BELIEVE NOTHING YOU READ about the films at Cannes, including this post, written after the fact and in the relative calm of my own apartment. Cannes is hard—thirteen caffeinated days resulting in thirteen nearly sleepless nights, and in the end you’ve seen, at best, fifty of some two hundred titles in the various official lineups, not to mention the hundreds more in the market. And when the films are as punishing as they were this year—if the blood on the screens had run into the Mediterranean, the sea would have been red for weeks—you may wonder why you’re interested in movies at all.
This was the most gynecological Cannes ever, replete with a self-inflicted clitoridectomy (Charlotte Gainsbourg pulling out the stops in Lars von Trier’s lyrically photographed, psychodrama send-up Antichrist) and an unintentionally hilarious “gynocam” shot (a CGI close-up of the entrance of a monster-size penis into a vaginal canal, viewed from the perspective of . . . what exactly: a cervix? The viewer’s eye about to be hit, metaphorically, with a wad of cum?) at the climax of Gaspar Noé’s numbingly attenuated neo-psychedelic trance film, Enter the Void. Adolescent as it is, Noé’s movie is something to see, or at least might have been, had it not gone on for 155 minutes; the same can be said of Quentin Tarantino’s similarly inflated, similarly idiotic World War II comic-book fantasy, Inglourious Basterds.
Gaspar Noé, Enter the Void, 2009, still from a color film, 150 minutes.
The coincidence of large numbers of films featuring women—either troubled or in trouble—with a jury headed by the reigning actress of French cinema, Isabelle Huppert, and on which the women (all of them actresses) outnumbered the men (all of them writers or directors) five to four, made for some very strange misogynist buzz on the Croisette. There was much speculation about whether Huppert would force her “perverse” priorities on the pussy-whipped men of the jury, or whether she and juror Asia Argento, so different in style, could ever agree. In the end, the awards were reasonable, and with one or two exceptions, predictable. I’ll try to parse them here, although my interpretations of the jury’s decisions are as speculative as anyone else’s. In cinemas outside the US, the Cannes imprimatur matters. It may even determine whether a filmmaker who comes from a highly censored film culture will ever work again. One example is the Chinese director Lou Ye, whose Hong Kong–produced gay roundelay, Spring Fever, won Best Screenplay (even though the screenplay was the least successful aspect of a film that itself wasn’t nearly as good as his 2006 Summer Palace); it will be harder for the Chinese government to prevent Lou from working at home when he’s been feted at Cannes.
Unlike the famed 1999 jury headed by David Cronenberg, which split the top four awards (Palme d’Or, Grand Prize, Best Actor, and Best Actress) between just two films—the Dardennes’ Rosetta and Bruno Dumont’s Humanité—Huppert’s jury spread the wealth as much as possible. With Cannes priding itself on being the foremost international film festival, it would have been a serious diplomatic gaffe to give the Palme to a French film, since a French film (Laurent Cantet’s The Class) won last year. Thus Jacques Audiard’s popular, beautifully wrought prison drama, A Prophet, about the rise of a young Frenchman of Arab descent to the highest ranks of organized crime, had to be contented with second best—the Grand Prize (which to the ordinary film viewer looks just as impressive on a poster as the Palme d’Or). Alain Resnais’s buoyant, romantic comedy, The Wild Grass, the only great film I saw, was also, by virtue of the flag it carried, out of the running for the Palme. Since it would have been unseemly to give Resnais, at age eighty-seven, the second prize, the jury honored him with a lifetime-achievement award instead. That cleared the way for Michael Haneke’s enigmatic and glaringly obvious The White Ribbon to take the top prize. Both The White Ribbon and A Prophet will be released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics.
Will there be an American distributor or even a film festival willing to take on Kinatay, by the Philippine director Brillante Mendoza, whom the jury, in its most controversial move, named best director? Easily the toughest, most controlled film in the festival (one translation of the title is Slaughter), it depicts the kidnapping, torture, gang rape, killing, and dismemberment of a prostitute by a posse of mob enforcers, all seen through the eyes of a police-academy student who’s gone along for the ride, not knowing what he is getting into. He doesn’t walk out, and neither did I. And that’s where a moral argument rightly begins.
While Christoph Waltz’s Best Actor award was a done deal from the moment his Nazi colonel stole Inglourious Basterds away from its putative hero, Brad Pitt, the rumor was that although Gainsbourg deserved Best Actress, Huppert felt too competitive with her to let that happen. See what I mean about misogyny? Fortunately, sisterhood prevailed, and not only with Gainsbourg. The jury gave additional awards to Park Chan-wook’s vampire epic, Thirst, and Andrea Arnold’s angsty coming-of-age comedy, Fish Tank, both of which focus on furious females.
Lee Isaac Chung, Munyurangabo, 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm, 97 minutes. Muyurangabo and Sangwa (Jeff Rutagengwa and Eric Ndorunkundiye).
THE MOST ARRESTING ASPECT of Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo (2007) is the uneasy silence that permeates its Rwandan vistas. Traversing the countryside, young Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye) and Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) hitchhike their way from Kigali, the nation’s capital, to the rural village that Sangwa abandoned three years earlier. For both men, it’s an emotional journey back to the once-bloodied countryside that still haunts them. But not until Sangwa’s stern father—a Hutu—asks his son why he is traveling with a Tutsi does the movie begin to delve into the complex tribal dynamics that still define everyday life for those living in the nation.
The Rwandan genocide ended fifteen years ago with the killing of between five hundred thousand and one million Tutsis, and the silent strain between Sangwa and Ngabo and between Sangwa and his father (played by a solemn Jean Marie Vianney Nkurikiyink) reflects a nation still struggling to cope with this horror. Pausing on the side of the road before they reach Sangwa’s home, the two travelers get their stories straight: They will only stay with Sangwa’s family for a few days before moving on to complete their mission. But as Sangwa embraces his mother and father, works the family’s farmland, makes daily trips to the watering hole, and takes charge of repairing a crumbling wall on the house, he starts to again appreciate the familiar rhythms of family life. His contentedness only frustrates Ngabo, whose own father was one of those slaughtered during the genocide. His safety net has been torn to shreds, and the film slowly reveals that the larger purpose behind this cross-country trek is the assassination of the Hutu man who murdered Ngabo’s family.
Dialogue is sparse in Munyurangabo, a silence surely linked to Chung’s disconnection from the Rwandan language, landscape, and cast (all nonprofessional actors, working from an improvised script). An American director of Korean ancestry, Chung is focused here not solely on the story of a single Rwandan family but also on how this one instance of familial tension is representative of larger issues. Slowly widening his focus, Chung examines the ways in which the genocide and an ongoing drought have obliterated the nation’s foundations.
With crops, water, sons, and fathers in short supply, it is suspicion, selfishness, and violence that have filled the void. In a place where families depend on one another for labor and sustenance, one lost generation of Tutsis has left another fumbling to find its footing. Yet of all the things falling apart in Munyurangabo—the house, the family, the soil—it is the decline of Sangwa and Ngabo’s friendship that is most immediately salient. Loyal friends in the city, they are overcome by the bitter divisions that abide in the rural municipalities, and it is only at the end of their journey that a stranger along the road finally speaks up, calling their silent and poisonous enmity into question.
Munyurangabo screens May 29 through June 4 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Director Lee Isaac Chung and writer/coproducer Samuel Anderson will be in attendance on Friday, May 29, and Saturday, May 30. For more details, click here.
“THE BRITS THINK THIS HAS BEEN A GREAT CANNES!” a London-based colleague told me when I remarked that I thought 2009 was a so-so year. “The Italians hate Vincere,” said someone else, referring to Marco Bellochio’s well-received, operatic competition entry about Mussolini’s mistress. Every year, Cannes invites sweeping generalizations like these from journalists, who have usually seen between forty and fifty movies in twelve days and are eager, especially in the closing weekend of the festival, to predict what the winning films will be.
Regardless of what one thought of the films in competition, there’s no denying the astonishingly unpredictable choices of this year’s jury, which granted awards to nine different films (out of twenty possible titles), with no film winning more than one prize. Journalists gathered at the Salle Debussy to watch a live transmission of the awards, taking place next door at Grand Théâtre Lumière—which allowed us to boo or cheer as we pleased. Brillante Mendoza won best director for Kinatay—a gruesome recapitulation of a woman being raped and dismembered. Charlotte Gainsbourg (much to this correspondent’s delight) took home the best-actress award for Antichrist, giving her thanks in a buttery, breathy hush. Accepting his prize for best actor, Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds solemnly acknowledged, “I owe this to [his character] Colonel Landa and his unique and inimitable creator, Quentin Tarantino.” When jury president Isabelle Huppert began her presentation of the highest honor of the evening, the Palme d’Or, with “It’s with a certain emotion that I give . . . ” it was clear that The White Ribbon, by Michael Haneke (with whom the formidable actress has worked twice before), would be the winner.
Immediately following the awards ceremony, the jury assembled for the second time to be questioned by reporters. “It’s by intuition—you either like it or you don’t,” succinctly explained Mme Huppert when asked what criteria the winning films followed. Responding to what the deliberation process was like, Asia Argento noted, “It was such a beautiful experience and a sharing of brains”; Robin Wright Penn wanted to dispel rumors that the jury fought and remarked somewhat opaquely on “the beauty of the love.” A more dyspeptic Hanif Kureishi said, “It was a bit like being on Big Brother.” And in his concluding statement, Kureishi summed up the entire Cannes experience: “Sometimes good art is hard.”
João Pedro Rodrigues, To Die like a Man, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes.
MANY THEMES HAVE EMERGED at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival—bad parents, worse children, buckets of blood, the love that dare not speak its name, rutting in the woods, genital torture—but three films seen in succession today constitute their own genre: how legends live on. Terry Gilliam’s out-of-competition title The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the final project of Heath Ledger, who died before shooting was finished, gets around the untimely demise of the actor through a conceit plausible within the film’s fantasy premise: Ledger’s character changes appearance when he goes through a magic mirror, becoming, at first, Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, and finally Colin Farrell, whose contributions enabled Gilliam’s film to be completed.
Perhaps the legions of French stars who appear in Tsai Ming-liang’s competition entry Visage were led to believe they’d be serving a noble cause, too. The attendees at the press screening in the Salle Bazin, however, quickly grew impatient: The first walkout occurred fifteen minutes into the self-referential film, about a Taiwanese director making a movie of the legend of Salomé in the Louvre; when the final credits rolled, about a third of the 350-seat theater—completely full at the beginning—was empty. In one of Visage’s many longueurs, a triad of Gallic grandes dames—Fanny Ardant (who is also at the festival with Ashes and Blood, her debut as a director), Jeanne Moreau, and Nathalie Baye—gather at a dinner table. “If we talk, time will go by,” Ardant says to her dining companions. Yet not even the estimable Fanny could make the minutes pass fast enough.
Of all today’s luminaries, none shined as brightly as Tonia (Fernando Santos), a legendary trannie from Lisbon, in João Pedro Rodrigues’s rich Un Certain Regard entry To Die like a Man. “Without you, drag will disappear,” a club owner tells Tonia on her deathbed, her body ravaged by illness and silicone poisoning from her breast implants. With a junkie boyfriend, a homicidal son, and fierce competition from statuesque rival Jenny, twenty-year gender-illusionist vet Tonia is a wealth of aphoristic pronouncements: “There are no secrets. Only shame.” Which may be the most concise way to describe all the on-screen agony at this year’s Cannes.
Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon, 2009, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 144 minutes.
EVERY YEAR, Cannes aims to strike a balance between feting the work of old masters—many of the directors with films in competition are several years north of qualifying for AARP membership—while also being the place where new talent is discovered. Representing the old guard, Michael Haneke, whose stern, black-and-white The White Ribbon—set in the years just before World War I in a German hamlet where a series of beastly unsolved incidents begins to occur—screened last night, was introduced by the trilingual moderator at this afternoon’s press conference as “one of the leading lights” of Cannes, returning to the festival for the ninth time, the sixth with a film in competition. Herr Haneke may be a leading light, but his view of the world is as dark as the funereal outfit he wore today; even children are complicit in evil in his latest. Greeted by several bravos from journos, Haneke dispensed with the usual politesse at these gatherings. “This film is obviously not a model. With due apologies, I find your question somewhat absurd,” Haneke replied to the reporter who naively wondered whether there weren’t other possibilities for children.
Some of those possibilities are found in writer-helmer Axelle Ropert’s first feature, the Directors’ Fortnight title The Wolberg Family, a smart and funny examination of nuclear bonds that reaches aural sublimity with its sound track of lesser-known ’60s soul nuggets (the paterfamilias, mayor of a southwestern French town, dedicates a plaque to soulstress Maxine Brown before a group a tiny school kids). “Family isn’t sexy,” notes daughter Delphine (Léopoldine Serre), who’s just shy of eighteen—merely one example of Ropert’s concise observations about the constant struggle to negotiate private lives versus ones shared with kin. Ropert, who cowrote Serge Bozon’s enchanting, otherworldly World War I musical La France (which premiered at the Fortnight in 2007), is in contention for the Caméra d’Or, given to the best first film at Cannes. Whether she wins or loses, I hope she beats Haneke’s record for return visits to the Croisette.
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 148 minutes.
“I’M FRENCH. WE RESPECT DIRECTORS IN OUR COUNTRY,” says a character in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II Jewish-revenge-fantasy epic Inglourious Basterds, the most anticipated film at Cannes—and the one that’s proven to be the most meta about the festival itself, a twelve-day orgy of le cinéma d’auteur. As in all QT productions, Inglourious Basterds is stuffed with cinephilic references: A British officer (played by Michael Fassbender) was a film critic in his civilian life and the author of a book on G. W. Pabst; the heroine (Mélanie Laurent) runs a movie theater; a digression is included on the flammability of nitrate film, which becomes a tool to bring down the Third Reich.
Though Inglourious Basterds was met with more applause at the beginning than the end, scores of journalists rushed from the morning’s press screening at the enormous Lumière theater to form a sweaty scrum outside the press-conference room, hoping the butch security guards with earpieces would let them in. “Ah, one must wait for the hero of Cannes,” noted an Austrian reporter, who left before things got a little uncivilized. “Du calme, monsieur!,” insisted one woman to an aggro gent, determined to get to the front of the line.
Cannes may love Tarantino, who won the Palme d’Or in 1994 for Pulp Fiction, but the motor-mouthed director may have an even bigger crush on the festival. “During this time on the Riviera, cinema matters. It’s important,” Tarantino said, before declaring himself an artist without borders: “I am not an American filmmaker. I make movies for the planet Earth.” Earlier, his self-description was a bit grander: When a German reporter asked whether Tarantino, who has said he loves all the characters in his movies, is fond of even the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, the director replied, “I love them from this God perspective. Because I am God, according to them.” Two actors who play SS officers, Daniel Brühl and Christoph Waltz, were fittingly supplicant to their lord, both getting up from their seats to plant big wet ones on Tarantino’s left cheek, the latter actor mystically remarking, “I let go and sent my character back to its maker.”
Film-festival programmers and German actors may worship Tarantino, but the director might need to start thinking about how to sweep someone else off her feet. When asked whether he was worried that jury president Isabelle Huppert, apparently once attached to Inglourious Basterds, which she may have either pulled out of or been fired from, would be disinclined to award him a second Palme d’Or, Tarantino established his bona fides as the actress’s number-one fan: “Nobody adores Isabelle Huppert more than myself. I’ve always loved Heaven’s Gate.” Explaining that the collaboration “just didn’t work because of scheduling, timing, and deal stuff,” Tarantino quickly added that the appreciation isn’t just one way: “I adore her, and she likes me.” As they say in France, on verra.
Left: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, I Love You Phillip Morris, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Production still. Right: Park Chan-wook, Thirst, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 135 minutes. Production still.
JOURNALISTS AT CANNES are always eager to sniff out trends and themes, and many have noted that 2009 may be the bloodiest on record: Gallons of the red stuff have either spurted or, as in Park Chan-wook’s vampire tale, Thirst, been consumed. But with Thanatos comes Eros, and several films at this year’s festival—particularly in the Directors’ Fortnight—have obliterated the Kinsey scale.
After being introduced by Fortnight artistic director Olivier Père as a “genuine genius,” Jim Carrey, who stars with Ewan McGregor in the gay romantic comedy I Love You Phillip Morris (which premiered at Sundance in January), bounded to the stage to thank the film’s directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, for telling the true story of an ex-cop-turned–con man who falls in love with a fellow jail-mate with “grace, intelligence, and humor, without pandering to antiquated sensibilities.” Turns out Carrey wasn’t just jive talking: The manic actor plays a far superior romantic lead than he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), determined to do anything for McGregor—whose love scene with Carrey surpasses the lust he shared with Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine (1998).
Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, another US comedy that premiered at Sundance (“Contemporary American comedies have grown more and more interesting in recent years,” Père told Daily Variety last month), finds two straight dudes—one married and about to start a family, the other a hairy free spirit—who set out to prove how boundary breaking they are by making a homo porn film starring themselves. Alain Guiraudie’s comedy The King of Escape starts with the opposite premise: Armand, a hefty middle-aged gay tractor salesman, takes a fancy to a sixteen-year-old girl named Curly; vigorous alfresco shtupping follows, which expands to include a gathering of randy old coots and gerontophiles. As for sapphic urges, Yorgos Lanthimos’s Un Certain Regard title, Dogtooth, has been the only film—so far—to include lady-lady pleasuring, though some may contend bartering cunnilingus for a sparkly headband isn’t all that romantic.
Lars von Trier, Antichrist, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
CERTAIN VERY TENDER BODY PARTS are excised in Lars von Trier’s competition title Antichrist; based on the responses at last night’s screening and the press conference this afternoon, several members of the fourth estate would like to chop off an appendage or two of the great Dane's. Von Trier’s film—a psychosexual religious horror movie about a couple (Willem Dafoe and a fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to their cabin in the woods while mourning the death of their toddler son—was met with some of the most vicious booing at the festival (amid, it must be noted, vigorous applause), preceded by cackles at the title that announced THIS FILM IS DEDICATED TO ANDREI TARKOVSKY.
Von Trier has been tarred as a misogynist since at least Breaking the Waves (1996), and the act of self-inflicted bodily harm Gainsbourg commits in Antichrist led some journos to conclude that the director is Beelzebub himself. At the packed press conference, one British reporter, unable to mask his fury, began the usually banal proceedings with this challenge: “Would you please, for my benefit, explain—and justify—why you made this movie?” The director quietly countered, “I don’t think I owe anybody an explanation,” sending the writer into further apoplexy: “Yes, you do! Yes, you do!” Von Trier drolly reminded us that a certain etiquette must be obeyed: “You are all my guests. Not the other way around.”
Envoys of other nations were far kinder. “It’s an excellent film, a fine film. And the Russians, they understand it,” praised one Moscow-based interlocutor, just a few minutes after von Trier declared himself “the best director in the world” and that all other helmers are “overrated”—which may have explained the look of disgust on the provocateur’s face when a French journalist wondered whether Dario Argento, and not Tarkovsky, might be the more obvious influence on Antichrist.
Will the outrage surrounding Antichrist increase its chances of winning the Palme d’Or? The festival’s most prestigious award has gone to despised films before, notably Maurice Pialat’s Under Satan’s Sun in 1987; booed when he went onstage to collect his prize, Pialat shot back, “If you don’t like me out there, I don’t like you, either!” Von Trier’s film might find ardent supporters in two of the jury members, both daring performers: madame le president Isabelle Huppert (who was awarded the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 2001 for Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher—a role that also required sharp objects applied Down There) and Asia Argento (provided she’s not offended by von Trier’s insult to her dad), who, two years ago at the festival, was crowned “the queen of Cannes” for her audacious turns in three films, including Olivier Assayas’s Boarding Gate, in which she strokes the part of herself that Gainsbourg does violence to. At the very least, von Trier should receive a Speculum d’Or.
JET LAG, LACK OF SLEEP, watching four to six films a day, trying to remember how to conjugate the passé composé: All can contribute to a certain sense of losing one’s grip, of not being able to separate dream and waking life. Did I really see a festooned baby elephant marching down the Croisette this afternoon? Was I really assaulted by a projectile sugar cube as I headed toward the Salle Debussy?
Mine wasn’t the only notion of reality that was slightly askew: Cracked ideas about parenting dominated the day’s moviegoing. Tyros Josh and Bennie Safdie, both of whom had work in last year’s Directors’ Fortnight, returned to the Fortnight this year with their first feature collaboration, the oddly buoyant Go Get Some Rosemary. Starring Ronald Bronstein (director of last year’s Frownland) as Lenny, a wiry, divorced NYC dad taking care of his two young sons, Sage and Frey (exceptionally spirited half-pints Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for two weeks in New York, Go Get Some Rosemary (2009) demonstrates that father knows worst. When Lenny, a film projectionist, has to go into work unexpectedly but can’t find a sitter, he figures giving his kids a third of a sedative so they can be unconscious for several hours is better than having them wake up and flip out when they see no one’s home. Rosemary, much like Josh Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), assembles a superb cast of weirdos orbiting around a profoundly flawed main character. Though at times borderline psychotic, Lenny is often the perfect playmate for his sons—maybe because his sense of logic is about as developed as an eight-year-old’s.
Extreme compensatory maternal love is the subject of Bong Jon-ho’s simply titled Mother (2009), playing in Un Certain Regard. Mom (Kim Hye-ja) and her mentally challenged twenty-eight-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin), cuddle up to each other every night; when Do-joon becomes the prime suspect in a murder, Mommy, shall we say, redefines her parental responsibility on more than one occasion. Mother begins and ends spectacularly; as for the rest, I’ll replace it with the vision of the parading elephant.
Jane Campion, Bright Star, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Fanny Brawne and John Keats (Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw).
THREE WOMEN DIRECTORS—Andrea Arnold, Jane Campion, and Isabel Coixet—have films in competition at Cannes this year, making 2009 the most distaff-heavy in the history of the festival. With Bright Star, her first film since In the Cut (2003), Campion, the only woman ever to win the Palme d’Or, for The Piano (1993), proved that the six years between projects were worth it. Bright Star, about the romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), was warmly received at this morning’s press screening and was one of the first films to be bought (with a release slated for September 18); the film magically transcends its standard literary-biopic structure into a lush, deeply moving love story.
Other female auteurs returning after lengthy hiatuses didn’t fare quite as well. Marina de Van followed up her thrillingly audacious, gory debut In My Skin (2002)—about a woman’s morbid fascination with her own body (in which de Van also plays the lead)—with the out-of-competition, Midnight Selection title Don’t Look Back, which had audience members guffawing (one French journo appeared to be trying to strangle the screen). When an author played by Sophie Marceau tries to recover childhood memories, she slowly morphs into another Euro-starlet: Monica Bellucci. The conceit is far more enticing in description than in execution; one of the hazards of such shape-shifting apparently includes sudden-elephantiasis-of-the-leg syndrome.
Yet for every dud at Cannes, an unexpected, exquisite pleasure isn’t too far behind. Pedro Costa’s sublime documentary Ne Change Rien, playing in the Directors’ Fortnight, captures lithe, majestic French actress/singer Jeanne Balibar at rehearsals, recording sessions, and a classical-music tutorial. Shot in lustrous black-and-white, Ne Change Rien begins with Balibar, filmed in silhouette, singing (in English), “Tortuuuuuuuuure / Baby, you’re torturing me.” As the title says, don’t change anything.
Other magnificent creatures were seen in the flesh. Tilda Swinton, who looked as though she could’ve passed for David Bowie’s twin sister during his Thin White Duke phase, attended the special screening of the restored The Red Shoes (1948), introduced by Martin Scorsese, whose Film Foundation cofunded the restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece. Its feverish Technicolor more eye-popping than ever, The Red Shoes gave us the day’s most heavenly screen beauty: Moira Shearer, her red hair and blue eyes aflame.
Lou Ye, Spring Fever, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.
CANNES LOVES TO COURT—IF NOT MANUFACTURE—CONTROVERSY, as the overcooked adjectives in the press book for Lou Ye’s competition title Spring Fever, about man-man love, spying, betrayal, and triangulation, attest: “[T]he beginning of asphyxiating, sultry nights of physical abandon that exalt the senses. A sulfurous journey into the confines of jealousy and obsessive love.” Lou’s last film, Summer Palace, which unspooled at Cannes in 2006, ran afoul of Chinese censors for including plenty of XXX action and footage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, leading to the director’s being banned from making a film in China for five years. Lou shot Spring Fever clandestinely in Nanjing on DV, capturing the steamy (though genital-free) trysts between a married man and his boyfriend, sobbing breakdowns at drag shows, wrist and neck slashings, two-guys-and-a-gal frolicking, and the joys of finding the love of a good tranny. There were a few walkouts, but the response at the end of the film was notably indifferent: just the sound of a few hands clapping puncturing the stony silence—a rarity at a festival infamous for lusty booing.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, not quite the sulfurous journey that Spring Fever is, kicked up a bit of a storm simply by its ultimate placement in the festival. When told by the Cannes organizers that his film—a black-and-white, Buenos Aires–set family drama between brothers, played by Alden Ehrenreich and Vincent Gallo—could be offered only an out-of-competition slot, Coppola (a two-time Palme d’Or winner, for 1974’s The Conversation and 1979’s Apocalypse Now) balked, accepting instead the invitation from Olivier Père, head of the Directors’ Fortnight, the bolder, noncompetitive alternative to Cannes, to open that program. The paternal Coppola, who appeared for a postscreening Q&A with his wife, Eleanor; his son Roman (who worked as a second-unit director on Tetro); and cast members Ehrenreich and Maribel Verdú, asked what all of us in the audience were wondering: “And where is Vincent Gallo?” Père nervously chuckled and said he was expected for the later screening. Eager to engage with his interlocutors, Coppola asked, “Is it possible, Olivier, to make a little more light? I’d like to see who I’m talking to.” But sometimes the pleasant exchanges could go only so far. When one curious spectator, who noted that the brothers in the film have a father and an uncle who are both famous composers—just like the director himself—asked how autobiographical the film is, Coppola responded cryptically: “Nothing in the story really happened. But everything is true.”
Left: Promotional poster for the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. Right: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, Up, 2009, color digital film, 96 minutes. Publicity image.
THE TITLE OF THE OPENING-NIGHT FILM at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival is Up, though many expect the number of festival attendees and movies bought to be down. The lousy economy has kept many away, and swine-flu heebie-jeebies may have also persuaded others not to travel to the south of France this year. On the Delta direct JFK-to-Nice flight on Monday, May 11, all passengers had to fill out a contact form in case the virus was detected, as required by the French Ministry of Health; this afternoon, the first journalist wearing a surgical mask was spotted.
Masks are optional, but at the morning press screening of the Pixar film Up, the first animated film ever to open the festival, 3-D glasses were a must—eyewear that looked curiously like the fabulous lunettes de soleil resting atop the head of festival perennial Henri Behar, the moderator of the press conference with the competition jury. Could the worldwide blahs have even Behar, famous for his florid circumlocutions, feeling low? Introducing the nine members of the jury from left to right, Behar’s descriptions of each were uncharacteristically to the point: “American actress Robin Wright Penn; South Korean director-screenwriter Lee Chang-dong . . .” Fortunately, he rallied a bit when presenting jury president Isabelle Huppert, announcing, “I’ll save the lady in the middle for last,” before this Beharism: “She’s part of Cannes as much as Cannes is a part of her.”
What does the lady in the middle think of her role as madame le president? “I don’t think we are here to judge. We are here to love films,” Huppert responded, switching from French to English as the situation required. A French journalist asked the jury members how willing they’d be to disagree with their leader. After no one replied, Huppert regally asserted, “I’ll go against myself if necessary.” To a British reporter’s remark that she is only the fourth woman to head the jury, Mme Huppert, perhaps not wishing to add gender war to a season of economic misery and pandemic fear, coolly noted, “They are four women who count for a lot, so it’s OK.”
Ken Jacobs, Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks), 2008, stills from a color 3-D video, 118 minutes.
A MAD PROFESSOR OF VISUAL PERCEPTION, Ken Jacobs has produced decades of work investigating the underpinnings of optical experience. After shooting madcap romps with the likes of Jack Smith, Jacobs embarked on his analytic projects with Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969–71), created in the thick of the structural turn in North American avant-garde filmmaking, when artists like Michael Snow, Paul Sharits, and Hollis Frampton discarded visual poetics in favor of a more rigorous investigation and reconstruction of film form. Tom, Tom takes as its starting point a one-reeler of the same name from 1905 based loosely on the nursery rhyme, complete with purloined pig; the original was shot by cameraman Billy Bitzer for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Produced a decade before D. W. Griffith’s expansion of cinematic grammar, Bitzer’s film uses an archaic, theatrical mode of presentation, crowding its actors into a single shuffling heap against an obviously painted backdrop. Via optical printer, Jacobs rephotographed the original in a multitude of ways, distending the eight minutes of its run into more than a hundred. He enlarges elements within the crowd that could have easily eluded viewers the first time around—curious faces, subtle gestures, costume details—revealing heretofore unexplored narratives swirling around the central tale of porcine theft. At points, he zooms in so closely that the images dissolve into inky clouds. “I wanted to ‘bring to the surface’ that multi-rhythmic collision-contesting of dark and light two-dimensional force-areas struggling edge to edge for identity of shape,” Jacobs wrote in an early description of his film, “to get into the amoebic grain pattern itself.”
In the past ten years, Jacobs has turned from film to video, taking on a whole host of cameraless tools that have allowed him to tinker anew. One of his most recent efforts is Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks) (2008), a return to the original source material of Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son using anaglyphic 3-D, the red/blue-glasses system once reserved for eyes-a-poppin’ monster movies. Jacobs is no stranger to the third dimension: A number of his videos, like Pushcarts of Eternity Street and The Surging Sea of Humanity (both 2006), strobe images from turn-of-the-century stereograms to create ersatz visual profundity, based on similar mechanical procedures created for his live “Nervous System” performances. Less a sequel than a remake, Anaglyph Tom employs a wide array of digital techniques to once again dissect Bitzer’s footage: picture-in-picture, split screens, flipping and twisting, various visual filters. But if Tom, Tom was about the investigation of narrative, Anaglyph Tom is more about an accordion-like expansion of photography’s Z-axis, using 3-D to separate the crowd out into flat figures positioned in a series of overlapping planes. Jacobs provides innumerable permutations of this scenario in the course of Anaglyph Tom’s roughly two hours, pushing the anaglyph system to distort and subvert normal binocular clues, creating impossible spaces and unnatural colors. While wide-ranging, the results remain a twenty-first-century coda to Jacob’s initial deconstruction. But by returning to an artifact from cinema’s primitive first decade, Jacobs suggests alternative histories to the technology, forking paths that point toward undiscovered possibilities.
Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes. Production still. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche). Photo: Jeannick Gravelines.
AFTER THE FREAKY, FAR-OUT, FREQUENTLY DYSTOPIC PLEASURES of Olivier Assayas’s last three films—Connie Nielsen clad in leather fetish wear in the Hellfire Club in demonlover (2002), Maggie Cheung as a transnational rock star struggling to stay off junk and be reunited with her young son in Clean (2004), and Asia Argento diddling herself before jetting off to Hong Kong and intrigue in Boarding Gate (2007)—the director returns home for his twelfth fiction film, to a bourgeois French family trying to negotiate the past, present, and future, in the mournful Summer Hours. As in the triptych that precedes it, Summer Hours is a film about globalization—though, this time, serving not as a springboard for genre tinkering but as the source of a deep melancholy and anxiety over the state of French history and culture.
Assembled on a lush summer day for the seventy-fifth birthday of their widowed mother, Hélène (Edith Scob), three siblings—Frédéric (Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), plus the brothers’ spouses and broods—celebrate what will be their last family gathering at their once-beloved, magic ancestral home in the Île-de-France. Much to the discomfort of Frédéric, an economist in Paris and the only child still living in France, the formidable matriarch discusses what should be done after her death with the house and the collection of Art Nouveau treasures, Redon panels, and Corot paintings it contains. The solemn discussion ends as everyone scrambles to catch flights: Adrienne, a designer, is headed back to New York, and Jérémie and his family are returning to Shanghai, where he works as a technical supervisor at a Puma factory.
Hélène dies, off-screen, a few months after this reunion, leaving her children to struggle with the best way to honor the past. “The house no longer means much to me—France, either,” Adrienne candidly admits, a sentiment shared by Jérémie. Frédéric, the eldest, and the one who agonizes the most over the questions of legacy and heritage, finally agrees with his siblings to put the house on the market and sell their mother’s collection to the Musée d’Orsay. (Summer Hours, like Hou Hsaio-hsien’s luminous 2007 film, Flight of the Red Balloon, was part of an initiative by the museum to celebrate its twentieth anniversary.)
Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours, 2008. (Trailer.)
In the hands of a less talented, less generous filmmaker, Summer Hours could have easily curdled into a noxious litany of the worries of an extremely privileged group of people. But Assayas’s sincere, complex concern about cultural amnesia—the eroding of a nation’s heritage by the ahistorical, inexorable demands of the international economy—is rendered so deftly that the theme becomes one of larger, less class-specific importance. Summer Hours is also an impeccably observed family study, unimaginable without the remarkable ensemble of actors, led by Berling, who, much as he did in Assayas’s Les Destinées (2000), conveys his character’s anguish through expertly modulated moments of restraint and release. Another collaborator from Les Destinées, cinematographer Eric Gautier, beautifully captures, in the two scenes that bookend Summer Hours, the very look and feel of what the film’s title evokes: sun-dappled, pastoral scenes of indolence and pleasure—moments unblemished by the greasy wheels of commerce.
Summer Hours opens May 15 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.
“THE QUESTION IS, WHAT’S NOT ‘EXPANDED CINEMA’?” artist Malcolm Le Grice noted during Tate Modern’s sold-out conference April 17–19, which featured three days of films, performances, and presentations on the subject. The event was an attempt to historicize and bring into mainstream academic discourse the indefinite “movement” of Expanded Cinema, an oft-marginalized grouping of works and practices within the already fringe movement of experimental film. A number of speakers from the London Film-makers’ Co-op gave interviews about their work, younger academics traced connections between canonical Expanded Cinema works and similar media crossings in other disciplines, and three works from different periods were realized in the dark, damp oil tanks beneath Tate Modern.
The conference, with this wide purview, did not go altogether smoothly. Q&As were contentious: Axes were ground, heels dug in, and camps (male/female, young/old, and so on) formed. As Le Grice suggested, the problem hinged on the inability to determine precisely what it is that the term “Expanded Cinema” (coined by Stan VanDerBeek in the mid-1960s) denotes—a vagueness that is in itself constitutive, as the appellation is meant to encompass a wide range of exploratory practices that transgress the boundaries separating media (in particular film, video, performance, and dance). Here the definition question evinced a tension between a historical understanding of the term—which essentially restricts the movement to works made by London and New York co-op filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s—and an “expanded” use of it, which might encompass recent or contemporary moving-image works that incorporate performative elements.
Speaking to the question of definition, the American academic Noam Elcott and Whitney curator Chrissie Iles discussed different historical models of film spectatorship, from El Lissitzky’s plan for a room whose background changed color as spectators moved (Abstract Cabinet, 1926) to Peter Kubelka’s Invisible Cinema, 1970, a theater in which viewers were isolated from their neighbors. Framing Expanded Cinema in terms of the phenomenology of the viewing experience, Iles suggested that the movement’s disruption of the spectatorial experience also functioned as a disruption of the ideology of sameness and otherness contained in the viewer/screen binary. Elcott considered the possibility that “spaceless darkness” allowed for an ideal state for conscious contemplation. His German, early-modern examples shared surprising affinities with psychedelic rhetorics of perceptual enhancement—and indeed the artist Jordan Belson, about whom Cindy Keefer spoke, moved between abstract multiple projections and imagery created for special-effects sequences in mainstream feature films.
Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film. Documentation from 1971 performance.
Because Expanded Cinema was less a movement and more a type of work, many of its practitioners were also actively making structural film, dance, and multimedia installations, and the conference was most compelling when the spotlight shifted away from such historical coincidences and toward the unique formal properties of Expanded Cinema performances. Lucy Reynolds investigated the significance of shadow play in Expanded Cinema and argued that in this regard its roots lay in the pretechnological imagination of the Renaissance, in which demons and black magic were often depicted as shadows thrown by a “good” subject. Reynolds located the uncanny in Expanded Cinema and used Le Grice’s Horror Film 1, 1971, in which the artist stands in front of a screen with three projectors casting different shadows onto it, as a particularly telling example. Reynolds’s argument was corroborated by the atmospherics of the Tate oil tanks, where three works were stunningly installed. There was Tamara Krikorian’s gravelike Time Revealing Truth, 1983, and Steve Farrer’s The Machine, 1978–88, which uses shutterless spinning-camera techniques to animate the image of a man projected onto a 360-degree screen. Lis Rhodes’s early, masterful performance Light Music, 1975, here made into an installation, ran an optical sound track through two projectors, which were placed opposite each other and projected their light onto large screens. The audience was encouraged to walk through these beams—the visual representation of sound—which cast their shadows onto the screens and made the audience part of the performance.
This elaboration of modes of consumption and production became something of a leitmotif over the weekend, and it was key to a paper given by one of the conference’s organizers, Duncan White. (The conference was put together by the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection and by the Tate film and education departments, and it represented the continuation of a research project initiated by the British scholar Jackie Hatfield.) Tracing depictions of control and captivity in, for example, Paul Sharits’s Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976)—in which footage of a man having a seizure is coupled with light and sound rhythms meant to induce this feeling in the spectator—White argued that Expanded Cinema emphasizes not authorial production but spectatorial consumption. Speaking on the first day, he offered up Expanded Cinema as itself a new mode of production, and this “definition,” though it expanded and contracted by degrees, seemed most salient throughout.
“VACANT, VACUOUS HOLLYWOOD was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into. Plastic. White-on-white,” Andy Warhol writes of Tinseltown in POPism (1980). Obsessed with Shirley Temple as a child, Warhol continued his fascination with luminaries of the silver screen (the more tarnished their legends, the better) in his films, in the process creating his own stable of movie stars at the Factory—a reimagining of Hollywood archetypes on view in MoMA’s eleven-film series “The West: Myth, Character, and Reinvention by Andy Warhol.”
In September 1963, Warhol, with his silent 16-mm Bolex in tow, took a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to see his “Elvis” canvases at the Ferus Gallery. While in LA, he made Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of (1964), starring Taylor Mead, who had already established his underground-cinema star status in Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), as an especially nelly King of the Jungle. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes in his indispensable biography of Warhol, part of the artist’s project was a “concerted homage to offbeat, diffident manhood, a tribute that climaxed in the films he made with Taylor as star.” In Tarzan, Mead halfheartedly beats his chest, more focused on how much lower his loincloth will droop; Warhol himself appears later in the film, smacking Mead’s bare bottom.
When Warhol began making sync-sound films in 1964, he frequently let charismatic chatterboxes structure his movies: “I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie,” he notes in POPism. His first drag-queen superstar, Mario Montez, a performer in Jack Smith’s films who was a post-office worker when not on-screen, plays the lead in three of Warhol’s greatest movies about actresses undone by scandal or early death: Jean Harlow in Warhol’s first sync-sound feature, Harlot (1964), Lana Turner in More Milk Yvette (1966), and Hedy Lamarr in Hedy (1966). Muscular, thick-jawed Montez has no interest in starlet mimicking (unlike future superstar Candy Darling); with a few incongruous props—a banana, a hamburger—he transforms screen-goddess worship into a fantastic, perverse, and inimitable ritual.
Anne Aghion, Ice People, 2008, still from a color film in HD, 77 minutes.
ONE OF ANNE AGHION’S go-to images in Ice People (2008), her documentary about South Pole scientists, is of tightly lashed tents against a backdrop of towering mountain peaks. When the film’s four main subjects—a pair of geologists and their two undergraduate assistants—aren’t hunkered down inside these wind-whipped shelters, boiling water and struggling to make small talk, they’re digging outside with picks and shovels.
It’s an earthbound, stubbornly unromantic depiction of Antarctica’s modern-day explorers—the polar opposite, perhaps, of Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Herzog saw his subjects as a community of “professional dreamers” who play rock guitar, glide through crystal-blue ocean waters, and tiptoe along the rims of volcanoes. Aghion’s take is decidedly less exciting; the most dramatic moment in Ice People comes when the group’s most enthusiastic member, Dr. Adam Lewis, uncovers a leaf impression he guesses to be twenty million years old and exclaims, “That’s a beauty!”
Aghion does a commendable job letting this frontier land speak for itself. She’s not offended, as Herzog is, by the banal mining-town aesthetic of Camp McMurdo, the researchers’ base; on the contrary, she embraces its spartan dwellings as part of the atmosphere. And she captures some wonderful images from the community’s everyday activities—snowplows working in twenty-four-hour darkness, visible only as globes of light, or a technician flapping his arms to stay warm as he repairs a control tower.
Despite the serious work and the grim surroundings depicted in the film, there’s a subtle wit at play in Ice People. Aghion cuts between a geologist typing up his findings on a laptop and his reclining, dirt-encrusted partner studying rocks outside like a Cro-Magnon. They’re both sitting on layers of freeze-dried history, and when one of them submerges an ancient sprig of moss he’s just unearthed in water, it expands like a Chia Pet.
When the film’s protagonists talk, it’s often about the satisfaction of figuring stuff out. The undergrads are deciding whether this sort of rugged fieldwork is for them; the professors, it’s obvious, made their minds up a long time ago. “Now I’m just rocks and tills and glaciers,” Lewis says. Although the film never explicitly pronounces him and his colleagues the vanguard in the battle against global warming, the thump-thump of their helicopters flying over scree-covered slopes (Antarctica, or Afghanistan?) suggests these devoted “ice people” as that conflict’s special forces.
Ice People has its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives May 1–7. For more details, click here.