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Cannes 2009: So far, away (details, handheld, Antichrist, and meeting Resnais)

Above: Mia Hansen-Løve, director of The Father of My Children.  Photo by Fabrizio Maltese/EF Press/fabriziomaltese.com.

24 hours after A Brighter Summer Day (wishful titling for a film in which light lags far in the background) and still in Taiwan with Uncle Fat and Sly and all the dumb teen hoods trying to hurry adulthood, Danny Kasman and I go for the free espresso, as much for the caffeine as the espresso girls. “Wouldn’t get this in the states,” says Danny; “not in the culture.” “The class,” I say, “they’ve got in France.” “The sexism,” says Danny. “Oh yeah, it’s great.” “Yeah.” The girl smiles. As real as the cotton pastries up the block, or anything we’re watching. Cannes’ a highway exit that looks like Florida; I step from one virtual reality to another.

 

Time here is measured by movies; each is a way to get to the next. I meet director Mia Hansen-Løve, 28, very wan, pretty, and exhausted; what I’ll remember are her stray blue eyes and a way of saying “goodbye” that sounds relieved to be 40 minutes closer to bed. She’s got about my favorite movie in Cannes, maybe because it’s a movie where people know how to tell jokes and the kids remind me of ones I was playing with a couple months ago who wanted to feed me to alligators and would point to farmers and yell “that guy looks like the guy we were drawing moustaches on in the newspaper!”

 

Kids are artists: wood floors are oceans of lava where the adults go; swivel chairs are mountains; walking is still a pantomime. Hansen-Løve gets it: The Father of My Child is about artists and kids forced to see things as they are, but it’s also a film, like Cassavetes’ or Rozier’s or Mekas’, assembled from a thousand favorite gestures from her life and her actors’. They’re moments not just expressive of how people live their lives—of course people go to the fridge when they’re hungry—but of how they live their lives in relation to each other—a producer’s distracted comfort with his wife that he opens the fridge while he’s talking to her, a testament to the way this family operates and lives and communicates, in one particular instance on one particular night, well beyond the range of Politist, Adjectiv and Huacho, with their long takes of people alone eating soup meant to symbolize every night and everybody. Those characters are tools to their own lifestyle, where if Hansen-Løve shows small moments of characters doing what they feel like, it’s because these are the only moments when they can. More on the film, differently, soon.

 

***

 

For the most part, the directors here aren’t artists (by-the-definition): they don’t transform life, they pigeonhole it. Movies like Politist and Huacho treat the viewer as a tourist here for a summary of different lifestyles. Practicalities and particularities are the subject of Politist, as in Porumboiu’s first film, 12:08 to Bucharest, as in the other major films recently out of Romania, as the simplest, loftiest goals get entangled in minute procedure and wasted prep time. But these particularities are all formalized. There’s a strong sense of real life in Politist, and every moment of it funny for its pointlessness; nobody can communicate with anyone else except procedurally, which is why the couple key scenes obsess over language—nobody can express themselves in any other way, in gestures or in glances or in acts. Whether Politist mocks life reduced to rules and dead time or reduces it to rules and dead time itself is probably enough of a question to make the film a must-see: it can’t do one without the other.

 

Whereas Huacho, another ethnographic scrapbook of peasants cooking and napping and noting they’re getting older, affirms a tourist’s stereotypes. Where’s the old peasant I farmed next door-to a couple months ago, who forged his own sheep bells to be in tune with each other and trained his sheep to follow him, so that we’d hear him coming for coffee with a hundred chimes? Making his lead characters idiot mute aborigines, Warwick Thornton, in Samson and Delilah, offers empty capsules for audiences to insert themselves into. It’s the Malick-meets-neorealism shtick of David Gordon Green: innocent people trying to love each other and being brutalized by terrible, arbitrary things (the main girl gets kidnapped, raped, and run over by a car) amidst “ambient” shots of running water and sun flare to show the natural beauty in an overdeveloped Eden. Sound’s manipulated strangely—two characters listen to different music, but the soundtrack fades to one song—and manipulatively. Audiences loved it. And as usual, a film didn’t open up a world, old fat ladies beating the young girl when her grandma dies aside, but closed it down. The main message of Cannes, so far, is not to become a Romanian narcs officer, or a Chilean peasant, or a beatnik aborigine, especially when you can watch the movie. Stay at home, in a movie theater. In Dogtooth, a family grows up without ever leaving their house; they dream of their mother falling in the pool. And so my dreams here have been imagining Antichrist as a neorealist chase movie, and that there’d be a full Moullet retro on the Croisette.

 

Dogtooth is on the other side, the static movies that make bedrooms look like studios, behavior look trained, and treat characters as graphic designs (The Time that Remains a conscious Tati homage but Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void so much closer to Tati’s ant farms). For the hell of it, Danny and I split movies into two groups: crickets and sadism. Crickets, inevitably with bugs on the soundtrack on opening and closing credits and all throughout, are the ambient, realist routines about nobodies living daily life in the middle of nowhere. Bad handheld is usually a staple: where cricket-masters like Stan Brakhage (silent) and Jacques Rozier composed an image and let it shake to let the wind in, never to let the shot be self-contained, a new generation uses it to avoid composition altogether. Eastern Plays has a camera jerking to figure out how the scene should be shot; Huacho and Min Ye (by Souleymane Cissé, whose Yeelen is the opposite film) hold their cameras to upper bodies, with no sense of where people are in scenes; Samson and Delilah centers the character and wastes space at the edge of the frame. Sadism, which usually centers on a couple trying to humiliate each other through mutual temptations, or a closed family or community stuck in a house or village as demons are released, inevitably proposes that staid society was created to repress destructive, sexual urges: the old theme from Hobbes or Voltaire, Renoir or Kubrick or Buñuel. This year, it includes at least Dogtooth, Argento’s Giallo, Air Doll, Eccentricities of a Blonde, and Vincere, another rabid call for freedom from Marco Bellochio, as usual (for him) setting up forms to burst them apart in futurist and documentary interludes, and sudden spurts of red.

 

***

 

The two most interesting genre films and best comedies—Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Luc Moullet’s Land of Madness—are works of crickets and sadism both and neither, both of them positing homicidal madness as the only means of grappling with the void, not to be confused with Enter the Void’s void, a catalogue of circular objects borrowed from Kubrick to represent birth and death and rebirth as the camera, which represents the disembodied soul of a dead drug dealer in Tokyo, dives through one and out another: manholes, ashtrays, vaginas, nipples, ova, fire pits, windows, and the heads of Japanese scum fucking his sister. Enter the Void’s one-way symbols, techno-beat movements, stunt editing (a roller coaster recalls a truck accident, though why the inside shot of a fucking dick isn’t cut with both these is a question) and retreads of 2001, Jordan Belson, and Grand Theft Auto in riffing as tackily as possible off of Scarface is too clever to count as insanity; Antichrist and Land of Madness are, occasionally, insane. Both are built from clichés: Antichrist’s over-intellectualizing husband and sex-charged wife (a mind/body split that’s the most obvious appropriation from Tarkovsky), fairytale woodlands, and word-by-word illustrations of dreams and fantasies taken to mutinous parody; Land of Madness’s endless talking heads in their kitchens telling stories of murder.

 

What’s easily missed is structure. Where every other film in Cannes imposes a style onto the movie that’s endured a couple of hours, Antichrist reinvents itself every few minutes, but also takes a germ of an old idea—a couple that needs each other to express their desperation—and lets it ripen to its furthest of far-flung conclusions: castration, impalement, and an irritated Willem Dafoe stuck in a hole in the ground between a bird about to eat his eyes out on one side, and his wife about to stab him in the back on the other. There’s a Night of the Hunter Loony Toons horror of narrative, form, and two lovers in constant free-fall; von Trier, spontaneous but never arbitrary, has made a movie about two people trying to make sense of their fears and hates through diagrams of “fear pyramids” and mythic constellations, that’s every bit as preposterous in its irrationality as its characters attempts to rationalize. The same goes for Land of Madness: as characters calmly discuss historical killings on one side of the screen with cloud-covered mountains behind them on the other, as Moullet shows the audience his film collection (“come with me… to my attic”) and restages a suicide attempt by sitting on the edge of a bridge, then redoes the ending of his Anatomy of a Relationship with a zoom-out to the landscape, Moullet shows himself again one of the great working Romantics (but as usual, not all of the film is like this). As in Antichrist, nature is sublime, inspires madness, and madness, then, is the only reason to live. And die. Like most of Moullet’s films, Land of Madness is an attempt to make the epic banal and the banal epic, and bring them both back again.

 

***

 

Finally, Alain Resnais’ Les Herbes folles (Wild Grass, but Folles also means mad) changed everything; it’s the one film whomever I talk to agrees is a masterpiece and the only one. At a small press conference with 12 journalists leaning in around a table, and a spry, boomerang-bent Resnais leaning back, Resnais told us that the film was inspired by Eisenstein (for the colors) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (for the comedy); that he knew he was on the right track when he saw Larry David was in Woody Allen’s new movie; that the logic of the film, as in Lewis Carroll, is largely based on puns (even English ones—the problems of a pant’s fly as a man flies a plane); that his camera imitates a plane; that he’s never seen The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which at the center of the film has almost the same ending as Resnais’ film; that Leo McCarey understood details better than anyone; that he and Andre Bazin were good friends, though at first he didn’t have much respect for Bazin, who never watched any movies; that at 18 in Provence, he argued with his friends whether cinema was an art form, since it can only show reality instead of interpreting it (as, contra Bazin, his friends insisted art must), and that he defended himself with the Kuleshov effect and invocations of the editing of Pudovkin and Lubitsch;  that Abel Gance or von Stroheim would probably be thrilled by the possibilities of TV series like The Sopranos; that he’s read his films are about memory, but that’s not true; that they’re really about imagination (“but that includes a bit of memory, too”); that he doesn’t distinguish between a real apple and an apple painted by Cezanne (all his movies in a line?), but that he might prefer to eat the real apple, and might prefer to keep Cezanne’s.

I have yet to see any of the Cannes entries…but I hope the jury votes “Les Herbes Folles” for the Palme d’Or. Just because it’s not heavyweight in terms of subject matter doesn’t mean the film isn’t serious. Enough of the stupid notion that only serious themes make great, awards-worthy films or equal great cinematic art. Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” is a relatively light-hearted social farce. Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” is a bittersweet comedy. Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” is a lark with a melancholy undertone. I’ll puke if “Kinatay” or “AntiChrist” wins the top prize or any prize at all.
But it will be Haneke, you forgot.
“His new film, “Les Herbes Folles” (Wild Grass), adapted from Christian Gailly’s novel, “L’Incident,” is the kind of comedy that makes you wonder if you shouldn’t cry. It reunites Sabine Azéma, his favorite actress and companion, with André Dussollier, another constant member of the troupe” I do not see why Christian Gailly is not mentioned more often, After all his novel “L’lncident” was used for the adaptation of Les Herbes Folles ? He is such a wonderful writer.

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