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Cannes Roundtable II: On Carax, Resnais, Kiarostami, Lee Daniels, and more

on May 25, 2012

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Holy Motors

The discussion continues... now with a larger table! Participants: Joumane Chahine, Stefan Grissemann of Profil, Marco Grosoli of La Furia Umana, and Amy Taubin, Gavin Smith, and Scott Foundas of Film Comment.

Gavin Smith: This has been one of the least strong editions of Cannes that I’ve attended in a long time, even though there are certainly strong films, as there are every year.

Stefan Grissemann: The Carax [Holy Motors] was a very interesting, daring, courageous piece, sprawling in all directions but fresh and unique. I liked it, but my colleagues might not share that opinion. Denis Lavant, who is a very physical actor, gave very theatrical performances. For me, this year was not one of my least interesting experiences at Cannes. There have been six or seven out of 15 or 16 so far that were quite interesting. It’s a mixed bag, but that’s quite a good rate.

Scott Foundas: People who have been coming to Cannes much longer than I have seem to be saying this Cannes is the most this, or the least this. But this is my ninth or tenth time here, and I’ve rarely felt that one year is so dramatically different from another, and once five or six months go by, you still usually see the major films of the year at Cannes.

Gavin: Cannes does seem to have a ripple effect across the year.

Amy Taubin: We don’t know if the state of film in the world has sunk so far from where it was 10 years ago that there just aren’t good films around, and this year is just a reflection of that. But this is just a terrible Cannes. There are a handful of films that are very good, but I can’t make a list of 10 films that I want to report about. That’s never been the case.

Marco Grosoli: I do share the opinion that this is one of the less interesting Cannes in recent years, but the real problem was Un Certain Regard. It’s acceptable to have some filler in the Competition. But if a lot of this is in Un Certain Regard as well, then it’s a problem. Since 2009, Un Certain Regard has gotten much better than in past years, but this year I don’t see that. A few titles were interesting.

Stefan: One film that I really enjoyed was Raul Ruiz's La noche de enfrente. It ties in quite nicely with the Carax, because it has a soft, existential surrealism that’s melancholic and farcical at the same time. It’s a very free film—ideologically, spiritually, and aesthetically.

Amy: The Joachim Lafosse film, A perdre la raison, in Un Certain Regard was terrific. Just about one of my top five films. Someone said that you couldn’t put that in Competition because of the Haneke—that they’re the same film. But there are many films about death where you see at the beginning what you see at the end. Why can’t you put it there? You have two films that center on white stretch limousines in the Carax and in Cosmopolis, so why can’t you have two films about death? The way this thing was programmed makes no sense at all.

Gavin: A perdre la raison was one of the highlights of Un Certain Regard.

Joumane Chahine: It would be unoriginal to say that I liked the Haneke and Mungiu. I’ve been unlucky, nothing really so far. I’m not going to blame the selection. The Americans so far have been disappointing. Kiarostami and Hong Sang-soo as well. I think Hong Sang-soo is bringing meaninglessness to a new level. People around me seemed to enjoy it but I saw no whimsicality, only emptiness.

Scott: I agree on the Hong, but I quite like Kiarostami’s In Another Country. It has quite a poetic sense of people who might have had a romance if they had met at some other point in their lives, or if they’d been born at different times. They’re two people not matched in age, but matched in other senses. I like how Kiarostami plays with your sense of who Akiko is. Is she the woman from the painting, is she Takashi’s granddaughter, is she some reincarnation of his wife?

Amy: She’s a student with a part-time job as a call girl, like many people. This is the most banal thing, gussied up. She says, “What is your fantasy? I’ll play it out.” This was idiocy. The guy got out of Iran, and all he can think of is faked identity where there isn’t faked identity. I’m thinking of Kiarostami’s film before this one, too.

Scott: I prefer it to the experimental narrative video-art projects Kiarostami was doing for the last decade. He’s come back a bit with these last two films.

Marco: It’s true it was idiotic, but that’s not necessarily a problem. What Scott said was true, too. The real problem was that it was all shown according to a very simple play of narrative symmetries, and if the narrative splits from the visual, at least for Kiarostami, this is going to be a problem. You have one very thin plot, no more substantial than the joke. I don’t like films that end on a punch line. The Hong Sang-soo was for me one of the best films in Competition and one of the best he’s ever done. Rarely has he reached such a narrative density, such a highly layered text, as far as symmetries and lines are concerned.

Gavin: I feel as if Hong is committing himself to being a minor filmmaker and staying in a narrow field.

Stefan: Maybe he’s modest or moderate instead of minor?

Joumane: That is OK. You can be a wonderful modest filmmaker. Not everyone does that.

Stefan: Like the Reygadas, for example: Post Tenebras Lux. It’s an embarrassing film, but I don’t want to be dogmatic. It just seems to be so self-loving and so self-conscious about its own meaning.

Gavin: I wasn’t expecting much and found myself liking it. Visually, it’s stunning. It was shot on Kodak. Is it a major film? No, but I think it’s a perfectly decent addition to his body of work. He is a curious example of a filmmaker who, unlike Haneke, does not seem to make films about a world or people he knows. These are urban people in rural settings.

Post Tenebras Lux

Scott: He made a movie in his own house because he has adopted this life outside the big city. I think he’s very much making a film about the world he knows—the non-white Mexicans you would find in a place like that. This to me is Reygadas’s Tree of Life or 2001. He’s grappling with cosmic issues of death, childbirth, parenthood, love, but doing it less overtly. I didn’t feel it had any less depth or reach than those movies, and I was completely captivated. I think it’s one of his best films.

Gavin: I didn’t understand it quite as deeply, but I liked it just as much.

Amy: I’m suffering from digital depression at this festival—one digital film after another in which there is a total absence of light. I liked the Carax, but it looks terrible. The Reygadas looks gorgeous on the screen, but there’s nothing else there for me. I’m not a fan of his films. It’s weird to see it next to the Carax because they’re doing the same thing: grappling with identity and true feeling and having a kid. But the Carax makes references to the films we’ve loved over the history of cinema, while the Reygadas references are all to the past 10 years, to totally minor filmmakers. I don’t care about those films either because they’re minor. Do I want to sit through a language of that? I don’t at all.

Scott: I think there’s a shift in world cinema. It’s not necessarily minor. I don’t find the Reygadas film minimalistic. It’s very personal. I don’t think something like Uncle Boonmee is minor—in his way, that’s his Tree of Life or 2001.

Amy: You can take a grand subject and still make a minor film. He’s still a minor filmmaker and he’s only interesting to people who have not grown up with the avant-garde. And that’s what’s happening here. People who have no knowledge of the first avant-garde or even the second avant-garde think these films are fantastically experimental and they aren’t.

Gavin: What about Killing Them Softly? I had the sense it has few fans.

Marco: I was quite impressed by the film, even if it doesn’t add anything to Andrew Dominik’s previous film. It is as if The Assassination of Jesse James tried to develop an interesting discourse around the end of myth. In the beginning, you think it will be a banal allegory for what has been going on with the economic crisis, but halfway through, the myth and the news swap places. The narration moves further and further away from standard narration, and ends up in that swampy region between the Seventies and contemporary TV that Jesse James also entered. This has a way of demystifying storytelling: myth is on the news, literally, in the film. The fact that they are so infernally intertwined makes it a good film.

Amy: How did you feel about that position in relation to Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy?

Marco: He’s less subtle. I thought it would be worse than it was. He’s not subtle in making the subtext explicit, but we have seen worse stuff by Spike Lee in recent years so we shouldn’t complain.

The Paperboy

Scott: At least Spike Lee knows where to put the camera. There are interesting things in Lee Daniels’s films. But with Precious and even Shadowboxer they always feel to me completely by accident, haphazard. He’s trying and imitating so many styles. He has good instinct for casting.

Amy: This is one of the most audacious and interesting films here. The Paperboy was a nonfiction book by a white guy, an exposé seriously written as a piece of new journalism. Daniels turns it into a pot boiler written by a black woman, played by Macy Gray—who obviously is his surrogate in this film—writing this story of the white South. He puts a black point of view on this white myth of brooding sexuality in the swamps, giving it a totally different perspective. I found it hilarious and audacious. I don’t think there’s an audience that will understand it. These people look like unredeemable fools. Macy Gray’s character is the narrative voice of the film, and tells them this is just the way it was, in her own words.

Scott: I think everything you say is the intention of the film—and it was rendered slapdash without any guiding principle of style or tone. The randomness is consistent with his other films.

Gavin: It’s funny, normally I have a problem with that, but I didn’t mind it in this film. I somewhat disapprove of the flashiness in his technique, but somehow it comes off. I’m not sure why. There’s no coherent aesthetic approach, but I don’t mind.

Stefan: It seems as if he doesn’t trust the story that much, and so he uses these virtuoso techniques by accident, making things overcomplicated so you don’t get the story at first. I think it’s all style and no story. The film is very simplistic but he hides it under a lot of technique.

Gavin: I was surprised by On the Road. I liked it more than I have liked anything by Salles. I read the original novel years ago. It’s based on real people, but the film takes the fun out of that. It feels like a film about On the Road rather than a film that’s an adaptation of On the Road. What I wanted to see was the true story behind the fiction—a few people have tried to make that film, unsuccessfully. Toward the end, this film starts to develop a more critical view of Dean Moriarty, but I’m not sure that the disillusionment that Salles bears towards Dean is in the book. He’s trying to have it both ways: an adaptation of the book and getting at the actual people behind it. He needed to commit to one or the other. Maybe someone like Todd Haynes might have made a more successful film. But it’s an enjoyable ride—no pun intended.

Scott: I agree basically with your take. It’s probably Salles’ best film. I never really took to him. He’s a proficient but uninspired filmmaker, and he’s often glamorizing the lives of poor people and making things look too pretty. This film looks too pretty for the world it’s set in and the people it’s about, but it did go into a more interesting place. The sequences in San Francisco and Mexico I thought were actually quite well done. There’s some good acting. The material is very difficult to adapt for a film, in the same way everyone tries to adapt Hunter Thompson. What people love about the book is the language and the atmosphere. It’s not narrative-driven, and that’s exposed when you make a film about it. Maybe if Malick made it, and it was just mood and glances and impressionistic, it might have been better. It was a surprise in many ways, that it was respectable and sometimes more that.

Joumane: I agree that in the end something emerged, but the first two-thirds needed serious editing. The whole experience felt flat. The acting was good, but these were not at all 1950s people on the screen. Kristen Stewart felt like a grungy teenager. Was that intentional on the part of Salles to create this dissonance or was this a byproduct? In either case it didn’t work.

Gavin: Let’s talk about Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.

Joumane: It’s hard to disassociate it from its context. You know he’s 90 years old, and he’s Resnais. I like cerebral cinema. It was stagey, but that was the intention. It made me want to read Jean Anouilh, and it corresponds with the texts I read at university. It was also a very sad film to watch. In a way it was far sadder and more imbued with death than the Haneke. I was not a fan of Wild Grass—the whimsicality wore off, but that wasn’t the case here.

Stefan: This is vintage Resnais. It’s a respectable film, with a structural poetry—the repetitions he loves. From the beginning: 12 actors dressed the same way, which is probably boring to most, but I enjoy that private joke. The problem is that I’m not really interested in the play. I like the setup, the structure, the mise en scène, but I can’t watch the play.

Amy: All the noirs that Resnais loves are some form of Orpheus rescuing Eurydice from the underworld, from Touch of Evil on. I love Wild Grass because it was a return to the early films before he got involved with the Comédie Française and put theater in his films. This goes back to the middle period: he seems to have looked back and thought, “All I cared about was those actors.” But everyone thinks the play is boring because in the film he takes out all of the subtext. It was never meant to be seen without that subtext.

Marco: But most of the plays Resnais has adapted are boring. This is such a refined reading of the play and the letters between the lovers. He’s trying to frame things so only the two of them are in the frame, and it is brilliant how he developed this at the level of the lovers and the meta-theatrical story. There’s an unbelievable coherence—this is the best film I’ve seen so far. But it’s expected, for a long time now, that the character that stayed out, the director himself, had to be put on stage, and here it is. There was hardly anything unexpected in this Competition, which is a problem.

Scott: I think the Carax and the Reygadas are unexpected. The Resnais is lovely. He’s working a familiar vein but he’s refining it. I like watching how a play carries from one interpretation to another from one generation to another—the idea of actors carrying a role with them even as they get older and they’re not right for the part anymore. You sometimes see that, like Carol Channing doing Hello Dolly at 90, and that combined with Resnais’s love of actors in theater was very moving. That plus the hovering specter of death—even though, as Resnais’s producer told me, they’re preparing for the next film. It’s too easy for this to be the last one.

I want to go back to the Andrew Dominik film, because I was a huge fan of Jesse James and I felt this was a setback for him. It’s a much heavier, self-conscious film, bordering on pretentious. The whole use of the economy as a metaphor either for a myth or demystification, or the parallels between government and business and the way the underworld functions, is so obvious. It’s in your face every minute of the movie. This is implicit in noirs of the Forties without having to repeat it. I also found the characters either hollow or so stupid you don’t care what happens to them. In the great noir films, there’s an emotional investment because you understand why they’re doing what they do. But in this case, these people make bad situations for themselves out of greed, and then you watch them pay the consequences and it’s unsatisfying.

Marco: Most of the film tries to lead the audience into a conspiracy hypothesis, which at the end destroys itself. We’ve had enough of conspiracy, and we don’t need it now.

Stefan: The whole film is devoid of directorial idea. In the violent scene he has to refer to these obnoxious super-slow shots of a bullet penetrating the brain. He knows he has no film. He just has good actors.

Scott: I wanted to come back to Dominik because I think this year the festival is making a hypothesis about American film by putting in Competition Lee Daniels, Andrew Dominik, Jeff Nichols, Wes Anderson. Minus Anderson, these are all people who are more or less the same generation, made the same number of films, and have not been shown many times in festivals. It’s a pulse-taking of a new wave in American movies. So far it was an interesting idea that has not really paid off. I liked the Wes Anderson very much, but I’m not sure it served so well as an opening film and also in Competition. It’s almost as if that film wasn’t there. Whereas the two American films in Un Certain Regard, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Gimme the Loot, are better than other American films here. The French did discover Jeff Nichols though.

Amy: The Joachim Lafosse film was really strong. It’s a film that will have a difficult time getting distributed in the States: what do you do with an opening sequence with four little coffins of four little children? But it’s a brilliant feminist film. There’s the question of why are there no female directors here, and Lafosse is making a film that a woman probably would have never gotten the money to make. The performance is brilliant.

Scott: I understand why people have written about the lack of women filmmakers, but there are other absences. There are no Native American filmmakers.

Joumane: No Latin Americans.

Scott: The story about women filmmakers really caught fire in the U.S., but there are an inordinate number of films centered on women here, plenty of leading roles. Are we just counting beans, or are we actually interested in what’s on screen?

Amy: Women are not a minority like Native Americans. Women are 51 percent of the world; you don’t equate women in numbers with Native Americans. That said, if the films aren’t there and they aren’t good, you can’t include them. The problem begins with production and money. Ridley Scott was able to make Thelma and Louise when no woman director would have gotten the money to make that film, and I’m sure it’s the same for the Lafosse film. It’s much easier for people with money to give men the money to make tough films about women.

Marco: Aida Begic’s Children of Sarajevo is a medium but good film. Why not put that in. It seems like a statement to have no women.

Scott: I don’t think we should blame the festival. It’s an industry-wide problem. If it’s a director you don’t know, you may not know if it’s a woman or a man from the name, if it’s a foreign name. From my own programming experience I find it hard to think of people sitting in a room and intentionally excluding a certain group from the competition.

Amy: I’m sure they didn’t. I’m sure they didn’t have an interest in a story told from a woman’s point of view. As good as the Mungiu and the Lafosse films are, they’re not told from a woman’s point of view and that makes a difference.

Joumane: As an Arab I am so often chosen in panels or other things as the Arab that I get tired of it. While agreeing with Amy, I think we shouldn’t have to do it like we’re baking a cake and need to make sure you have three women, two Latin Americans, etc. With all this press coverage, there will be four women in the Competition next year, and what does that mean?

Scott: Last year there were quite a few women, so it’s quite random. It’s not unique to Cannes. People invent trends or scandals that are quite banal, and it’s a way of avoiding actually engaging with the films and the content. It’s just smoke and hype.

Gavin: I don’t think the programmers shouldn’t try to rectify certain problems, though.

Amy: We talk about it as if it’s a minority that needs to be represented.

Scott: In the industry women are a minority.

Amy: The number of days a woman has sat in a director’s chair is less than four percent this year. The highest point was nine-and-a-half percent at the end of the Eighties, and people of color who are female, it’s less than one percent. The industry is worse than the House of Representatives.

Gavin: Oddly enough, France, which is one of the most sexist countries in the world, has more active female directors than others.

Amy: That’s because of the state support for filmmaking, like in Australia. That’s how we got Jane Campion. They made it a requirement to admit a certain percent of women in the film schools, and that’s over now, and this is what you have.

Scott: I was happy to see so many good roles for actresses, because you don’t see that so much now in Hollywood.

Gavin: What about the omnibus film 7 Days in Havana?

Amy: They were all terrible except for Elia Suleiman. It was exactly what Una Noche was: there are no jobs for anyone in Cuba, except that women are prostitutes and men work in kitchens.

Marco: How about the Indian film Gangs of Wasseypur? It was a very conscious application of New Hollywood into the Bollywood aesthetic. There are a few songs on the soundtrack but no musical numbers. It’s a family saga, covering three generations, dealing with a traitor against the local political establishment, which has mafia involved. The film holds onto you so you really stay until the end.

Scott: There seemed to be little love for the Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Love.

Paradise: Love

Joumane: I liked the Seidl. It was much more feminist than I thought it would be—with very strong and powerful women characters who caught onto the game and cynically used it. Seidl knows how to place the camera and frame something; it was wonderful. The film makes a much stronger statement than it initially seems, because the topic is older white women going to Kenya to sleep with young black boys. But it wasn’t one-dimensional—the way the victims caught onto the game was subtly done. Everyone is a victim and you have pity for neither, which is refreshing. Even the poor black people in Kenya have become so cynical. They’re all victims but also using the system. It’s a tremendously cynical film without being hopeless.

Scott: Seidl’s wife is a big collaborator in the writing and shooting. Even though she’s not credited, a woman’s point of view is entering into the creation of the film.

Stefan: To me it’s not cynical. Seidl loves everyone he works with, and in Paradise: Love everyone is strangely dignified, even though the white women are, in a naïve way, racist and dumb. But they keep their dignity.

Joumane: Even when he shoots them naked, he keeps their dignity. It’s not gratuitous.

Scott: He has empathy for the characters even when they behave deplorably. There are always tender moments in his films. These women do seem beautiful because you can see they were beautiful when they were young, and now they don’t conform to standards of beauty, and they’re holding onto something. It’s touching and sad. I think he understands why the women do what they do. It’s not cynical.

Stefan: Mutual exploitation is a phase that every character in this film passes through—and goes beyond. And beyond is nowhere.

Scott: There’s also a humanistic sense: this tragedy happens after all these decades after the colonial presence.

Amy: You’re all making very persuasive arguments for this film, and I’m trying to see it through your point of view, but all of that is so obvious that you have it in two minutes. After that, you have this unpleasant film in which people look bad—physically bad, and they behave badly. It may not be cynical, it may be queer-eyed. But I don’t want to see it. It has given me nothing to think about.

Gavin: The film does have a very firm grasp of the obvious. That’s true of so many films these days.

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