Adieu au langage
For me, at Cannes 2014, there was Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage and then there was everything else. Godard didn’t attend, instead sending a video letter to festival toppers Gilles Jacob (who has officially stepped down) and Thierry Frémaux, who now runs the whole shebang. Godard explained that he was in a “different place,” a phrase that should be read, like every minute of Adieu au langage, both literally and metaphorically. In a more revealing interview recorded in Paris shortly before the festival (and viewable on YouTube) he explained that in the early Sixties, Cannes had been the place to be with his second family—directors and cinephiles—although that had quickly proven to be no happier than the first.
There was still a strong strain of cinephilia when I began attending the festival nearly 20 years ago. But this year, it was all but obliterated by what I can only describe as mass movie bulimia, the goal being to scarf down as many films as possible and vomit up undigested opinions in tweets and blog posts, even before the lights have come up in the theater, or spew them onto captive audiences in the pass-holder queues, where one stands, unless one possesses one of the higher- priority passes, for anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour and a half, in some cases, depending on the popularity of the movie and the size of the theater in which it’s screening. Being hotheaded and opinionated, I have occasionally gone on the attack within earshot of dozens, usually in defense of a movie I believe is being stupidly decimated or one that I think is ridiculously overvalued. This year, not wanting to add to the insufferable noise, I limited myself to a contemptuously curled lip or half-stifled ironic laugh. Which is hardly the way to communicate with the few cinephile peers one has left, many of whom have already written cogently and even passionately about the films of Cannes 2014.
Adieu au langage
Still, I think Godard would have been pleased, not only by the cheer of “Godard forever” that rose from the packed Lumière Theater as the lights dimmed for the premiere of his first 3-D feature, but also by the spontaneous applause that erupted mid-movie, after a mindboggling, eyeball-dislocating, narratively profound sequence that involves the superimposition of two 3-D images that begin as one, go their separate ways, and reunite at the end. Or at least after one viewing, that’s what I think happens. Having upended the rules of film language in Breathless, Godard does it anew here, 3-D having more interesting possibilities for depicting the “I” of the self in relation to the “I” of the other (or the “I” of “I think” which is not the same as the “I” of “I am,” to paraphrase Godard quoting philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) than the two-shot or the shot/ countershot does. So it’s goodbye to all that and hello to the transformation of the relationships between on- and off-screen space, image and sound, and, of course, flatness and depth. No surprise, Godard isn’t interested in making us think we can touch the fingers that seem to reach out from the surface of the screen. There are many things in Adieu au langage that are familiarly Godardian: it’s divided into two parts, the second repeating the first but with variation, and both parts are subdivided into “Nature” and “Metaphor”—although these sections are not con- secutive but intermingled. There is the expected adulterous heterosexual couple, lounging around naked in front of a TV that sometimes shows black-and-white movies with passionate but decorously dressed lovers and sometimes the atrocities that humanity has committed and that film has captured.
Godard’s 3-D cameras are jury-rigged and/or low-tech but they yield images of great variety and beauty. Indeed this late (but not final) film might be his most beautiful, Mozartian in its lightness, and unrestrained in communicating feelings about love. There is a third term in the relationship of the couple: he is named Roxy and is played by Roxy Miéville, suggesting that the actor is a member of the family of Godard’s partner, Anne-Marie Miéville. Roxy is a dog, an exceptionally free spirit with serious brown eyes and a dark brown coat with gold and white markings that can look like a blur of autumn leaves when he runs. We know that dogs are scene-stealers, but Godard’s pleasure in immortalizing the enchanting way that Roxy turns his head and the mystery of his eyes is more naked than it ever was with any of the actresses he transformed into stars. Adieu au langage, which ends with a dog’s bark and a child’s cries, is a masterpiece, a film attuned to a future that likely will not come to pass.
The only other film I saw that displayed anything approaching this exhilaration with the possibilities of cinema as a living language was Damien Chazelle’s jazz opera Whiplash, which I wrote about here after it premiered at Sundance. On the other hand, there were many movies, some of them very fine indeed, in which animals play prominent roles. The dogs in Kornél Mundruczó’s White God are both “nature” and “metaphor.” The film is a rare instance in which animals stand—and take a stand—for themselves while also representing human disenfranchisement. In Hungary and other “civilized” former Eastern bloc nations, stray dogs are being rounded up and euthanized or shot on sight in great numbers, and the “White God” has scarcely more compassion for the non-Aryan refugees flooding across European borders. Mundruczó employed 200 dogs (animatronics would have destroyed the intensity and indeed the meaning of the movie) to depict a Spartacus-like uprising, led by Hagen, the beloved dog of 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta). Hagen is dumped onto the street by Lili’s father, who refuses to pay the licensing fee for a “non-purebred-Hungarian dog.” The film intercuts two odysseys: Lili’s search for Hagen and Hagen’s passage from one abusive master to another until his latent fighting skills are unleashed by an exploitative trainer; thus equipped, he leads a mass uprising of dogs, out of the pound and into the streets. Since this is not a children’s movie, we have no doubt about the slaughter that will follow the visionary tableau with which White God ends. Mundruczó dedicates the film to camera-movement virtuoso Miklós Jancsó, who would have approved of the improvised handheld work of cinematographer Marcell Rev as he races after the dogs.
A Girl at My Door
Psotta is fragile but implacable as a tweener betrayed by her estranged parents. So too is Giulia Salerno, who plays a similar role in a tonally very different film, Asia Argento’s irrepressible, colorful in every sense but never cartoonish Misunderstood. All but ignored by her showbiz parents and tormented by her more conventional and manipulative siblings, Aria, Argento’s heroine and, one imagines, alter ego, shuttles between the well-appointed digs of her actor father and her singer mother with her only companion, a large cat who is more affectionate and comfortable in his own skin than any of the humans in her life. A gifted writer, Aria elaborates her frequent cat-accompanied walks into the imaginative, sometimes life-threatening adventures that mix with mundane actualities on the screen. As a projection of pre-adolescent female subjectivity, Misunderstood is ingenious, direct, and utterly real. A more difficult depiction of growing up female, July Jung’s A Girl at My Door centers on an alcoholic policewoman, exiled to a small provincial town because of a lesbian affair, who attempts to protect a pre-teen girl who has been abused by everyone in her family for so long that she is probably twisted beyond repair. Jung’s indictment of Korean machismo is as unsparing as her depiction of the confusion of identification, desire, and guilt in the policewoman’s rescue fantasy.
The first image in Abderrahmane Sissako’s wrenching Timbuktu is of a gazelle, racing so swiftly across the sand that it looks transparent as a ghost. The gazelle is trying to outdistance a group of soldiers in a jeep who are taking potshots at it. The film concludes with a young girl desperately fleeing across the same terrain with the same men in pursuit. We already know that the gazelle did not escape and neither will she. This fragile, horrifying film is set in a small village in northern Mali, close to Timbuktu, where Jihadists have invaded and imposed their absurd, murderous version of Islamic law, stoning people to death for singing, dancing, and loving. Timbuktu is film as nightmare, made out of a furious need to show the world with what wanton ease joy and beauty have been destroyed. Less sophisticated as filmmaking, Run by the young Ivory Coast director Philippe Lacôte depicts, through the inadvertent adventures of a young man who becomes a player in a conflict he barely understands, the political power grabs that tore apart one of Africa’s most stable republics. The film starts slowly but gains momentum through the performances of Abdoul Karim Konate as the titular Run and Isaach De Bankolé as the seasoned revolutionary who both helps him and uses him to further the struggle.
Welcome to New York
Indeed much of the pleasure in the films at Cannes had to do with their actors. There was first and foremost Timothy Spall as the 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a densely appointed biopic in which no detail is unnecessary or merely picturesque. Spall’s performance fearlessly renders Turner as a man devoid of charm and social skills but absolutely dedicated to his uncompromising vision of painting, evolving from representation to the abstraction of nearly pure color and light. (Spall won the Best Actor award.) Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria is similarly reflexive in that it is about the creative process. Elegant, witty, and often unnerving in its depiction of the refusal of the psyche to acknowledge the aging of the body, it is, except for a brief, star-touched turn by Chloë Grace Moretz, virtually a two-hander for Kristen Stewart—finally fulfilling the promise she showed early in her career—and Juliette Binoche, as a middle-aged actress and something of an alter ego for the director. Based on an actual murder case, André Téchiné’s absorbing In the Name of My Daughter allows an unknown actress, Adèle Haenel, to create the most complex female character of recent memory, a young woman whose desire for and belief in her own independence is betrayed by her sexual obsession for a manipulative man who destroys both her and her mother (Catherine Deneuve). For his spare, darkly erotic The Blue Room, adapted from a Simenon murder mystery, Mathieu Amalric cast himself in a role that only the actor with the most speaking eyes in cinema could play. The surprise twist at the end of the film is conveyed simply through a series of glances that reveal, well, I won’t spoil the moment. It proved too subtle for most of the sleep-deprived audience to grasp. But it is a great reveal, and I hope that Amalric will not be persuaded, in the interest of commerciality, to change a frame. Anyone expecting the return of Gérard Depardieu to his former greatness in Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, aka “the DSK movie,” will be disappointed. Although lawsuits are threatened, the movie is haphazard and unrevealing, except for one voiceover interior monologue by the star, which suggests the movie that perhaps could have been. (Ferrara’s film, which was not invited to the festival but showed as an unofficial screening in the market, opened in France on VOD to great success.)
Maps to the Stars
The award for Best Actress went to Julianne Moore for her gonzo performance in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. I preferred Mia Wasikowska and Evan Bird, as the film’s incestuous siblings. Located on the borderline between narcissism and psychosis, i.e., Hollywood, Maps to the Stars suffers from a too-little-too-late script by Bruce Wagner, but Cronenberg somewhat redeems it with an astonishing directorial choice. The vast majority of shots isolate one person in the frame, thus suggesting narcissistic self-enclosure and causing the moments when a connection between two characters is made—usually involving sex or violence—to pack a double whammy, even when the physical contact occurs just outside the frame.
The low point of the festival was the decision by the Jane Campion–led jury to award the Jury Prize—sounds great but it’s actually the third prize—to both the oldest and the youngest directors in the Competition, Godard and Xavier Dolan. Godard’s film, indeed his entire career, is so far above anything in the festival that even to have given him the Palme would not have been enough. Dolan’s one-gimmick, pandering-to-the-youth-vote Mommy is not worth a kick in the butt. Godard was right to stay away; I was never so glad to be on the Nice-to-JFK flight in my life.