Cannes Roundtable One
Gavin Smith: This is the midpoint of the festival: five days in, five days to go. What do you think of Cannes 2013 so far?
Amy Taubin: There have been a couple of splendid films, three or four really good films, and a lot of awful films. And the weather has been terrible.
Marco Grosoli: The first part of the festival is often weaker. There have been quite a few good films so far.
GS: What do you think the highlights have been?
AT: Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P., Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, and, today, Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar—and Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust.
GS: I completely agree with you about the Jia Zhang-ke, the Guiraudie, the Desplechin, and Omar, which we just saw. They are definitely among the better films. What’s been bothering me is how many Competition films don’t have any chance of winning. I am wondering what the point of programming them in the Competition was. Shouldn’t the Competition solely consist of films that have a shot at winning something as opposed to films that have some kind of merit or satisfy some constituency that needs to be represented?
AT: They pick the head of the jury long in advance, before they’ve set the programming, and it’s painfully obviously this year that they felt sensitive about having Steven Spielberg see, for example, Stranger by the Lake, because there’s flagrant gay sex all throughout. I also think they were leery about showing him Omar. Maybe that’s going too far, but…
GS: It was interesting watching Omar in the same theater in which we saw Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust last night—two films back to back that are probably having an argument with each other.
The Missing Image
MG: Three actually, because Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image came right before the Lanzmann, which is strongly related. The programming is not casual. Honestly, I don’t like The Missing Image very much. It’s a step backward, if you think of S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine. That was 10 years and four films ago. In The Missing Image Panh is trying to invent an aesthetic for what cannot be represented, with clay models. The voiceover fills in things that are only suggested through the models.
GS: Wasn’t the footage of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia something new?
MG: That footage was great to see, but it could have been structured within the film in a much better way. Ultimately I don’t think the model device works.
GS: Alex Horwath convinced me to see it, and one of the things he said was that Panh addresses the problem Godard is always talking about: how to represent the unrepresentable—reconciling images and reality. I thought the film was terrific, and you’ve suggested a way in which what Alex is talking about comes across. What about the Lanzmann film, The Last of the Unjust?
The Last of the Unjust
Kent Jones: When the Lanzmann film began, it shocked me. I knew what it was about, and I knew that it was going to be bigger film than Sobibor or A Visitor from the Living or The Karski Report. But I was shocked to see photographs—the one thing that Lanzmann spent his entire career not including—and to see footage from the Theresienstadt film. As The Last of the Unjust went on, it became apparent that it was something different. It’s made by a much older man. And it’s also a film about Lanzmann. It’s a self-portrait. I recently re-watched Shoah, and I became aware of it as an index of a time that’s gone now, when all of these people were still alive and being interviewed. And now they are all dead. The memory of those people is dwindling.
GS: In effect, The Last of the Unjust is a film that takes place in three different time periods. There is the footage from 1975 that he shot in Rome, the footage he’s shooting in the present day, and then, obviously, the conversation is about something that happened more than 60 years ago.
KJ: Lanzmann refers to the people in his films as “characters,” and Murmelstein [the only surviving Nazi-designated “Elder of the Jews”] is one of the greatest characters I’ve ever seen, visually and in terms of what he went through. And that line at the end where Murmelstein says: “Well, I’m a dinosaur, and soon the dinosaur will be gone to make way for the new machines to go down the highway.”
AT: But don’t you think the title refers to Lanzmann as well?
KJ: Sure. It’s a real self-portrait.
AT: The way the attacks on Murmelstein—particularly the attack by Gershom Scholem—are similar to the attacks on Lanzmann is really interesting. The film doesn’t talk about that, but…
KJ: It doesn’t even have to talk about it. It can leave it for the viewer.
GS: Even in aesthetic terms, the film seems very different from Shoah, in the sense that Lanzmann is on screen, there are readings from texts, there’s voiceover, and, as you say, there are photos and footage from that Nazi film documenting Theresienstadt, which is just incredible.
AT: The Theresienstadt films have been coming fast and furious. About five of them have been released, because it’s a place that had a lot of documentation.
MG: It is worth mentioning that before the screening, Lanzmann told the audience that Thierry Frémaux had insisted on putting The Last of the Unjust into the Competition, but didn’t because Lanzmann was so opposed to the idea.
GS: Let’s talk about the film the deputy editor of FILM COMMENT had a hand in writing: Jimmy P., directed by Arnaud Desplechin.
MG: I have to say I don’t like Desplechin’s films very much—it’s a personal taste. And I don’t like Jimmy P., either.
AT: I come to the film with a very strong background: I’m partial to psychoanalysis, and this is a film that’s totally supportive of what psychoanalysis can do—not pills, one-on-one psychoanalysis. But more than that, I read the George Devereux book on which it’s based when I was in college because one of my advisors was an anthropologist who was a good friend of Devereux. It’s a very, very controversial book because, exactly what does Freudian psychoanalysis have to do with the Plains Indians, with the Blackfoot?
The performances by Mathieu Amalric and Benicio Del Toro are incredible. You could just watch their exchanges the entire time, but the movie around them is also beautifully constructed, particularly in its evocation of Forties films that also were tributes to psychoanalysis and related to Surrealism. You think of Spellbound, and there are obvious references to Vertigo, but the way that’s integrated into a modern film that takes place in the past—that layering of time is really interesting.
GS: We’re used to seeing films in which the institutionalizing of a character is inevitably counterproductive. Jimmy P. goes against the grain of that tradition by presenting the hospital as by and large a genuinely caring and enlightened place that goes the extra mile in trying to help the Benicio Del Toro character.
KJ: Most of the time when you see psychoanalysis on screen, you’re seeing parodies of psychoanalysis, like in a Paul Mazursky movie, or even in Bresson’s The Devil, Probably. Then, on the other hand, you have psychoanalysis as some kind of a dramatic machine, as in Ordinary People: you have the breakthrough, that’s the end of the story, and everyone gets to go home. And you get to hug your analyst too: “I’m your friend, you can count on me.” I know what attracted Arnaud to it and what I found very moving is that you had a situation where Menninger devised a clinic where he could provide the help that was needed for GIs that were suffering from a number of ailments, physical or mental. They were confronted with Jimmy P. and were ready to lock him up, but then they decided, wait a minute, we need to get an opinion from someone who knows more about this. They found this completely disreputable figure Menninger knew from New York, who had been part of the anthropological world with Margaret Mead, had lived in Indochina, and had been involved in publishing. He came out, and he literally had nothing else to do but to deal with this one guy, because he wasn’t certified. Usually, when you’re looking at psychoanalysis in movies, you’re seeing an upper-middle-class phenomenon. Here it’s a working-class guy who really needs help and is being treated by someone who’s really able to help him.
MG: Same as in The Master.
KJ: But that’s different. In The Master they can’t help him because they keep going around in circles because Lancaster Dodd is interested in starting a cult. He can help him up to a point.
MG: He’s interested in building up a cult, but he remains 80 percent psychoanalysis.
AT: No, no, no, no.
MG: Nothing from psychoanalysis?
KT: He did some stuff from Freudian analysis, but then he took stuff from everything.
AT: He lifts the most manipulative stuff from psychoanalysis.
MG: It’s during the years when psychoanalysis was facing the opportunity to become a religion. It was the Lacan years, and there’s a clear reference to Lacan in The Master. Dodd’s movement is called The Cause, and the Lacan school was called la chose. Even historically, those were the years when psychoanalysis and religion were that close.
AT: If you looked at The Master, you would say: “Psychoanalysis is pseudo-science. Get rid of it. Dangerous. Blah blah blah.” But here, in Jimmy P., it works. Devereux is feeling his way along. He’s a subversive analyst, but he’s also quite classical, and maybe shouldn’t be classical with a person who comes from a completely different culture. It’s really interesting to watch.
KJ: He says to Jimmy: “Relapses are good. Don’t worry about relapses. Life will keep happening to you.” The reason people parody psychoanalysis is because they think that it has neat endings, like in Ordinary People.
GS: What do you think of Heli by Amat Escalante? It’s a two-dead-dog movie with at least one image I’ve never seen before in a film, specifically, a man’s genitals set on fire and burning for a good 20 seconds. It’s about the subject that’s haunting so many Mexican films at the moment, the drug war, and it’s about someone who’s caught up in it through bad luck. It’s a pretty rough-and-ready film. Escalante, Arnaud des Pallières, and Alex van Warmerdam are the only exceptions to the Usual Suspects Competition lineup. Anyone see van Warmerdam’s Borgman?
MG: It has obvious limits, since it is like a remake of Funny Games, but it also presents a pretty relevant allegory for Europe today. I think that this is the way to look at the film: as an allegory for whatever is called New European Populism right now. Borgman is basically Funny Games except for the political subtext.
GS: It sounded more like a remake of, or another variation on, Pasolini’s Teorema.
MG: Precisely. Funny Games was in many respects reminiscent of Teorema even if Haneke declared that he was thinking of Salò.
A Touch of Sin
GS: Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin is the big one we haven’t commented on.
KJ: That’s a film that’s obviously made for Spielberg. [Laughs] No, it’s obviously not. A Touch of Sin is another film that surprised me, because at first when the violence happens, it seems close to the violence in Takeshi Kitano’s films. It was made in collaboration with Kitano’s company. At first I was thinking about that, or spaghetti Western stuff. But as the film went on, the idea of why he was doing that started to seem more and more valid to me. It’s a change for him. It’s probably going to get him in quite a bit of hot water.
AT: I thought Jia’s press conference was every bit as interesting as the film. He had obviously thought long and hard about this, and all the questions from the press were about censorship and the situation in China: would it ever be shown there? And he said no to self-censorship: “I would never self-censor. However, for me the most important thing is that the Chinese people see this film, because it is about violence that everyone knows is happening in China, because everyone in China is on the Internet. All of the incidents in the film have appeared on the Internet, but they come and go so fast that there’s no discussion of it.”
KJ: They’re almost unreal.
AT: And if you put them all together in a movie, and you have people in a theater together, it’s possible that there could be a discussion of violence that for him was absolutely necessary. I thought he was really quite brilliant about it.
GS: I definitely felt A Touch of Sin got Jia out of the rut he was getting into with the last few films, and it takes his filmmaking to a whole other level. What was interesting about the violence was it didn’t remind me of Kitano, or anyone else particularly. There is an abruptness to it, and I think he’s also accelerating the frame rate or skipping a few frames in those brief images of bullet impacts. It’s very striking, and I’ve never seen it done before. Having seen the Takashi Miike film this morning, I can confirm that Jia Zhang-ke does take the prize for the highest body count in Competition, with a total of 11 killings. Do a lot of people die in Blind Detective, the new Johnnie To?
MG: No, it’s mainly a comedy. A Touch of Sin is a very cleverly and subtly constructed film. Even with violence, the spirit of the long take remains intact. There’s a very subtle interplay between continuity and discontinuity: the violence is just a stand-in for discontinuity. I particularly appreciated that you can never tell in any of the four episodes—I consider the first one a prologue that tells you how to watch the film—whether the violence stems from the social conditions or from the fact that the couples’ relationships are so bad.
AT: I think that’s what violence is about. I read this morning that we’ve just had a resurgence of gay bashing in the Village [in New York], and there’s finally been a murder this year. That anger comes out of social conditions, but it’s also a deeply personal thing in the psyche. But it’s worldwide, and of course it has to do with the economy.
GS: One of the things that distinguishes the Jia Zhang-ke film from Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is that the Farhadi film is all about uncovering and articulating everybody’s motivations for the things they do within the central problem of a divorce and a marriage. Almost like a detective novel, gradually discovering the truth, with every character eventually confessing to something. And at the end, the mystery or problem is neatly solved with only a tiny bit of residual ambiguity. While A Touch of Sin acknowledges the unknowable and irrational dimensions of the human psyche, The Past is relentlessly attached to a principle of emotional logic that unlocks each door one by one, and there’s no acknowledgement that people sometimes do extreme things without knowing exactly why. A Touch of Sin is almost entirely about people who don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing. So maybe this is the festival of psychoanalysis?
KJ: Is that this year’s theme?
GS: I think this year’s theme is the attempt to bring genre much more into the center of things. Cannes is showing outright genre films like the Takashi Miike and Nicolas Winding Refn films, and it’s also showing films that have are tinged with crime and mystery trappings or aspects. Half the Competition films feature a criminal act of some type.
Like Father, Like Son
MG: No words on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son? It’s the best film I’ve seen so far. It shows his maturity, because he finally finds his own style and comedic sensibility. He’s always played with tiny differences within his films, including the one between life and death in his first few, and here he deals with one of the most overused topics in comedy ever: two new-born babies switched in hospital.
GS: I like the Kore-eda. It’s the culmination of the last few films he’s done that deal with family. This is more in a comedic vein than the others.
MG: His conception of time is brilliant, and he mirrors it in the way the story itself is built. It destroys any buildup of a rhythm. You have three or four narrative impulses, and what he does with them reminds me of the rite in a primitive cultures whose name I forget in which you split a person’s corpse into many pieces and scatter them throughout a field so that it cannot come together again. This is what Kore-eda does: he systematically diffuses and neglects the dramatic points, instead of developing them.
GS: Isn’t it more of an attack on patriarchy than anything else? There are two couples, but if there’s a nominal villain in the film, it’s the middle-class father who is at the center of the story, and who is basically a completely unfeeling person devoted entirely to his career. The two mothers seem more or less matched, but the working-class father is adorable: he’s like a child himself, and they make a big thing about how he’s somewhat childlike and therefore has a much better relationship with his son.
MG: Precisely, because the middle-class father is only able to think of time linearly. He really believes that efforts pay off, and that through effort you achieve results. And that kind of work ethic is gradually destroyed by the way the action is handled, because the film discards any rhythm. Kore-eda leads the viewer to adhere to the wrong thinking of the main character, so that through the film he can basically refute them. That’s why the film is focused on the rich father—the villain, the one who thinks the wrong way.