and Thailand are now firmly entrenched on the movie front lines. The same goes for Korean cinema, which, confirming its decisive comeback, was represented at both ends of its spectrum by Hong Sang-soo's wry moral comedy Woman Is the Future of Man and Park Chan-wook's pulverizing Old Boy. The festival shamelessly served up the latter, a state-of-the-art helping of Extreme Asian hyperpulp, for the personal delectation of jury president Quentin Tarantino, and it was no big surprise when the runner-up Grand Prize went to Park. In this high-concept manga adaptation, already set for a Hollywood remake, a defiantly antisocial misfit finds himself enmeshed in an inexplicable and infernally baroque mindfuck. By the end of reel one he's been kidnapped, incarcerated in a mocked-up apartment, framed for murder, brainwashed, and put on a diet of shrimp dumplings and nonstop TV. He stays sane (more or less) by transforming himself into a rage-filled, revenge-ready one-man army. By the time he's cut loose 15 years later, he resembles a bedraggled desert-island castaway incongrously outfitted in a sharp suit. Park keeps the twists coming and handles the kick-ass setpieces with droll flair (notably, a bravura continuous shot as his hero fights his way through a corridor gauntlet), steadily building to a denouement whose perversity is worthy of Jacobean tragedy. The same goes for Choi Min-suk's intensely physical lead performance, which careens from raving belligerence to groveling abjection. The final ignorance-is-bliss resolution, in which Park's protagonist frees himself from unbearable knowledge by submitting to hypnosis, would make Charlie Kaufman proud.
The demoralizing effect of imprisonment also features prominently in The Ordeal (Calvaire), a blackly comic slice of Grand Guignol presented in the Critics' Week sidebar. Working the rest- home circuit in the middle of winter, traveling performer Marc (the ever creepy Laurent Lucas), whose van breaks down in the backwoods, is taken in by a jovial but increasingly deranged innkeeper, effectively played by popular French comic actor Jackie Berroyer. Like several other characters, the innkeeper projects his own dissociative desires onto Marc, mistaking him for the wife who deserted him years before. His van torched, Marc is held captive, brutalized, and forced to wear the wife's clothes—and just when you think things can't get any worse, the guy from Seul contre tous shows up leading a pack of demented inbred locals. Working with a suitably drab desaturated Super-16 palette, first-time director Fabrice Du Welz draws heavily on the macabre domestic slapstick of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the rural paranoia of Straw Dogs and Deliverance for this unsettling male-anxiety fantasy, striking the right balance between grim sadism and grotesque comedy. It isn't something you haven't seen before, but it gets to you all the same.
Every year Cannes has a good crop of distinctive work from the Middle East. Standouts this year included In the Battlefields from Lebanon, Thirst (Atash) from Israel/Palestine, and Earth and Ashes from Afghanistan—a trio of striking, widely divergent takes on strained family ties in times of historical stress. Shown in Un Certain Regard, Earth and Ashes is set during the Soviet occupation and centers on an old man and his young grandson waiting at a remote outpost in hopes of reaching the mine where the boy's father works—to tell him the rest of his family has been killed by Russian bombs. Director and co-writer Atiq Rahimi has a striking compositional sense and employs a slow, deliberate pace, making the most of the blasted landscape while ably capturing the disconnected, off-kilter dynamic between the dazed and distraught grandfather and the disoriented child, left deaf by the bombing. Danielle Arbid's In the Battlefields, presented in the Directors' Fortnight, is an acutely observed, distinctly unsentimental coming-of-age story set in Beirut in the early Eighties, filtered through the point of view of Lina, a neglected 12-year-old Catholic girl whose family lives in a permanent state of suppressed hysteria. The film focuses on Lina's relationship with Siham, her stern aunt's 18-year-old Syrian maid, on whom she develops a crush and who introduces her to the world of the opposite sex while using her as a means to abscond for clandestine dates. The civil war is kept offscreen, occasional bursts of gunfire and nighttime artillery bombardments notwithstanding, and it's displaced onto the domestic realm. You feel the presence of the larger conflict in the disintegration of the parents' marriage, mounting tension over the father's gambling habit, and the pervasive sense of corrosive self-interest that underpins the characters' dealings with one another and eventually taints Lina and Siham's relationship. Directed with a sure hand and impressively acted by its ensemble cast, Thirst is a brooding, somewhat cryptic but decidedly purposeful allegory of Palestinian dispossession, intergenerational strife, and patriarchal power. A disenchanted youth and his two older sisters chafe under the rule of their domineering father, toiling day after day as charcoal makers, living a life of enforced deprivation in an abandoned village. The son would rather go to school; one daughter inhabits a world of her own and the other is haunted by an unstated transgression that has brought disgrace to the family. The patriarch meanwhile obsesses over his vision of stealing running water from a nearby but unseen settlement (the film implies but never shows the Israeli presence). Director Tawfik Abu Wae captures the desolate beauty of his setting, and though it's not always clear what everything signifies, and the motivations remain opaque, the action is completely absorbing. The film ends enigmatically but seems to suggest that one generation inherits the mantle of the previous generation's fanatical cause at a heavy price.