Cannes 2009: Take Two
By Gavin Smith
Gavin Smith finds 2009 Cannes' lineup solid yet slightly predictable for (admittedly jaded) regulars
This year’s competition lineup was ostensibly choice—a couple of Old Masters, 10 mid-career Big Guns, and eight designated Up-and-Comers—but it felt a bit predictable to (admittedly jaded) Cannes regulars. The reason for that may well be due to the absence of X factors—the unknown quantities that makes discovery and surprise possible. Every recent Competition lineup has usually featured at least one out-of-nowhere breakout (at least in Cannes terms): Brillante Mendoza (08), Cristian Mungiu (07), Andrea Arnold (06), Masahiro Kobayashi (05), etc. But this year every filmmaker was a Competition veteran and in many cases a previous prizewinner—with the exception of Isabel Coixet, hardly a festival-circuit spring chicken, who finally made it to the top of the world with a film that most people either skipped or dismissed. Given the increasingly commercial, audience-friendly bent of the films in the Big Top of the three-ring circus that is Cannes (the other two rings being the Directors’ Fortnight and the Critics’ Week), it’s a safe bet that Pedro Costa, whose Colossal Youth played in Competition three years ago, won’t be walking up the red carpet again unless his next film stars Asia Argento or is produced by Wild Bunch, or both. (There were those on the Croisette who grumbled that the bold, edgy French production company’s fast-burning-fuse logo popped up a suspicious number of times on Palais screens and by my count they had seven films in the official selection. Is that a suspicious number? You decide.)
The nine-person jury was led by Isabelle Huppert, who’s nobody’s fool, and featured people of the caliber of Hanif Kureishi, Lee Chang-dong, and—ah! there she is again, making only her second appearance in this article—Asia Argento. They understandably gave the Palme d’Or to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and the general feeling was that the professorial, forbidding Austrian, who had been in the Competition on four previous occasions, was well overdue for the Big One. Certainly one of the best films in competition, this story of sinister misdeeds in a hamlet in Northern Germany just before World War I is a horror movie of sorts—the obvious reference point was Village of the Damned—although its true roots are in the postwar German Heimatfilm genre, which it comprehensively subverts. With its slow, deliberate pace, exactingly framed black-and-white compositions, novelistic array of characters, and mounting sense of unease, it’s a completely absorbing experience. Aiming for a forensic examination of the deep origins of Nazism, the film depicts a world of quiet, unrelenting emotional repression. The patriarchs of its five central households are nameless and identified only by their functions, which precisely delineate the social hierarchy in Haneke’s microcosm: Baron, Pastor, Doctor, Steward, and Farmer. The director uses this community and the inexplicable acts of cruelty that disturb its order to play out the inexorable dynamics of class conflict whereby the German petite bourgeoisie gained power over the aristocracy and the working class. Schematic perhaps, but convincing and authoritative.
Another Heimatfilm, I suppose, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (subtitled “Chronicle of a Present Absentee”) left the festival empty-handed. The consensus was that the film was basically more of the same from the world’s most famous “Palestinian-Israeli” director (Divine Intervention, Special Jury Prize 2002) but with a great final 30 minutes—a rare feat, if you think about it, since the final 30 minutes is when most films usually fall apart. If Suleiman set out with high ambitions—a semiautobiographical four-part “period epic” spanning 50 years in the life of a middle-class Nazareth family—he was accused of staying within the comfort zone of his familiar vignette style and tonal oscillation between deadpan irony and melancholic detachment. (Nobody much objected that Haneke didn’t venture outside his stylistic comfort zone.) In fact, the handling of the film’s first section, set during the nakba of 1948 and depicting the participation of Suleiman’s father in the ineffectual resistance to the advancing Israeli forces, is considerably tougher and sharper than anything the director has served up previously. The film then skips to the Seventies for Suleiman’s childhood and teenage years, shifting to wry observation of the contradictions of life as an Israeli-Palestinian, and on to the early Eighties where things do start to feel a little déjà vu with Suleiman once again playing himself as a silent, mournful observer of his parents waning years. But the movie does indeed end beautifully with the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” to which the correct response would be: inshallah.
The next generation standouts in Un Certain Regard were Mia Hansen-Løve’s deeply moving The Father of My Children and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s deeply strange Dogtooth, the section’s prizewinner. Hansen-Løve’s film, inspired by the life and death of esteemed French independent producer Humbert Balsan, who committed suicide in 2005, is structured in two parts: before and after. In the first half we follow the frantic comings and goings and gradual unraveling of producer Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), shuttling between his office and his home. He’s juggling the demands and crises of multiple projects at different stages of production while negotiating with bankers and lawyers as cash flow dries up and bankruptcy looms. But he’s also juggling his beloved family—his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and his three daughters—and the surrogate one at his company offices. It’s the stuff of nervous breakdowns. At the halfway mark Grégoire reaches breaking point and shoots himself. The second part deals with the aftermath as Sylvia moves center stage, first coping with this devastating loss and then struggling to keep the company going. The hectic first half is a compelling and utterly convincing depiction of the day-to-day working life of an overextended film producer, and it conveys the incredible pressures that have to be endured and the seemingly limitless energy required to keep the show on the road, so vividly that you’ll feel exhausted. But impressive as this is, Hansen-Løve never loses sight of the emotional core of the story—the predicament of a workaholic whose passionate commitment to making movies is coming between him and the family he is devoted to and fears he may lose. If it’s arguably one of the most authentic depictions of life in the movie business, it’s also an incredibly tender and heartbreaking without ever getting sentimental. Hansen-Løve’s 2007 directorial debut, All Is Forgiven (another story of a family under strain) was impressive; The Father of My Children is a big leap forward that confirms her considerable talent.
Dogtooth likewise builds on the promise of its director’s first effort. Lanthimos’s Kinetta (05) was an elliptical sui generis whatsit detailing cryptic and distinctly perverse/obsessive goings-on in an off-season resort town. Less formally vertiginous and more legible but if anything even more perverse, Dogtooth’s conceit is simple enough: a businessman, with the collusion of his wife, has raised his three children in an idyllic villa compound outside town, completely sealed off from contact with the outside world. They live like a normal middle-class family except for the fact that the now-teenaged children have been taught the wrong words for everything: a salt shaker is a “telephone,” daisies are “zombies,” and so on. That and the fact that the father arranges regular visits from a young female employee to relieve his kids’ sexual urges. The air of incestuousness hovering over this series of scenes from the daily life of a not-so-average Greek family is inevitable but never comes out into the open—the scenario also suggests some kind of outsider-science experiment in socialization and conditioning that’s gone too far.
If it was hard to know how to take Kinetta, which was intolerable to many, Dogtooth is clearly an absurdist comedy of some sort. Lanthimos’s perverse sensibility is all his own, even if Dogtooth’s premise recalls that of Arturo Ripstein’s 1973 film The Castle of Purity and there’s a whiff of early Egoyan about things. Somewhere up in the heaven he didn’t believe in, Buñuel is doubtless smiling approvingly.