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Festivals: Cannes 2012

By Amy Taubin

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The shadow of the grim reaper hung over the Croisette this year

There she is—as moist and creamy white as the birthday cake she is holding, her blow-job-ready lips poised above its single candle—Marilyn Monroe, our Justine, poster girl, or rather poster woman, for the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Who could look at that image, mounted everywhere on the Croisette and now facing me on the cover of the catalogue on my desk, and not think of Monroe’s other humiliating birthday offering of herself, and also how age-inappropriate is the coupling of her inviting, disturbingly dutiful beauty with the inscription “Cannes 65.” Indeed, the festival had never seemed as over the hill as it did this year, trotting out far too many half-baked, dulling movies by directors recently or newly claimed for the Cannes brand, and, in the Competition, not one by a female director.

Cosmopolis

At first, I was fairly sanguine about the omission. Cannes isn’t responsible for seeing that films by women are produced. But as one picture after another rolled out, I could only think that their directors must have been given bonus points simply for being male. Surely the programmers must have seen just one movie directed by a woman that was at least as compelling as these mediocrities. For the record, zero entries by women were shown in the Competition and Out of Competition sections. In the Special Screenings section, out of nine movies, one was directed by a woman and two had female co-directors. In Un Certain Regard, three of 20 were by women; I saw two of them, Sylvie Verheyde’s Confession of a Child of the Century and Catherine Corsini’s Three Worlds. Both are indefensible. In one of his press conferences, festival director Thierry Frémaux promised to look harder for films by women next year.

By the way, it rained for days on end, which didn’t help anyone’s mood. On the other hand, the guards and ushers in the theaters and the Palais were utterly charming. I look forward to seeing them again next year. Because no matter how discouraged some of us were, we will return, in the hope that 2012 was an aberration rather than a sign that creative energy is draining from cinema itself. And in my case, because I saw one movie that I believe is a masterpiece. Having forsworn the rush to hyperbolic judgment that all but overwhelms the experience of the movies themselves at Cannes, I fell into the trap when I snapped in response to a critic loudly proclaiming David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis a bore: “It’s a masterpiece.” Since no respectable critic would make such a claim after only one viewing, and aching to see it again, I blew off the closing night festival movies (apologies to Noémie Lvovsky, whose Camille Rewinds would almost certainly have made my top 10 list if I had been at its Directors’ Fortnight screening) and went to the dank local multiplex where Cosmopolis had already opened. It was even better the second time around.

Cosmopolis is Cronenberg’s first movie since Videodrome to not only identify a particular zeitgeist but embody it in form and content. As television was to Videodrome, the digitalization of all information is to Cosmopolis. Cronenberg pulls no punches in showing us the digital death trip, and the result is exhilarating and liberating. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, the movie combines and radically distills—or perhaps the operative verb should be “abstracts,” since abstraction in art, economics, human connections, and just about everything else is what the movie implicitly asks us to evaluate—two old-fashioned genres: the psychodrama and the road movie. Cosmopolis maps a single day in the life of one Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, channeling Christopher Walken’s Queens accent to suggest that beneath the bespoke clothing and the mesmerizing perfection of his impassive face some roughness remains to betray his origins and, because it is beyond his control, signal his downfall—i.e., Pattinson is as subtle as he is spectacular. A billionaire currency trader, Packer has staked his fortune, and with it most likely the world economy, on his calculations that the Chinese yuan has risen as high as it can go. For the first time in his career he is wrong, but rather than cutting his losses, he lets the worst happen. (Cosmopolis is clearly set in the dystopian now, except that the yuan isn’t yet traded as other currencies are. It will be in the near future, and at that time it will surely replace the dollar as the most powerful currency, a fact that Eric cannot cope with, hence the failure of his system.)

At this inopportune moment, Eric decides to get a haircut from his childhood barber, a journey whose route takes him straight across Midtown Manhattan, from the East River where he lives in palatial splendor to the vestiges of Hell’s Kitchen on the Hudson. Most of the movie takes place inside Eric’s custom limo, its sleek black leather seating illuminated by monitors large and small (Cosmopolis appropriately marks Cronenberg’s conversion to digital cinematography), their light reminiscent of the jukeboxes of another era entirely. Stuck in traffic gridlock, Eric is visited and serviced by the important people in his life. The limo is the correlative of Eric’s psyche as well as his hearse. Its interior is so thoroughly soundproofed that neither the noise of the riots outside nor that of the car’s mechanisms penetrates the bubble in which Eric passively waits for death to claim him. Words hang in this vacuum as if they were concrete objects, like words in a dream.

Indeed the entire film is couched like the kind of anxiety dream in which one watches oneself from a distance engaging in a life-or-death struggle from which one feels disconnected until one wakes up screaming. Eric’s dream has lots of sex and lots of violence, all seemingly occurring by remote control. His disconnection is that of a psychopath. When he kills his loyal bodyguard so that he will be able to come face to face with his death on his own, never considering that the man is more than his function in Eric’s life, we know that his action is pathological, that he is entirely lacking in empathy, and yet he is also our Everyman. Aren’t we too letting what Freud called the death drive get the upper hand as the planet collapses, millions starve, and remote-controlled predator drones kill impersonally the innocent and the guilty alike. Cronenberg says nothing of this in the film, he just leaves the space for you to project your mind into Eric’s and the result is emotionally explosive.

Amour

Death was omnipresent on the screens of Cannes 2012, not merely careless, sensationalized death as in the bloated English-language genre films that Frémaux seems determined to include in the Competition (not even Brad Pitt on the red carpet can excuse the selection of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly and certainly not Shia LaBeouf in John Hillcoat’s Lawless) but the deaths that are usually modified with the adjective “senseless,” and, in fact, are a result of the institutionalized violence of the patriarchal family, the church, war and capitalism—the logical end of the last, per Cosmopolis, being murder. There is also the death that will inevitably come when the body fails in old age, even if one has tried to live according to Eros. Michael Haneke’s Amour, winner of the Palme d’Or and the most finely wrought work by this usually heavyhanded director, is an unsparing depiction of the last months of a husband and wife— Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva)—both classical music teachers who, in their eighties, are still active, cultured cosmopolitans. That suddenly changes when Anne suffers a stroke and is paralyzed on one side of her body. Georges devotes himself to her care. Haneke details both Georges’ labors and Anne’s frustration and embarrassment at not being able to feed or bathe herself or perform her bodily functions unassisted. As Anne declines, she loses the power to communicate through language and although on occasion she expresses the desire to die, her body continues to fight for life. Anyone who has lived with a person who is dying will recognize the accuracy of Haneke’s depiction and also that nothing comparable has ever been shown in a fiction film.

What makes Amour not only bearable but cathartic is the beauty of the filmmaking and the delicacy of the performances. Haneke’s control of the medium honors the characters and the actors who portray them, rather than reducing them to pawns in his game, as has often been the case in his previous films. Riva and Trintignant, for more than 50 years icons of French cinema, show incredible courage by rehearsing on screen the way their own lives may end in the not too distant future.

Our Children

Like Amour, Joachim Lafosse’s À perdre la raison (which seems to have been blandly retitled Our Children for English-language markets) is structured as a chronicle of death foretold. In the first scene of Amour, the police find Anne’s corpse, laid out on her bed, elegantly dressed and strewn with rose petals. The narrative then flashes back to the evening before her stroke and moves forward on its inevitable downhill trajectory. Our Children begins somewhat mysteriously with a woman lying in a hospital bed giving instructions for a funeral while two men, in the same room, are locked in an embrace that shuts out her suffering. We then see four small coffins ascending a ramp into a plane. The entire narrative, which begins a half-dozen years prior to this scene, is coded into those first images. The woman in the bed (Emilie Dequenne, more than fulfilling the promise of her debut in the Dardennes’ Rosetta) is a Belgian schoolteacher. She falls in love with and marries a handsome Moroccan man (Tahar Rahim) who lives with a doctor (Niels Arestrup) as a kind of surrogate son. (The actors are reprising something of their relationship in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet but Arestrup’s character is even more corrupt and controlling and Rahim’s more passive.) The doctor treats his surrogate daughter-in-law as a slave and a scapegoat, and her husband falls in line with him. She has four children in five years—three girls and a boy. They are her only joy and her only reason for living. Exhaustion and the daily assault on her self-worth by the two men cause her to lose her job and, gradually, her mind. The film is based on a real-life story that made headlines in the Belgian press. Lafosse explores the psychological and political truth beneath the tabloid clichés in a spare but furious attack on patriarchal authority. As tragedy, Our Children is both classical and contemporary.

While Cannes lacked strong female filmmakers, it delivered several powerful feminist films. In addition to Our Children, there were Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills and Yousry Nasrallah’s After the Battle. Despite some clumsy filmmaking and wooden acting, Nasrallah’s depiction of political wrangling in Egypt after the overthrow of Mubarak is extremely moving, particularly in showing how women’s rights and women’s causes were quickly shunted aside. Women seem not to be faring much better in the new Romania. Set in an impoverished Orthodox community, Beyond the Hills recalls Dreyer’s Day of Wrath albeit offering a mordant irony rather than the possibility of spiritual redemption.

Night Across the Street

Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet—which turns out not to be, as rumored, the 90-year-old director’s final film since he’s already in production with another—is less adventurous than the gloriously anarchic Wild Grass, but it is still surprising at every turn. Using Jean Anouilh’s 1942 adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Resnais breaches multiple conventional boundaries— between ancient and modern, theater and film, and even life and death—and embraces digital postproduction to create a marvelously fluid cinematic space that extends his lifelong surrealist project. Raúl Ruiz, in Night Across the Street, which, sadly, really is his final movie, builds a similarly oneiric, even more autobiographical memory cache, using the digital tools that define the future of cinema. Whether more than a tiny cult of cinephiles gives a petrol dollar about that particular future is the anxiety fueling Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Presented as a movie within a dream, Holy Motors is a quixotic homage to Paris and the cinema of those directors who found in the city and its movie screens a passage to the unconscious. That strange beauty Denis Lavant plays M. Oscar, a man of many guises, who seems to be hired by unseen clients for the purpose of enacting, in evocative locations, scenes reminiscent of their favorite movies. A thrilling dancer and acrobat, Lavant is also expert at involving us in a heartfelt exchange, for example, between a troubled teen and her father, until with a single gesture he turns the game inside out and shows us up for the chumps, or in one case chimps, that we are. Holy Motors is lively and entertaining, but every now and then I wished that Carax would commit to one route and follow it to the end.

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