Cannes Roundtable: Amy Taubin, Gavin Smith, Todd McCarthy, Scott Foundas
With the festival half over, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and dig into the best (and the worst) on offer. Our participants: Amy Taubin, Gavin Smith, and Scott Foundas of Film Comment, Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter, and… a surprise guest!
Gavin Smith: We’re coming up to the halfway mark of the festival, so the point of this discussion is to give our first impressions so far, either overall or focusing on specific films. It seems like today was the day that there was finally a film in the Competition that seemed to please everybody. Amour seemed to be unanimously acclaimed. I wasn’t in the Lumière, but was there an ovation at the end of the Michael Haneke press screening?
SF: It was an enthusiastic ovation.
TM: Because you have to say it was a downer film. It wasn’t one of those exhilarated “whoopee”–type screenings. But it was definitely positive. I was joking that [Cannes artistic director] Thierry Frémaux had coyly begun the festival with the worst films—and I don’t mean Wes Anderson’s film, but a couple of the other films—so that it couldn’t help but improve and then slowly built up to this great work. By Sunday, we finally saw one, or arguably two, films that are actually serious.
GS: So, what are the worst films?
TM: After the Battle, the Egyptian film, which I thought was a very undigested, didactic look at the Egyptian political events of the last year. And then the Italian film Reality, which was a tremendous disappointment from [Matteo] Garrone after Gomorrah.
SF: Yeah, although I’ll say in defense of Reality, which I agree is a somewhat disappointing film, it’s still a film I was quite charmed by, and I thought it’s a classic example of something that happens in Cannes: if this movie had just shown up here and it wasn’t this film that Matteo Garrone had made right after Gomorrah, and it wasn’t shown in the official competition, people would like it a lot more. I think it’s a film that has a lot of merits. It’s a throwback to a popular Italian comedy of the Fifties with a small everyman whose trying to make his way, in this case by becoming a reality TV star.
GS: The film does seem to refer explicitly to Visconti’s Bellissima, which was sort of the same idea of somebody becoming consumed with an obsession related to celebrity culture—in this case Anna Magnani getting her daughter cast in a movie.
SF: Yeah, but I also thought about things like Big Deal on Madonna Street, Monicelli. The actor recalls, I think, people like Totò and Alberto Sordi. It’s a very good comic performance at the center of the film. So I just think that it’s not the sophomore slump in Garrone’s case, because he’s made many films.
GS: You’re basically saying that it suffers from the burden of expectation, which always seems to apply in Cannes when somebody’s coming off a big success.
SF: Yeah, and I think that a little of the same applies to Jacques Audiard’s film [Rust and Bone], which I thought was a very strong film, but both Audiard and Garrone are these guys who kind of always do something different. They’re auteurs in the sense that they’re writing their own scripts and directing them, but they adapt their style to whatever the material is and they don’t sort of put themselves out in front in the way of a more obvious stylist like an Almodóvar or a Wes Anderson. I think it’s sometimes easy to take those guys for granted a little bit and not take them as seriously as some of the more capital-A Auteurs.
AT: I thought Reality was a one-note film. I didn’t think it was terrible, it just wasn’t very interesting. I actually thought it was a slap in the face to Fellini and all the romanticization of Southern Italy—performative people, people who were naturally performative and were doing reality in Fellini movies even before there was such a thing as reality television. That’s what I thought he was doing.
GS: I didn’t pick up the extent to which it relates to postwar Italian film tradition in the way you and Scott have articulated it. For me it just seemed like a film that was about 10 years late. The whole phenomenon of reality TV at this point is such a banal part of the everyday landscape that it didn’t seem to merit this slightly bombastic treatment.
AT: Yeah, but I also think it was a slap in the face to The Artist. I mean The Artist was the clean, romanticized version of this—the guy [Aniello Arena] looks just like the guy in The Artist. And you’re going to be waxing sentimental for the days of silent film and blah blah blah. This is a character who’s waxing sentimental for reality TV. I thought it was very odd in that way. That doesn’t mean I thought it was good, or that I wanted to be sitting there for the length of it, which I certainly didn’t.
The other thing I wanted to say, very quickly, is Amour is the first Haneke film I ever really thought was tremendous. And the first time I didn’t think Haneke was trying to show us how smart he was and how stupid we were. It has a kind of compassion that I never expected from him, and the actors are great. It’s an actor’s festival. The best performance here is still the performance of the 6-year-old in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is still the best film here, so far. And it had a standing ovation in a mixed screening. Press was there, students were there—the students loved it—and the general public were there, so it was that kind of mixed crowd, and it was fantastic.
TM: Did the little girl carry on the way she did at Sundance?
AT: She came up onstage, yes. She had gold shoes and a gold-trimmed dress, and she came on waving to everyone like she was a beauty queen.
TM: Fantastic. One thing, before we move on is that Reality does have a really amazing opening shot. You start off with a panorama of somewhere in the Naples area, and it goes slowly in over this aristocratic, 18th-century royal coach that’s taking people to this mansion. And it stays in an absolutely secure way, hovering over this thing. You don’t feel any vibration, it goes on for minute after minute after minute, and it makes you think of the shot in Touch of Evil in a way, because it’s mostly from above. For anyone who is in proximity to Reality, it’s at least worth looking at that opening.
SF: And I’ll just put in one final word: it just speaks to what I was saying before which is that the direction in the film is superb. It’s not just that opening shot, it’s the way that Garrone choreographs all the action in that goes on in the courtyard of this apartment building where most of the movie is set, and very long, complicated master shots moving up and down and in and out, all done extremely well in a very classical way that you just don’t see that often.
GS: Actually, I’ll have the last word on it. What I got from the movie was something that I think is one of the grand themes of postwar Italian cinema, after neorealism, which is decadence. Italian cinema is really obsessed with decadence. And I thought that he was making a statement about vulgarity in contemporary Italy. That wedding, even though it begins with this grand shot, quickly descends into a truly revolting spectacle of completely crass vulgarity. And then the converse is the obsession with reality TV, where you see things can fall even lower than they are at the wedding, when you see people on the reality show and how they conduct themselves.
TM: It’s one of the most deliberately vulgar and unattractive casts that’s ever been assembled. No doubt, absolutely on purpose. And I thought it would go in that direction. It definitely gave you some Fellini echoes in that area, but it didn’t amount to anything in the end.
Haneke—I completely agree with Amy, Amour was the first Haneke film I went all the way with. There were moments—I don’t want to spoil anything—but there were moments where I detected he was teasing you to say: “Oh, I am going to play my little games.” Almost the entire film is set in an apartment and there’s little intimations that oh, maybe there can be home invasion, or that we’re maybe not seeing something that’s real, maybe it’s the imagination. But in the end it’s a completely sincere film, a completely direct film, exquisitely and elegantly composed and judged. I don’t want to say just aesthetically, but judged in terms of dealing with the emotions at hand. I think anyone who’s ever gone through losing a family member or someone close to them will recognize things that are unerringly true in this film. It’s really a fantastic film.
SF: It bears mentioning that Michael Haneke has talked for years in interviews about an elderly aunt of his that he was very close to, who did kill herself when she became old and infirm. She tried once, unsuccessfully, I believe by turning the gas on; in fact, he found her. She tried again when he was out of town and succeeded. For me, what was so touching in Amour was the sense of the slowly eroding dignity and control over your own body that the Emmanuelle Riva character goes through. There are moments that are incredibly powerful, when she has started to lose the ability even to express herself, but she has sudden moments of clarity. She communicates just with her eyes that she really doesn’t want to be here anymore. It’s really an astonishing performance from both actors, but I was particularly struck by what Riva does with a role that could easily be overplayed.
GS: I liked the film very much, but one thought started to go through my mind about halfway. The film is set in an incredibly bourgeois world where people in this situation would not have to deal with many of the problems. They have enough money to deal with them, to keep going on some level. If this were a British movie, it would be set on a council housing estate, and there would be all kinds of other problems that would be compounded.
TM: I think it’s about the one-on-one. It’s the husband with the wife, and the intrusions of the kids, in this case one kid. Who knows best? I went through this with my father last year. That’s one of the good things about the film. Even if you think about things a lot ahead of time, you don’t really know how to handle every situation that presents itself. The daughter played by Isabelle Huppert comes in and thinks that she has better ideas than what the father is doing, but it’s really impossible to be prepared for every eventuality.
GS: The conclusion I drew was that the film was consciously set in this very comfortable world in order to subtract all of the issues surrounding how they cope materially, so that Haneke could focus on the relationships and on the choices that can be made in an ideal situation.
SF: But I also think that, with the exception of certain parts of Code Inconnu, Michael Haneke sets his films in this world. It’s the world that he knows. I was talking with another journalist today who, like me, has interviewed Michael Haneke in his apartment in Vienna, which is a dead ringer for the apartment in this movie. Haneke’s family had musical people in it, his stepfather was a conductor, and this is a film set in a family of musicians.
GS: Fair enough, but basically what that means is that Michael Haneke refuses to leave his comfort zone as a filmmaker. I think that it’s time that he did that. Good as this film is—and I think it is one of his best films—he’s painted himself into a corner depicting a certain world and a certain set of values.
AT: Gavin, a death like this is not in anyone’s comfort zone. Doing this in a film is an extraordinary thing to do. I can’t tell how good it is, in a way, because I just went through this with my mother for three months. Her decline mirrored this exactly. And what you do and what you don’t do, and what you feel you need to do. That one nurse in the film comes in and says, “Oh, they just say those things”—it’s kind of automatic nervous response. I’d never seen anything like that. And that’s not in anyone’s comfort zone.
GS: Well, that’s not what I mean by comfort zone. What I mean is that Michael Haneke is very comfortable making films in a certain milieu. This film was fine in that milieu. In effect, I came full circle and I wasn’t questioning it, but I do think that going forward in his career he needs to look elsewhere.
TM: Why should he do that? Would you say the same thing to Ozu? Would you say the same thing to Douglas Sirk? That’s ridiculous.
SF: I find it a bit of a condescending remark because it implies that it was easy for Michael Haneke to make this film somehow. I think that you feel in the film an intense, emotional grappling with this subject. As Amy said, it’s not easy for anybody, and he sets it in the world that he knows like a lot of great filmmakers. You don’t see Pedro Almodóvar making a film about beggars in the street. I think it’s a bit presumptuous to say a filmmaker is obligated to make a certain kind of film.
TM: If you want to see the Ken Loach version of it, you’ll see the Ken Loach version of it.
GS: I do think that Ken Loach should start making films about other classes of people in England. And as far as Ozu’s films go, there are a lot of nuances that we don’t pick up in terms of class, and they’re not all set in the same milieu. If you look across his career, there’s a wide range of difference in the classes of people he deals with.
AT: I want to go back and pick up on something Todd said. I want to defend the Egyptian film [After the Battle]. I don’t think it’s really good filmmaking—he just doesn’t have the chops yet to deal with the subject. But I really liked the Egyptian film, because it has a great female character, and it is about how you have a revolution and it’s not been a revolution for the women. The women can’t stand together because there are the women who want to go along with the men’s general version of the revolution, and then there are the women for whom this is not going to work at all. And on top of that, those two women are animal activists. I’ve never seen that in a film, where suddenly the politics of animal activism come into the politics of the left. That was incredible! They’re all there, online, reading Care2 every day.
SF: I have to say, I thought it was a very sincere and well-intentioned film, and I like all of the ideas in it that you talk about. But I did find the filmmaking so ham-fisted and the performances—with the exception of the actress who plays the wife, who I thought was excellent—to be sort of just this side of Bollywood, with eye-rolling and exaggerated expressions. Very, very melodramatic, which is at odds with the film’s attempts to be neorealistic, incorporating newsreel footage and the shooting in the streets and all of that. So it didn’t work for me at all on an aesthetic level, but I appreciated the intention a lot.
TM: I did too. There was always interesting stuff going on. As you say, the things it was grappling with were fine. It’s just the way it was being done.
GS: There were certainly a number of things in the film I’d never really seen before, but ultimately I felt it was completely confused about what it was trying to do. Amy has articulated part of what it was trying to do, but it seemed to be a film that was at war with itself on a lot of levels. I found it very frustrating to sort out the throughline.
TM: There are two films we haven’t talked about. I think Rust and Bone was a good film, maybe a very good film, with fine performances. For Audiard, it didn’t have quite the edge of unpredictability—it was a little more conventional in its framework, though not in the way it was filmed. There were bold aspects to it, but the very same story, treated a different way, could have been a very conventional, middle-of-the-road Hollywood movie. In that sense it wasn’t as exciting as some of his other work. But I thought it was a very good film, quite credible.
GS: What’s the other film you wanted to mention?
TM: We haven’t talked about the Mungiu film, Beyond the Hills. For me, his films structurally hinge upon them paying off at the end, because you’re really investing in a long haul. This was the first one that didn’t really pay off. I’m not quite sure what the point is, other than some quite direct anti-clerical, anti-religious rage. At the end I was quite disappointed. It was beautifully composed. I was with it just about all the way, but it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go at the end.
SF: Judging from the way Mungiu refused to discuss in interviews where he stood on abortion vis-à-vis 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I don’t know that he would say he sees Beyond the Hills as an anti-clerical film.
AT: Read him—he does see it as an anti-clerical film.
SF: The film was presented in an almost observational style where the audience was meant to be a fly on the wall, much like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. I felt that it was masterfully shot, with very good performances. It’s one of those things that’s hard to put your finger on, but I never felt the same electricity about it that I did with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in terms of the involvement that I had with the characters and the story.
GS: I felt quite the opposite. I was gripped from the very beginning. I think the characters are much more interesting and complicated than the characters in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Up until today, Beyond the Hills was the only film I’ve seen here that I would say was a really great film. Everything else was OK, but that one stood out for me. I agree with you on the word “masterfully.”
SF: He does astonishing things with having 10 or 12 characters in the frame at the same time and arranging them almost like frescos, where everything is incredibly balanced but not in an ostentatious way. The film is shot very documentary-style but with an incredible eye for composition.
GS: When you say his films need to pay off in the long haul, aren’t you kind of confusing him with Cristi Puiu?
TM: It seems to be one of the tropes of the New Romanian Cinema. I haven’t seen nearly as much as Scott has, but in several of the films, you’re never quite sure what cycle of behavior and action you’re in for.
GS: I think that in Police, Adjective and Aurora that’s clearly the case. But I thought this film knew where it was going and made it clear very early on.
TM: One other film we haven’t mentioned is the Vinterberg film, The Hunt, and both movies made me want to yell at the screen to clarify plot points. In Beyond the Hills, I was thinking, “Get her the hell to where she belongs, to a mental hospital.” I wanted some explanation as to why she wasn’t being taken directly to a place where she could actually be taken care of.
AT: But she doesn’t belong in a mental hospital! That’s the point of the film.
SF: She’s rejected by every system.
TM: Being there isn’t the issue. I don’t think she was being held there for the explicit reasons of the father, to try his method out. I don’t think it was motivated by religious reasons.
AT: No one has any use for these girls. The society as it is set up, the patriarchal organization of society, has no use for these women. Not only the two girls who have the leads, but all the little minions. It’s extremely interesting, in relation to 4 Months, that in many shots in this film, their heads are cut off in the frame. You do not see people’s faces; you don’t see their heads. They are these nonexistent people who are going through these routines that are pointless, like moving stones from one place to another place, like they did in the concentration camps—it’s kind of like that. I kind of agree with Todd, only in that you are so set within the organization of the church, which really has no use for these women except to fill out its system, that when you finally get to the hospital and to the police, which are equally rejecting, there just isn’t enough screen time. You’re suddenly in that band, there are the cops, and you realize they don’t give a damn either. No one gives a damn.
GS: The film insinuates that in fact both the cops and the daughters have a superstitious worldview. There’s a scene at the police station where the cops are chatting and they refer to some guy’s behavior as being influenced by his wife who may be a witch. Maybe that’s very deadpan humor, but nevertheless I think Mungiu is trying to make the point that there’s an organized religion and/or superstition that’s permeated the culture. It’s made very clear that the doctor thinks she need spiritual, not medical, help.
TM: Just mentioning the word witch leads me back to the Vinterberg. The Hunt hinges on a chestnut notion of gossip and witch hunt—ganging up on one person and ruining his life over the word of one person who can’t really be trusted. That’s when I wanted to yell at him, “Defend yourself, for God’s sake!” The whole thing has made me wonder about the differences that perhaps I don’t know about the Scandinavian legal system.
GS: I just wanted him to take off.
AT: Get a lawyer!
TM: Have the lawyer present for every encounter. Because he goes in to listen to the schoolteacher list the charges against him, and then this man comes in and feeds the little girl all these lines. She doesn’t say a thing—he feeds her everything and she just has to nod.
GS: That’s a classic problem in these child abuse cases: leading the witness.
TM: He never blows up and says, “I didn’t do this.” He kind of lets it happen. And I’ll reverse the equation to talk about the incident in Norway, the killing of 77 people [on Utoya Island]. The maximum sentence he can get is 23 years. There are just things I need to ask questions about. There remains an unanswered question of how that’s possible, and I’ll leave it at that.
SF: If we could go back to the Mungiu for a minute… In trying to analyze why I didn’t feel as riveted by it as by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I do think there is a slight self-consciousness about the film, in the way that it echoes the previous film and to some extent other films of the New Romanian Cinema.
GS: What’s wrong with that?
SF: I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, but it can create a distance between the film and the audience when a director starts thinking, “Well, this is something people really liked in my previous film. Maybe I should do it again.”
GS: On the contrary, I couldn’t disagree with you more. There’s a small core of filmmakers in Romania who are making most of the important films, and all of these films enter into an intense dialogue with each other from film to film. I think that’s fascinating. There’s not enough of that going on in the world.
SF: I think it can be interesting. Here I found it distancing.
AT: It is a distancing film, but I think that Carl Dreyer’s is a distancing film. But as I said when I came out, all I could think was this is the Romanian Day of Wrath—only he’s saying there is no redemption. That’s why Todd feels there is no ending. You’re making a film in a religious setting, and to begin with, you’ve ruled out the possibility of grace and redemption. In Dreyer you always have the moment of grace. Here that never happens. I think we all have that unconscious expectation: as soon as you see those accoutrements, despite the fact that these people are stupid and closed and all kinds of things, you still think, I hear the accoutrement of grace descending and that’s never going to happen and that’s the point of the film.
SF: But I’m not sure that I find the final scene, which is a deliberate echo of the final scene in Aurora, to be the best way of putting that point across. When they’re sitting in the van having a conversation that’s like a conversation you might find at the end of an 800- or 900-page novel that trails off into a non sequitur. It’s sort of what happens in Aurora when this guy who’s concocted an elaborate view of what’s right and wrong in the world goes into the police station practically expecting to be congratulated for it. And he finds that they don’t really give a damn, and they’re so absorbed in their own world they barely have time for him. I don’t know if that, to me, is even being in dialogue with another film.
GS: I think it is, and I thought that last shot was very significant. They’re sitting in that van, and it’s become a standard gesture in Romanian cinema that they would stay in that van for 20 minutes and various slight, nuanced things would happen. And then it would end. Mungiu decided to cut that short. He put an end to that particular gesture.
SF: I have to disagree. I could have counted down to the minute that the shot was going to cut to black. I found it very mannered and self-conscious. That ending was maybe the thing I liked the least in the movie, because it seemed too perfect. I didn’t have Todd’s feeling of unsatisfied expectations in the end. By the time we ended up in that van, I thought, oh, this is the ending. Then when the camera started to track, I thought, OK, we’ve got about 30 seconds until it’s going to cut off on a shot of just these two guys, everyone else framed out, and a conversation that doesn’t have anything to do with the movie.
AT: It has everything to do with the rest of movie. You’ve been in this place where people are hyped up with hysteria, but their problem is no different from being stuck in a traffic jam. The country doesn’t work. It had a revolution and nothing works and people don’t care.
SF: But don’t you think by then, that point has been made explicit? We’ve gone into the town before. We’ve gone into the family that doesn’t really have a place for her. They literally don’t have a place for her because they’ve taken in another child from the orphanage, and if she stays, she’s not going to be in her own room.
AT: But at these points someone has not been crucified and killed.
GS: Coming back to the Thomas Vinterberg film, The Hunt… In response to what Todd was saying—“Why doesn’t this guy do something and why doesn’t he lawyer up immediately?”—I think it’s because people in Scandinavia have a lot more faith in the mechanisms of the society. The character knows exactly what he should and shouldn’t be doing or saying. He’s very scrupulous about his behavior after he begins to realize he’s been charged. But the system fails him, and what we realize is that there’s a vigilante aspect underlying even the most sophisticated social mechanisms developed for dealing with these kinds of criminal justice issues.
AT: I think the Vinterberg is a terrible film. I think it’s dumb. It’s interesting if you listen to him. People are obviously interested because the only conference that’s been repeated in the Palais is the Vinterberg press conference. It plays over and over and over again. And what he keeps saying is: “I have sympathy for every character in this movie. You don’t understand. I have sympathy for them all. When a child is abused, people react. And every way people react in this movie I find understandable and sympathetic.” This is close to insane, because you’ve got a guy who didn’t do anything. The movie makes that very clear.
GS: And that he’s a very decent guy.
AT: Yes. And you have a kid admitting to us, the audience, that she lied, really quickly.
GS: Three times over the course of the film.
AT: And then you have these vigilantes who immediately go hysterical and turn into the mob from The Crucible. This may be telling us something about Scandinavian culture that we don’t know—that they’re so repressed that if you just flip the switch, they’re going to do this. I don’t believe that. I just can’t buy that.
SF: I really liked Vinterberg’s debut, The Celebration, and probably had more sympathy than most for his misguided but ambitious American project, It’s All About Love, with Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix. But I’ve been pretty consistently disappointed by everything he’s done since then, including the unbearable piece of miserabilist melodrama called Submarino that was in competition in Berlin two years ago, so I’m not rushing to see The Hunt.
GS: What’s interesting to me about your reaction, Amy, is that the film is excruciating to watch because it’s a wrong-man narrative—where someone is unjustly accused of something and his life immediately starts to unravel. That is very painful to watch, it makes me feel very uneasy, but I’m not sure it’s an objectionable story to tell. You had a visceral reaction just to having that story retold. It’s not a new story. There’s nothing new in this film.
AT: The problem here for me may be cultural difference, in that we went through this long period of hysteria around child abuse and wrong men, people being jailed for incredible lengths of time. And it’s had a real effect on the culture in that many people do not go into teaching and into professions where that might come about.
GS: That was definitely the thought going through my head when I was watching the film.
AT: The film set you up to think that this is not something that’s common there, and therefore their reaction being so off the wall just doesn’t add up for me.
SF: Not having seen the film, I’m not sure I find it so implausible that this kind of thing could still happen in America, another McMartin case for example. There was a film we showed in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema this year called Guilty which was about something like that in France quite recently, involving a great number of people. It seems to me that whenever there is a case of alleged child abuse, there is a presumption of guilt around the accused person, even in this country.
GS: I think whatever culture you’re dealing with, all kinds of procedures and methodologies are put in place in the developed world to deal with these questions, and yet that system clearly fails here. That being said, I thought that Mads Mikkelsen’s performance was terrific. This was a real change for him. He usually plays really tough, monosyllabic characters.
SF: He’s very good in a Danish film, A Royal Affair, that was in Berlin this year. He plays an advisor to the royal court in Denmark in the 18th century who becomes the real mind behind this idiot king and then pays a price for it. He’s a fine actor.
GS: Last but not least, what are our thoughts on the Hong Sang-soo movie, In Another Country, which we all just saw?
AT: Why do people encourage this guy to keep going on and on, making these films that are absolutely nothing? It’s kind of embarrassing to see Isabelle Huppert doing basic Acting 101 exercises. That said, I thought the video colorist should have the major credit in the film. I have never seen, frame by frame, such beautiful color in video. Such perfect balances of the greens, and the orange and reds.
SF: I have to say I like Hong Sang-soo as a phenomenon. I think he’s a smart guy, and he’s very astute at showing other the humiliation by which men attempt to win the favor of women.
GS: The crisis of masculinity in general is his great subject.
AT: The Korean Judd Apatow?
SF: By way of Rohmer, who’s obviously his great model stylistically. But at the end of the day, when Eric Rohmer was cranking out these films, one a year, his level of artistic achievement was much higher than Hong Sang-soo’s. This is the fifth Hong Sang-soo film in the last three or four years. I’ve said it before and I feel the same way now: if only he would just take a little bit more time, and not rush from one project to the next. The films at this point have become almost indistinguishable from one another.
GS: They’re very inconsequential, that’s for sure.
SF: His last major film was the one he made in Paris, Night and Day. He really took the time to develop a complicated story, and he did very interesting things formally—moving back and forth in time, giving you a dream sequence that at first didn’t seem like a dream sequence. And in the film before that, Woman on the Beach, I also felt that he was applying himself, but, in the new film today, I didn’t feel that level of attention. Even though I found parts of it very funny, and the film that he won a prize for here two years ago, Ha Ha Ha.
GS: Night and Day was definitely his last really good film, but I think that the task that he’s set himself as a filmmaker is to stake out the smallest possible patch of ground and intensively work it in any number of variations. There are diminishing returns, but he seems very committed to that tiny patch of ground.
SF: For a while he did seem to be advancing from film to film, in the sense that he was finding new things in that patch of ground, or he was experimenting formally in an interesting way.
GS: He was experimenting structurally in interesting ways. But now, it’s funny: I think that the stalling of his work coincides with his introducing this trope of the sudden, slight zoom in. [Laughter] It’s in every film after Night and Day, and it is a completely baffling stylistic tic. I’d really like to ask him what he’s getting at by doing that. It calls your attention to the frame and the size of the frame, and I almost feel that’s his way of acknowledging that he is working with a very tiny frame.
SF: Perhaps. Let’s acknowledge that he’s not an innately visual storyteller. The only thing I want to say beyond what we’ve talked about is that people are always hot to talk about trends in Cannes, and I feel like trends are usually the invention of—
GS: “People like you”? [Laughs]
SF: Magazine editors and people who are looking for an angle rather than just talking about the films. So I’m glad we mostly talked about the films. But culminating with the Haneke this morning, I have been struck by the intense physical quality of the films here in the competition. About 90 percent of the movies we’ve seen deal with the body explicitly in some state of extremis or deterioration, whether it’s the paraplegic woman played by Marion Cotillard in the Jacques Audiard movie, or the woman bound and gagged in the Cristian Mungiu movie, or the stroke victim in the Michael Haneke. This has struck me as a throughline. The films themselves are quite visceral. One of the things I liked about the Audiard film is that it’s not really about this woman learning to walk again. The physicality in the film is the fact that both of the characters are people who have to do something intensely physical in their lives to really feel alive. He’s a boxer, she’s working with killer whales. The sex scenes I found very sweaty and visceral, and real in a way that I couldn’t remember the last sex scene in a movie that I felt this way about.
GS: Just go on the Internet.
SF: Likewise, in the Haneke, I think you really feel the bodies. Not just hers, but his, and it’s an incredibly intimate physical experience.
AT: I think that’s true. And the way this has played out, I’m not so sure they’re not conscious of it, because the festival is moving toward Friday… and Cosmopolis.
SF: Yes, by one of the great body filmmakers, David Cronenberg, whose whole career has been about body horror.
GS: Based on the third of the book that I’ve read, it will be interesting to see how he’ll be able to incorporate that into the cinema of the body, because this is about a guy sitting in a limo.
AT: Having sex. In the book, the limo is used for everything. He pisses, he shits, he has sex. He eats, he drinks.
SF: It’s like Howard Hughes.
GS: There is a Howard Hughes aspect. But it’s interesting, this theory that they front-loaded the festival with the not-so-good movies in order to have a rousing climax.
AT: Except we don’t know that’s going to work.
SF: I never buy the idea that there’s any theory to the programming of the festival. In Cannes, so much of how films are scheduled is about talent availability, it’s about powerful sales companies and producers jockeying for certain slots and wanting to have certain films in the first weekend because that still is considered the most prestigious (whether or not the films this year necessarily fulfilled that). People wanting to have the 8 o’clock premiere as opposed to the 10:30 premiere, and all of this mundane, bureaucratic haggling that has nothing to do with what the films are actually about. You can think of years very recently, like the year of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where the film that ended up winning the Palme d’Or was shown very early, either the first or second film of the Competition. The same with Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. And you can think of years where the film that won was right at the end, like The Class.
GS: What typically happens, though, is that you see a film like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, or a film like the Haneke this morning, and then every other movie gets measured against that. But on the other hand, there’s the situation where you’re just praying for something good. I remember when Rosetta won and that was screened on the Saturday.
SF: And I think the other thing that I like to remember when we’re in Cannes is that we have one take on these films, because we know the work of these filmmakers. And when the Dardennes come to Cannes, we’ve seen all their other work, and we’re evaluating their new film vis-à-vis those other films. But for a lot of the people on the jury—unless they’re real cinephiles, which I think is rarely the case, these people that work in the industry—the work of these filmmakers may be completely new to them. And I think one of the reasons certain filmmakers win a prize whenever they come to Cannes is because the jury is actually largely a new audience for their films. And not to disparage actors, but from interviewing actors over the years, they’re often not huge cinephiles. When you have a lot of actors on the jury, they may never have seen a Dardennes.
GS: But it depends on the actor. Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve are real cinephiles.
AT: And Asia Argento.
GS: This year the jury is actors, directors, and a fashion designer in the middle. I think it is going to be really interesting, because Moretti is a real cinephile.
SF: As is Alexander Payne.
GS: I love Alexander Payne, but Moretti knows a helluva lot more world cinema than almost anyone else who’s been the jury head. I don’t know how much influence any one person has on things, but I can imagine Moretti’s reactions to some of the movies we’ve seen so far, and the exacting standards that he seems to apply to movies, including his own.
SF: But if I’m not mistaken, the year he was jury president of the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion went to Monsoon Wedding. So make of that what you will.
GS: That’s right… The other final thing to observe about this festival, which comes back to something Peter von Bagh said to me back in Rotterdam, is that this is one of the few festivals in the world where you see the same films on the same days. The other two are probably the New York Film Festival and the Midnight Sun Festival. You don’t have the ability to make up your own schedule, and toggle back and forth between multiple films. We’re all on this conveyor belt going the same direction.
SF: That’s true. At Berlin, Venice, any festival that has a big international component, those films are usually screened only a couple of times. And Cannes has now made it more possible to create your own schedule by adding these day-after screenings—
GS: We have been interrupted by Serge Kaganski of Les Inrockuptibles. Serge, what’s your favorite of this year’s festival so far?
Serge Kaganski: I am balancing between De rouille et d’os [Rust and Bone] and the Haneke.
– fin –