Pablo Larraín, Tony Manero, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 97 minutes.
DISCO AND DANTEAN INFERNO, Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero portrays a dead-eyed survivor who is “stayin’ alive” during the bloody years of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile. Set in Santiago’s bas-fonds of grubby cantinas and crumbling cinemas in 1978, the year Saturday Night Fever was released in Chile and half a decade after Pinochet seized power in a US-backed coup, Manero turns one man’s obsession with his eponymous alter ego into a scary, airless metaphor for cultural imperialism and the psychosis of fascism.
Despite his rather baroque moniker—Raúl Peralta Paredes O—and his grand aspirations to television stardom as a John Travolta imitator, the film’s fifty-two-year-old protagonist cuts an anonymous figure in tan windbreaker and dyed pompadour, his impassive mien masking murderous intent. Rushing to the aid of an old woman, mugged and bloody in the street below, Raúl gallantly shepherds her home. “Thank God there are decent people like you,” she says, bleak irony and political metaphor accumulating in the dank obscurity of her apartment. Identifying herself as an air force officer’s widow, proffering a tin of past-date tuna as recompense, and noting that Pinochet’s eyes are blue as she admires the dictator on television, the old woman, one of the film’s many Dostoyevskian characters, has no time to contemplate the hazards of gratitude as Raúl suddenly whacks her to death with his hand, calmly feeds her cat with the expired fish, and spoons a little for himself before scuttling through the eerily empty streets, color TV in tow. Psycho killer disguised as Good Samaritan, Raúl embodies a world in which the state executes the innocent and reduces the rest to mute acquiescence through fear.
Director Larraín, who hails from a right-wing family of wealth and political power, re-creates the dread and clandestine resistance of the Pinochet era with a manner by turns elliptical and overt. Frantic and implacable, Tony Manero employs a cinema nervoso arsenal of whip pans, extreme shallow- or out-of-focus images, jump cuts, and fast tracking follow shots, filmed in handheld 16 mm with a Dardennes-style adherence to Raúl’s body, itself the site of insistent metaphor. “You’re lifeless,” the madman’s girlfriend claims halfway through the film, critiquing his penis for getting swollen but never hard. (The cinephilic Larraín equates sexual impotence and everyday fascism in the manner of 1970s Italian cinema.) Looking less like taut Travolta than decaying Pacino, Raúl strips and madly capers to music in his room, but his dance is of the dead, his grin a rictus of pretend ecstasy. In the simulacrum of his country’s colonized culture, rife with Chuck Norris look-alikes and Travolta wannabes, Raúl has no authentic being, only a feigned or fantasized one, founded in caricature and maintained by duplicity and subjugation. The parallels with Pinochet are entirely intentional.
Tony Manero leans heavily on its influences, which include The Conformist, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy; its pervasive Catholic imagery and abrupt brutality may not derive from Scorsese, but its sense of cultural artifact as catechistic ritual does. Raúl’s treks to the cinema to see Fever take on the aura of lone pilgrimage. He enters through a crimson-lit antechamber, and recites the film’s dialogue in phonetic English as if repeating liturgy. Proceeding obliquely—nothing is indicated of Raúl’s previous life—but given to portentous detail, Manero first shows Raúl following along with the Fever sequence in which Manero’s friend tells him, “One day you look at a crucifix, and all you see is a man dying on a cross,” and then stealing a chain and crucifix from the corpse of an anti-Pinochet activist who has been shot and dumped by plainclothes police. The hidden or slant meanings of another recent political allegory about a repressive Latin American regime, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, are not for Larraín. Tony Manero sometimes outwits its own intelligence with overbearing metaphor, but its immense, fetid power undeniably places it at the forefront of the resurgent Chilean cinema.
Tony Manero is now available on DVD in the US and Canada through Kino International.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes.
WHEN CANNES JURY PRESIDENT Tim Burton announced Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or on Sunday, the cheers that erupted from some quarters of the normally jaded press corps spoke volumes. Forget impartiality. This was precisely the improbable happy ending (“shocking” and “exhilarating,” as Manohla Dargis described it in the New York Times) that many of us had been rooting for as the increasingly suspenseful awards ceremony progressed. Not just because Uncle Boonmee was the one truly transporting film in a so-so competition. Not just because anyone who has heard Apichatpong speak about his work knows him as a man of uncommon grace and thoughtfulness. And not just because—as Bangkok Post critic Kong Rithdee noted while addressing Apichatpong at the post-awards news conference—it had been a very tough week for violence-racked Thailand.
To acknowledge that the Uncle Boonmee Palme felt like a personal victory is to acknowledge that contemporary film culture can feel like a battleground, with, broadly speaking, the cinephiles on one side and the populists on the other—or, to use the insults often preferred by both camps, the elitists and the philistines. The divide is especially pronounced in an environment like Cannes, which some approach as a beacon of glamour and others as a bastion of high art. This is where journalists with a low tolerance for difficulty and difference have to contend with films that lack stars, production values, or, heaven forfend, a clear narrative, and these scribes often react with frustration and anger (as happened all too predictably this year with Jean-Luc Godard’s new provocation Film Socialisme).
What the press-room cheers drowned out on Sunday was the wariness or even antipathy that some harbor for a figure like Apichatpong—you can detect this in the bemused Cannes wrap-ups by writers who had clearly not bothered to see the film by the Thai guy with the unpronounceable name, and in the metaracist line of reasoning by which his detractors accuse his fans of Orientalism. Apichatpong’s last Cannes entry, Tropical Malady (2004), won the Jury Prize but was booed at its press screening and condemned in Variety as “incomprehensible.” In the final accounting, this was a Palme d’Or that mattered, enormously, for having been awarded to a film that would otherwise have gone unmentioned in most mainstream coverage of the festival. And now that he’s received world cinema’s highest honor (from a jury led by the director of Alice, no less), it might be a little harder to dismiss Apichatpong as an obscure filmmaker with no hope of finding an audience.
I saw Uncle Boonmee twice in Cannes (despite Apichatpong’s objections: “Better to leave it all jumbled,” he told me when I interviewed him), and it strikes me as both his simplest work to date and a step forward in his ongoing project to change the way we experience movies. For the receptive viewer, Apichatpong’s sensory immersions induce a state of simultaneous relaxation and watchfulness. This time, despite a few enigmatic detours, there are no midmovie reboots. The title spells out the premise, which crystallizes the sly paradox at the heart of the film. We watch a movie about a terminally ill man (Boonmee, a farmer suffering from kidney failure, tended to by loved ones, including the ghost of his wife) ever alert to signs of life. A water buffalo freeing itself from its tether, a disfigured princess who sees her reflection by an idyllic waterfall, the talking catfish that performs underwater cunnilingus on her, the insects whose chirps and buzzes engulf the nighttime jungle scenes: Might these be Boonmee’s past (or future) incarnations?
An otherworldly fable, Uncle Boonmee often alights on earthly sensations (the taste of raw honey, a lingering embrace) and political realities (the violent history of Thailand’s poor, rural northeast and, at a remove, the current clashes in Bangkok). Much like another high point of the festival, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, it’s both a radiant ghost story and a tale of cinema itself, concerned with the act of perception and the mysterious conjuring of alternate worlds. Both films are by artists who defy most existing categories. At 101, Oliveira is a man out of time or, perhaps, of multiple times. No less an outsider, equally at ease in a variety of idioms and registers, Apichatpong synthesizes the Western avant-garde tradition with Buddhist thought, animist belief, and Thai pop culture. As Uncle Boonmee confirms, his vision is above all a generous one. In the threat of extinction—a dying man, a disintegrating country, a disappearing medium—Apichatpong sees the possibility of regeneration.
“I WOULD LIKE to thank all the spirits and all the ghosts in Thailand. They made it possible for me to be here,” beamed Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the winner of the Palme d’Or for his animist tale Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The international press, gathered in the Salle Debussy to watch a live transmission of the awards ceremony, may have been even more elated than the director: After jury president Tim Burton announced Uncle Boonmee as the winner, many journalists cheered and raised their fists, thrilled that their own clear favorite had been selected (a stark contrast to last year’s shrugs when Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon took home Cannes’s top prize).
Over the past twelve days, several critics groused that a jury led by the man who made Mars Attacks! would be predisposed to honor the safer, more middlebrow titles in the Competition roster, like Another Year, Mike Leigh’s study of a happily married couple and their dysfunctional social set. That the nine-person committee singled out a film in which an ancient Thai princess is sexually pleasured by a talking catfish proves that what many were calling “the most boring jury ever” was actually the most daring—and generous—in its choices. The seven major prizes were spread out over as many films, with Mathieu Almaric a surprise winner for best director for his burlesque tribute, Tournée, and Mahamet-Saleh Haroun taking home the jury prize for A Screaming Man, about a father’s selfish sacrifice in war-torn Chad.
Gathered to meet the press immediately after the awards ceremony, the jurors uttered platitudes and remained deliberately vague about their selections. One reporter became fed up with the niceties, insisting, “You’re very quiet and not very talkative and we need you to talk about the festival”—a demand that led only to more banal evasions from the jurors. Director Victor Erice, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), stated the obvious: “The list of winners is always the result of a vote. Perhaps we haven’t given sufficient justice to all the films. And for this I apologize.” But it was actress Kate Beckinsale, who had remained silent for nearly the entire thirty-minute press conference, who spoke most concretely: “There’s a slight nausea at the ones that were left behind. We tried to invent more prizes.”
“TRY WRITING a pretty poem every day,” the sixteenth-century Korean naval hero Admiral Yi advises Jo Munk-yung (Kim Sang-kyung) in a dream in Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha, which screened this morning in Un Certain Regard. Munk-yung, a Seoul-based director on the skids visiting the coastal town of Tongyeong, tries his hand at verse to impress the tour guide he initially assesses as possessing an “average face, but a very nice figure.” Like most of Hong’s recent films, Hahaha unfolds as a featherweight, auteur-stamped rom-com, with the men pickled in alcohol and hopelessly bumbling, and the women mercurial, capricious, and often right.
Lyrical compositions serve more serious purposes in Lee Chang-dong’s Competition entry, Poetry. Lee, last in contention for the Palme d’Or with 2007’s Secret Sunshine (for which Jeon Do-yeon took home the Best Actress prize), creates another powerful narrative about a woman raising a child on her own. Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), a proper, sixtyish home aide in the early stages of dementia, lives with her sullen adolescent grandson, whose mother is looking for work in Pusan. Enrolling in a poetry class, Mija anxiously awaits inspiration from the muses—which arrives the moment she decides her charge must finally suffer the consequences of a heinous act he has committed. Perfectly paced and performed, Poetry stands out as both a quietly scathing condemnation of male violence (and the craven attempts to cover it up) and an ode to the strength—and moral compass—of senescent women.
Pure poetry of another sort, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s rapturous tale of reincarnation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, playing in Competition, includes visitations from dead loved ones, men who are half monkeys, and talking catfish who know how to sexually gratify ancient princesses. “I don’t know how I will find you after I’m dead,” the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar), suffering from kidney failure, frets to his wife’s specter. “Ghosts are attached to people, not places,” she assures him—and anyone else who aches to reunite with someone who left them too soon.
A STAR TERRORIST FROM THE ’70s, a CIA operative betrayed by the Bush II administration, Grace Slick: A trio of disparate lives has been examined in three vastly different ways over the past twenty-four hours. Olivier Assayas’s five-and-a-half-hour Carlos, a maximalist, globe-trotting look at the Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramiréz Sánchez, more famously known as Carlos the Jackal, rightfully received a standing ovation yesterday after its sole, Out of Competition screening in the Lumière. Played by Edgar Ramirez (who also had a role in 2008’s Che, the last multihour biopic about a South American revolutionary to premiere at Cannes), the Carlos of Assayas’s film mixes libidinal kicks with his far-left militancy. “Weapons are an extension of my body,” he boasts to one of the many sisters of the revolution whom he beds, using a grenade as foreplay.
Several different languages are spoken in Carlos—often by the priapic insurrectionist himself—adding to the film’s epic sweep. Doug Liman’s Competition entry Fair Game, about CIA agent Valerie Plame, however, operates solely in the standard biopic vernacular: talky tub-thumping. Naomi Watts plays the covert operative whose cover was blown in retribution for the damning New York Times editorial her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV (Sean Penn), wrote condemning the Bush administration’s manipulating intelligence to justify the Iraq war. Or is Penn—whose press obligations in Cannes were preempted by his testifying in Congress yesterday, urging the US to expedite relief efforts to Haiti—simply playing himself? “Speak out! Ask those questions! Demand those truths!” a fiery Wilson, lecturing college students about their civic duties, bellows—dialogue similar to what the actor must have said countless times before on Capitol Hill.
Lodge Kerrigan’s Un Certain Regard title, Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs), features Géraldine Pailhas playing both herself—as an actress cast to star in Somebody to Love, a biopic about Grace Slick directed by. . .Lodge Kerrigan—and a mentally ill woman who, inspired by Slick’s music, wants to leave France for Monterey, California, to start a recording career. The doubling and the film-within-a-film become even more mesmerizing when the real Slick appears, in snippets from the concert docs Monterey Pop (1968) and One P.M. (1972). Combining meticulous mimesis, metanarrative, and lengthy, Dardenne-inspired, back-of-the-head tracking shots, Rebecca H. reimagines the biopic as an exercise in giving and withholding.
IN 1971, about twenty miles northeast of Cannes, the Rolling Stones began recording their first double album, Exile on Main Street, in the basement of Nellcôte, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg’s rented mansion in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Thirty-nine years later, Mick Jagger returned to another Côte d’Azur subterranean cave—the theater in the bowels of the Palais Stéphanie—to welcome the audience (many of whom had stood in line for ninety minutes or more for an hour-long documentary) to Stones in Exile, presented as a special screening in the Directors’ Fortnight. Jagger, sixty-six, evoked Exile’s epoch: “Nixon est dans la Maison Blanche . . .” Though he spoke very fine O-level French, the singer, before switching to English, apologized for any syntactical errors, admitting, “I hate when I make French tense mistakes.”
Directed by Stephen Kijak (who helmed the 2006 rock doc Scott Walker: 30 Century Man), Stones in Exile traces the making of that landmark 1972 LP, first in France, where the tax-plagued band decamped before the British government could seize their assets, and then—after there were arrest warrants out for the drug-bingeing group—at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The screening was bookended by brief testimonials from Don Was, will.i.am, Martin Scorsese, and . . . Benicio Del Toro (who, as a jury member this year, at least has a connection to Cannes, if not to the band in this movie); most of Kijak’s film consists of outtakes from Robert Frank’s 1972 Stones doc, Cocksucker Blues, and photographs from Dominique Tarlé, Nellcôte’s photographer-in-residence for six months.
Enduring a postscreening Q&A, Jagger, who executive produced Stones in Exile along with Richards and drummer Charlie Watts, explained the significance of repurposing the archival material, all from the group’s vault, for the doc’s look: “It was important that we keep it in the period—that we don’t have too many people sitting in chairs.” When asked how he and his bandmates could have worked with such quantities of drugs and booze, Jagger referred the audience to an article he had just read in the New York Times on marijuana-smoking chefs. Responding to the burning query of what he thinks about pop today, the singer was far more direct: “There’s great music and there’s shit in every era.”