New Values: Corruption and Death in Cannes
By Cole Smithey
The big movies at Cannes this year treated the subject of corruption, from betrayal of personal ethics for cash to systematic governmental abuse, with cinematic inoculations of hope for an equalizing justice for humanity. Films like Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York,” and even Wim Wenders’ embarrassing “The Palermo Shooting” contributed context to the importance of death to life. Several days of rain on the usually sun-drenched Riviera beaches allowed the thousands of journalists and critics many hours of guilt-free screenings while the likes of Clint Eastwood and Robert de Niro brought Hollywood glamour to the ever-busy red carpet. If you came here in my skin, these are the films you would have seen.
Lorna’s Silence (In Competition)
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne craft an evocative story about Lorna, a young Albanian woman (played flawlessly in the festival’s most impressive break-out performance by Kosovo-born Arta Dobroshi) in cahoots with Fabio, a Belgian mobster, to make money so she can open a snack bar with her boyfriend. Lorna suffers through a fraud marriage to Claudy (well played by Jeremie Renier), a junkie that Fabio plans to kill in order to put Lorna in another sham marriage, this time to a rich Russian. If the plot sounds convoluted it doesn’t impede an inevitable flood of surprising physical and emotional responses from the poker-faced Lorna. “Lorna’s Silence” was one of the strongest films in competition.
Waltz With Bashir (In Competition)
Writer/director Ari Folman adopted a graphic novel-like animated approach to address his haunting but vague recollections as a soldier in the 1982 Israeli Army invasion of Beirut, including the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the hands of the Christian Phalangist militia. Informed by confessional discussions with friends, the film gradually connects his abstract visions and short-circuited memory clips toward fleshing out Folman’s traumatic experiences. Visually inventive and viscerally sincere, “Waltz With Bashir” is a cathartic and unforgettable film.
A Christmas Tale ("Un Conte de Noel") (In Competition)
It wouldn't be Cannes without at least one French movie about familial angst, social ennui, and the specter of death. Arnaud Desplechin brought the goods this year with his irreverent, multi-layered story, set in his hometown of Roubaix, about Abel (Jean-Paul Roussllon) and his wife Junon Vuillard (Catherine Deneuve) whose loss of a son to lymphoma informs their existence. Now years later with three grown children-Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), a hopeless romantic, Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the family black sheep, and Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who disowned Henri five years ago--reunite for Christmas. In need of a bone-marrow transplant, Junon has limited choices for a donor, but doesn't let the threat of death ruffle her Gallic feathers. There are no martyrs in this anti-sentimental ironic movie that nevertheless percolates with emotion and accepts its quirky characters for all of their flaws.
Che (“The Argentine” and “Guerilla”) (In Competition)
The biggest buzz of the festival was Steven Soderbergh’s unconventional two-for-one Che Guevara biopic that ran four hours and twenty minutes long. “The Argentine” begins with Che’s famous 1964 speech at the United Nations, and finishes with Batista’s overthrow at the hands of Che’s well-organized guerilla troops. The second half “Guerilla” picks up after Che’s lost year in Africawhen he slipped into Bolivia to help lead a doomed revolution. Problematically, the two films are scheduled to be released separately, drawing into question tonal differences between them. Soderbergh doesn’t attempt to consolidate the story of Guevara’s life, but rather to concentrate on the way the rebel leader attempted to build on his success in Cubato spread revolution around the world. Benicio Del Toro is predictably mesmerizing as Che, and however flawed the concept, “Che” was the most gratifying screening experience in Cannes.
Three Monkeys (“Uc Maymun”) (In Competition)
On first sight a strong contender for the Palme d’Or, Turkish director/co-writer Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s (“Les Climats”) film is about a father, mother, and son caught in a web of corruption, betrayal, and murder makes thoughtful use of its see no, hear no, speak no evil, metaphor. Troubles begin when Servet (Ercan Kesal) an ambitious politician kills a pedestrian at night with his car and bribes his regular driver Eyup (played by popular Turkish folk singer Yavuz Bingol) to take responsibility and serve the nine-month jail sentence that comes with it. Eyup’s lazy teenage son Ismael (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) talks his mother Hacer (Hatice Aslan) into requesting an advance on the bribe from Servet, and the family spirals down a self-perpetrating path of depravity. This sparsely-told story speaks volumes with a cinematic poetry that you would expect to find in Cannes.
Blindness (In Competition)
Director Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of Jose Saramago’s allegorical novel about a society that goes blind loses all credibility in Don McKellar’s particularly naïve screenplay. Julianne Moore strives valiantly to single-handedly hold up the film as its only seeing character, but doesn’t stand a chance against implausible sequences of a group of quarantined blindness victims who can’t agree on where to evacuate their bladders and bowels. “Blindness” opened the festival as an embarrassment.
Adoration (In Competition)
Atom Egoyan’s latest film follows a 16-year-old boy’s (Devon Bostick) search for truth about his parents’ death from a head-on collision that occurred after a tense family gathering with his volatile grandfather. At his high school teacher’s (Arsinee Khanjian) provocation, Simon writes a fictional essay about how his middle-eastern father secretly planted a bomb in his pregnant girlfriend’s (Rachel Blanchard) luggage on her way to Israel, only to have it discovered and defused by airport security. Simon posts the story on his facebook page, and sets off an online discussion beyond his control. As with all of Egoyan’s films, “Adoration” is a forward-thinking exploratory work of cinema meant to invigorate audiences into social discussions past its narrative structure. Simon’s search for resolution comes with a symbolic personal gesture that seeks to sort out the present from the future with the dubious aid of modern-day technology’s social interaction. It’s all about the effort.
Gomorra (In Competition)
Roberto Saviano’s tell-all mafia expose provides rich narrative soil for director Matteo Garrone to weave together five stories of mob-related corruption sucking dry the provinces of Naples and Caserta. A tailor, enslaved to his occupation since childhood, two would-be teen gangsters, a pair of illicit toxic disposal contractors, and a young boy living in a drug-infested housing project, make up the indelible characters in this devastating picture of social collapse.
Two Lovers (In Competition)
After stinking up the competition at last year’s festival with “We Own the Night,” co-writer/director James Gray grinds gears switching from his typical predilection for crime genre stories to make an imitation love story. There isn’t an empathetic character to be had. Manic depressive thirty-something Brooklynite Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) still lives at home with his parents and works at his father’s dry cleaners. Leonard falls for Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow in her first film role in two years), a romantically bemused girl dating a married man (Elias Koteas). It doesn’t help that Leonard’s parents have set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Leonard’s dad’s business partner. Sandra is to Leonard as he is to Michelle. Yawn.
The Exchange (AKA “Changeling”) (In Competition)
Based on a true story from Los Angeles, circa 1928, Christine (Angelina Jolie) is a hard-working single mother whose nine-year-old son Walter is kidnapped. Months pass before a corruption-embattled LAPD delivers to Christine an imposter child three inches shorter than Walter, and circumcised. Christine’s vocal protestations about the boy’s identity are met with impunity by a hostile police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) who has Christine institutionalized in a psych ward, while local radio talk show Presbyterian minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb (played by a miscast John Malkovich) jumps to her defense. Apart from a flashing neon light coda, Eastwood’s drama made for a respectable competition entry.
Synecdoche, New York (In Competition)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s (“Being John Malkovitch”) directorial debut is a profound, funny, and inevitably surreal love letter to death and its flesh-collapsing reality amid the hopes, fears, and desires of normal people. The ever-dependable Philip Seymour Hoffman plays community theater director Caden Cotard, whose family life with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and 4-year-old daughter in Schenectady is falling apart. Nagging health issues eat away at Caden as he uses a McArthur grant to build a sound stage version of Manhattan inside a gigantic warehouse to write and direct a second life version of his pained existence. Synecdoche (pronounced sin-ec-ta-tee) rhymes with Schenectadyand denotes a part of something used to refer to the whole thing, or the other way around. Kaufman’s high concept narrative is an evocative and empathic way of looking at the inevitability of death, and it features a concentrated use of great female actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, and Diane Wiest star).
The Palermo Shooting (In Competition)
Leave it to Wim Wenders to make the most beautifully shot and scored, but boring and unintentionally campy, suspense love story you’ve ever seen. Finn (played by Campino, the Pierce Brosnan-looking singer for “Toten Hosen”) is a hotshot German artsy photographer who slums by doing fancy commercial ads against bizarre backgrounds. Able only to sleep for brief naps, Finn is hunted by an invisible-arrow-shooting phantom (Dennis Hopper) that follows Finn from Düsseldorf to Palermo where he meets Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), a lovely art restoration specialist working on the famous death related fresco “Il Trionfo della Morte.” There would have been more boos at the film’s premiere, but many in the audience were asleep.
Tyson (Un Certain Regard)
Director James Toback leverages his twenty-plus year friendship with the former “Baddest Man on the Planet” to capture a warts-and-all documentary confessional from Mike Tyson that feels like the most candid therapy session you’ve ever witnessed. Whatever preconceptions you have about Tyson will be challenged in a modern story of self-destruction and renewal that is as much about one vulnerable man’s desperate need for guidance as it is a reflection on American society, the media, and the sport of boxing. “Tyson” is nothing short of magnificent.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Outside of Competition)
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a postcard trifle about two American girls (British newcomer Rebecca Hall as Vicky and Scarlett Johansson as Cristina) on a summer vacation complicated be the amorous attentions of local painter Juan Antonio (mischievously played by Javier Bardem) whose bi-polar ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) brings danger into the mix. The movie compulsively hits fast-forward every time Woody interrupts the action with voice-over narration from an extraneous male narrator, but is nonetheless an improvement over his last film, “Cassandra’s Dream.”
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Outside of Competition)
It took a woman filmmaker (Marina Zenovich) to contextualize the behind-the-scenes horse-trading and injustices involved in Polanski's famous 1977-1978 trial for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor that led to his self-imposed exile from America after serving a brief prison sentence. Zenovich blends a plethora of clips from Polanski's films with precise interview footage from attorneys on both sides of the case to outline judicial abuses by the presiding judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, whose career was shuttered due to his maleficent treatment of the case. Disturbing and informative, the film shows two highly egotistical men with a similar proclivity for young women (Polanski and Rittenband) in a media frenzied dual that neither could escape.
Surveillance (Outside of Competition)
From the looks of her latest cinematic abomination, it seems Jennifer Lynch is doomed to forever be regarded as David Lynch’s untalented daughter. Her first film in 15 years, after the unwatchable “Boxing Helena,” is the kind of slapdash gore-fest you’d expect from Rob Zombie, although even he might take offense at the comparison. A violent serial-killer-murder-sequence shifts to a pair of overly affectionate FBI agents (played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) arriving at a desert town police station to interview impudent local cops about a highway massacre that left one cop wounded and his partner dead. Alternating flashbacks show an abusive pair of cops (played by French Stewart and co-writer Kent Harper) shooting out tires on passing cars before playing good-cop-bad-cop with their prey, that necessarily includes a vacationing family with a little girl and a pair of drug addicts. There’s a big twist at the end, but not a bit of competent writing or filmmaking to be had. If you ever wondered how one movie could discredit a festival’s programmer, “Surveillance” is it.
Chelsea on the Rocks (Outside of Competition)
Abel Ferrara combines archival footage and reenacted scenes from Sid and Nancy’s last days while staying at the Chelsea Hotel, with interviews of some of the famous hotel’s more colorful residents to elucidate the passing of one of Manhattan’s landmark havens for artists. Stanley Bard, the hotel’s well-loved manager and caretaker for 45 years, was pushed out by a new management company intent on raising profits with a Chateau Marmont-like renovation. The documentary is just one more reminder of the war on culture taking place on a vast scale all over the world.
What Just Happened (Closing Night Film)
Barry Levinson’s adaptation of producer Art Linson's tell-all "What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line" closed the festival with an appropriate bit of self-reflexive Hollywood satire. Robert De Niro plays Ben, a twice-divorced LA producer whose status as a key power broker is threatened by the outcome of his latest project, an “edgy” Sean Penn thriller directed by an ego-maniacal auteur (Michael Wincott). To make matters worst, the starting date of Ben’s next picture depends on whether Bruce Willis will agree to shave off six months worth of beard that he is ridiculously attached to keeping. Filled with inside humor about things like the importance of premiering certain kinds of films at Cannes, Levinson’s latest comedy confirmed the first rule of success in the film business; “Nobody knows nothing.”
The 2008 Cannes Film Festival Awards:
The Palme d’Or award in the Court Metrages (Shorts Films) category went to "Megatron" (Marian Crisan).
The Camera d'Or (First Film Prize) went to director Steve McQueen (no not that one) for "Hunger," about Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison.
The Prix Un Certain Regard went director Sergey Dvortsevoy for “Tulpan” (about a young Kazakh naval officer who returns to the steppe to live a nomadic life).
The Prix Du Scenario (Best Screenplay) went to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne for “Lorna’s Silence.”
The Prix Du La Mise En Scene award (Best Director) went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for "Three Monkeys."
The Prix Du Masculine (Best Actor Prize) went to Benicio Del Toro for Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.”
The Prix Du Feminine (Best Actress Prize) went to Sandra Corveloni for her performance in Walter Salles’ and Daniela Thomas’ "Linha de Passe," about four brothers attempting to break out of limited opportunities in Sao Paulo.
The honors for the Grand Prix (Grand Prize) went to Matteo Garrone’s "Gomorra."
The Palme d'Or was presented by Robert de Niro to Laurent Cantet for "Entre les Murs” (“The Class”), about a French junior high school teacher in a tough neighborhood whose teaching style is challenged by his difficult students.