Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm.

IN 2005, the first year I covered the Cannes Film Festival, there was a store in an alley near the studio apartment I shared in the Suquet—the old part of town—called the Crazy Shop. The establishment no longer exists, but its name provides the aptest tagline imaginable for the two-week period in mid-May when thousands of journalists, film stars and directors, movie marketers and executives, paparazzi, D-listers, louche heiresses, hustlers, and swindlers all descend on this beautiful Mediterranean city that transforms into a shrine of international auteurist cinema.

The press corps, many of whom had already unraveled from deadline stress and sleep crimes by the festival’s midpoint, are perhaps the Crazy Shop’s most loyal customers. The past two days have been dominated by a particular kind of film-professional lunacy: trying to predict the winner of the Palme d’Or. “The Sorrentino”—This Must Be the Place, with Sean Penn—“is so bad and so mawkish, it’ll definitely win the top prize,” two esteemed colleagues (and longtime Cannes veterans) assured me yesterday.

Fortunately, the nine-member jury led by Robert De Niro, who received a standing ovation from the crowd assembled at the Lumière Theater for the awards ceremony, proved them wrong: Sorrentino’s movie received none of the seven prizes handed out just moments ago. Rewards went to eight different (out of twenty) titles in Competition; the Grand Prize (the runner-up award) was split between the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia, a nearly three-hour-long procedural about a search for a corpse. Most astonishingly (or maybe not: “it’s so bad and so mawkish . . . ”), Maïwenn’s Polisse won the Jury Prize (third place, essentially), the first category to be announced in the forty-five-minute ceremony. The long-maned, equine director panted throughout her excessively long acceptance speech (during which presenter Chiara Mastroianni looked up at the ceiling more than once), re-creating the de trop quality of her film.

When De Niro announced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as the winner of the Palme d’Or, I realized how completely disjointed my sense of time had become in the Crazy Shop: A film I had seen only six days ago now seemed thousands of years old, eclipsed as it had been just forty-eight hours later by the Lars von Trier hoo-ha. Despite the Danish troublemaker’s exile status, he brought good luck once again to his female lead: Kirsten Dunst, one of the main performers in Melancholia, won the Best Actress prize (the other, Charlotte Gainsbourg, had taken home the award in 2009 for her performance in Antichrist; Björk received the prize in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark). Dunst, visibly nervous, smiled and said, “Wow. What a week it’s been.” The Crazy Shop shutters once again—but we’re already counting the days until it reopens for business.

Melissa Anderson

Left: Paolo Sorrentino, This Must Be the Place, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. Right: Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.

THROUGH PERVERSE, coincidental timing, the Nazi theme at Cannes continued today—fewer than twenty-four hours after Lars von Trier’s banishment from the French Riviera—with the 8:30 AM screening of Paolo Sorrentino’s Competition title This Must Be the Place. The film stars Sean Penn—an amalgam of Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie, the Cure’s Robert Smith, and the titular mentally challenged man the actor played in I Am Sam—as Cheyenne, a fey, retired goth rock star who leaves his home in Ireland to return to the US to track down the man who tormented his estranged father in Auschwitz. Unbearably sentimental—one colleague likened it to this year’s Life Is Beautiful—and consistently ridiculous, Sorrentino’s movie was inexplicably met with warm applause (and, as far as I could tell, no boos). There’s no arguing taste (or cultural differences or festival exhaustion), but figuring out the appeal of a film that includes a Holocaust slide show, Penn’s aggressive scenery chewing (“Not having kids has really, really screwed me over!” he weeps at one point), and every lazy American stereotype (fatties, guns, tattooed hillbillies) will remain forever beyond my ken.
“Performing is a fantastic way of communicating,” Charlotte Rampling says in The Look, an insubstantial hagiographic portrait of the legendary actress by Angelina Maccarone, which played in the Cannes Classics sidebar earlier this week. Penn’s way of reaching out is to overplay an already risible role; Ryan Gosling, in contrast, as the laconic, no-named movie stuntman and part-time heist driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Competition entry Drive, conveys endless appeal through steely silence. Screening for the press last night at the Salle Debussy, Drive provided, if only temporarily, a welcome change of topic from the von Trier fiasco: Gosling’s smoldering foxiness, which hypnotized several colleagues, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, I spoke with afterward (Queer Palm jurors, take note). Gosling’s heat is just one part of the film’s overall seductiveness. An “existentialist road movie,” in the words of my viewing companion, Drive is such a thrilling, taut, visually dazzling exercise in genre filmmaking that even its more gruesome scenes—such as Gosling crushing a man’s skull with his foot—left all of us giddy.

Melissa Anderson

Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm.

L’AFFAIRE DSK has now been supplanted by le scandale LVT. After Lars von Trier’s Nazi remarks yesterday at the press conference for Melancholia, Cannes officials released a two-paragraph statement, which concludes, “The Festival is adamant that it would never allow the event to become the forum for such pronouncements on such subjects.” Von Trier himself issued the following mea culpa: “If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” The filmmaker’s words of regret, however, weren’t enough to restore a celebratory mood; according to the New York Times, both the cast dinner and beachfront afterparty for Melancholia were canceled. Rumors are now circulating that the director’s gaffes may have irrevocably harmed his film’s chances for winning the Palme d’Or (that, and the fact that it may be von Trier’s least thought-out film); just minutes ago it was announced that von Trier has been declared “persona non grata” by the festival.
A much cuddlier provocateur, festival regular Pedro Almodóvar is in Competition with The Skin I Live In; the middlebrow auteur is so beloved that his name in the opening credits alone prompted wild applause at the Lumière this morning (a screening from which I was nearly shut out). Based on Thierry Jonquet’s 1995 novel Tarantula, Almodóvar’s latest reunites him for the first time in twenty-one years with Antonio Banderas, who plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who goes to extremes to punish the man who raped his mentally fragile daughter. Almodóvar has described his film as “a horror story without screams or frights”; I’d add without risk or intelligence. To reveal how Ledgard avenges his daughter would spoil the film’s major “outré” plot thread. Let’s just say that the jurors for the Queer Palm, for which The Skin I Live In is a contender, will find that it follows—to the letter—the criterion of “disturbing the genders’ established codes.”


Melissa Anderson

Lars von Trier, Melancholia, 2011, still from a color video transferred to 35-mm film, 130 minutes.

“I HOPE NO ONE gets a clit cut off in this movie,” a colleague sitting next to me said this morning before Lars von Trier’s Competition entry Melancholia. She was, of course, referring to the self-inflicted snipping of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s tender lady part in Antichrist, which was in contention for the Palme d’Or in 2009 and proved so inflammatory to some journalists that the director was booed at his own press conference.

Melancholia, though it depicts the end of the world in its prelude, is much less provocative than von Trier’s previous film; it’s the flip side to Competition titles like The Tree of Life and Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu, which mythopoeically explores the birth of Japan. (If bad kids and the worse things done to them dominated the first week of the festival, the second has been defined by the big bang and doomsday.) Kirsten Dunst, who replaced Penélope Cruz, plays Justine, a new bride who suffers from crippling depression. Her mental illness is so severe that she drives away her groom during their wedding reception. Justine is tended to by her sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), who grows more anxious about the impending approach of Melancholia, “a planet that has been hiding behind the sun.”

At the Melancholia press conference, von Trier was met not with fourth-estate fury but polite, if tepid, response. When a correspondent from Indonesia asked if he were happy with the film, the director, known for taking none of these press events seriously, responded, “When I saw the stills, I kind of rejected it a little. Maybe it’s crap. I hope not. But there’s a really big possibility that this [film] might not be worth seeing.”

The Q&A proved such a pleasant, dull affair that von Trier couldn’t resist stirring up trouble. In answer to a London reporter’s query about the Teutonic influences in the film—Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is heard throughout—and von Trier’s discovery in 1989 that his biological father was German, the director replied, “I thought I was a Jew and was happy. And then I found out I was really Nazi.” As Dunst, sitting to von Trier’s left, began to squirm, he continued, “I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a little bit. [. . .] I’m for the Jews—but not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass.” After the filmmaker admitted his admiration for Albert Speer, a Canadian journalist decided to jump right in with this crucial question: Did von Trier consider Melancholia his answer to the blockbuster? His response: “Yes, we Nazis try to work on a grander scale.”

Melissa Anderson

Left: Oliver Hermanus, Skoonheid (Beauty), 2011, color film in 35 mm. Right: Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes.

L’AFFAIRE DSK continues to dominate the news: The cover of today’s Libération features a grim-faced Strauss-Kahn gazing downward with the simple headline “K.O.”; the right-wing Nice-Matin also has a photo of the embattled IMF chief on its cover next to the words “En prison,” though more prominent placement is given to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—“Le couple glamour du Festival”—on the red carpet.

Of course, sometimes the movies themselves remind the four thousand film journalists assembled here that topics weightier than Terrence Malick exist. Unspooling at 8:30 this morning, Aki Kaurismäki’s Competition title Le Havre, a droll yet compassionate look at the perils faced by illegal immigrants, has been one of the most warmly received films by the tetchy press corps so far. In the Finnish director’s second film set in France after La Vie de Bohème (1992), former artist Marcel (André Wilms), now working as a shoe shiner in the port town of the title, shelters and provides safe passage for Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young refugee from Gabon hoping to be reunited with his mother in London. Kaurismäki’s wry take on immigration—an especially thorny subject in France—moved one journo to talk back to the screen. When a character solicits the opinion of a Vietnamese friend of Marcel’s, he responds, “Hard to say, for I don’t exist”; one row behind me, I heard someone, thrilled to have his own views validated, proudly rejoinder, “Voilà.”

My opinion was too aggressively sought out by an unknown publicist who grabbed my arm as I stumbled out of the Salle Debussy—my eyes adjusting, molelike, to the Côte d’Azur sun—after watching Oliver Hermanus’s Beauty, playing in Un Certain Regard. An overcooked, protracted tale of a married, self-loathing, dangerous top, the twenty-eight-year-old South African director’s sophomore effort is vying for the second “Queer Palm” (the inaugural award went to Gregg Araki’s Kaboom last year); the QP jury will, according to its translated press release, “watch all the movies dealing with the gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, and queer topics and disturbing the genders’ established codes.” But the jury no longer has a lavender watering hole to host its awards ceremony: The legendary Cannes boîte Zanzibar, Europe’s oldest gay bar, closed earlier this year, torn down to make way for something less likely to disturb the genders’ established codes: an ice cream shop.

Melissa Anderson

Left: Bertrand Bonello, House of Tolerance, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 125 minutes. Right: Terrence Mallick, The Tree of Life, 2011, color film in 35 mm.

PUNCTURING THE HIGHLY UNNATURAL, hermetically sealed bubble of the festival yesterday, the arrest of IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault in New York was deemed important enough to interrupt the usual coverage of photo calls and obsequious interviews on the Cannes TV station, which broadcasts on monitors throughout the Palais. But for the members of the press corps at 8:30 this morning, no event in France was more earth-shattering—literally—than the world premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the most anticipated title in Competition this year (and in 2010, when several attendees remained delusionally convinced that the infamously slow-working director would somehow finish his fifth movie in four decades in time for the festival).

On a micro level, The Tree of Life, set primarily in the 1950s in Waco, Texas (Malick’s hometown), tells the story of a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest of three sons, struggling against the rule of his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt); on a macro, the film takes on nothing less than the beginning of the universe. Meteors erupt, lava flows, dinosaurs roam the earth; the whispery voice-over of Jack’s beatific mother (Jessica Chastain) implores, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” As expected, Malick’s cosmic grandiosity—often sublime, sometimes ridiculous—proved too much for many journalists, who began booing viciously before the film even ended; not even the rapturous applause of Tree of Life’s comparable number of admirers could fully drown out their disdain.

The origin of the world—in Gustave Courbet’s sense of the term—is also explored in Bertrand Bonello’s Competition entry House of Tolerance, which takes place in an upscale Parisian brothel, the Apollonide, at the very beginning of the twentieth century. “Men really should spend more time staring at a woman’s sex,” says one habitué of the den of vice. Despite derailing more than once, House of Tolerance sustains its mood of lust and languor. Like Malick, Bonello has no qualms about deploying his own absurd special effects (or anachronistic sound track): In the final days of the Apollonide, the prostitutes dance with each other to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”; meanwhile, one physically damaged house veteran, crouched in a corner, cries tears of cum.

Melissa Anderson