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Cannes 2011. Rushes: "Ninja Kids", "Goodbye", "Le gamin au vélo"

Films by Takashi Miike, Mohammad Rasoulof, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne,.
Hidden in the Cannes market is the secret other Takashi Miike film in Cannes—the first being his 3D remake of Harakiri in competition, which has yet to screen—the precisely titled Ninja Kids.  A charming series of pratfalls, stunts, and bad makeup based around children learning and executing ninja techniques in a happenstance and throwaway narrative, Miike performs in excellent gag mode, moving from one contained joke to the setting of another without letting exposition or themes get in the way of awkwardly paced but never less than goofy and charming humor.  Most inspired is the film’s stabs at artificiality and wallbreaking.  A plaster and cardboard mountain set that when spun by hand (cheerfully revealed in behind the scenes footage played during the credits) mimics with inspiration the sensation of a frantic, endless race to the top of the mountain.  There’s even a friendly ninja commentator who literally rips through the screen midway through several fights to pause the action and provide educational background on several technological marvels of the shinobi.  Judicious use is made of CGI—where the majority of the budget seems to have gone, along with money for children’s tailors—to visualize all manner of flying, spinning, shot, and flung objects (techniques either learned from Miike’s experience making a 3D film or experiments in anticipation).  Also includes hints of a female ninja kid school (sequel?), and a surprisingly amount of nonchalant, incidental cross-dressing, not to mention that the plot that later kicks in is about the ninjas defending a man and a boy who defected from a clan of assassins to become...hairdressers.  That plot point is, of course, introduced via song.
***
A shock on the Croisette: the last minute announcement of two Iranian films that seem to have been smuggled into the festival, both by auteurs currently imprisoned in their home country.  The first to screen, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye, is cloaked and variably choked by both the clandestine nature of the film’s production and the hushed and desolate story it tells.  The film centers on a woman trying to both find her way through a nebulous amount of bureaucracy to obtain a visa to escape Iran at the same time she is dealing with a pregnancy that may help or hinder that very escape.
Shot in bare offices and apartments in dour blue digital, the image is flattened and the spaces abstracted—a backroom espionage film of waiting and despondency, banal bribes, paperwork and quotidian illicitness interspersed with terrifyingly undramatic police appearances and searches. 
The film’s existence and undeniable tone, so expressive of the conditions with which and inside of which the film was made, must be—has to be—noted and acclaimed.  Yet the film suffers by it; Goodbye aches so much of its heroine’s slow-motion circulation within the stasis of the bureaucracy of politics, society and personal life within this context of escape, pregnancy and, importantly, and absent husband, that the film, impossibly intertwined in the means with which it was made, is dragged down.  Dragged into the inexpressivity of spaces, the drained pallor of light, the terrifying stiltedness of conversations—in all, a problem recurring with films here in Cannes tying their form to the entrapped existence of their female characters: total aesthetic allegiance to a woman, but an allegiance tied to single ideas that once expressed are repeated rather than developed, questioned, elaborated, re-defined, and otherwise cinematically pursued.
A cyclical dirge.  In a way, again, Rasoulof’s film folds back into itself: a stymied and repetitive creation representing a stymied and repetitive existence representing a stymied and repetitive production... 
***
Cleaner, simpler, more direct, the newest Dardennes piece of naturalistic, neo-transparent filmmaking is a marked improvement over the over-construction and unearned ending of L’enfant and the general flatness of Lorna’s Silence.  A boy (Thomas Doret) bounding through the frame—riding a bike, when he has it, running as if for his life when he doesn’t—is the predominant motif, and the boy himself is a marvel of a cinema of gestures without inflection.  The film is defined by actions taken in the world, not the drama of characters or moral quandaries; as such, the film touches early when the boy, fleeing the counselors of an orphanage, rushes into a doctor's office and latches onto a random woman so as not to be dragged away.   The woman exclaims “You may hold me, but not so tight.”
In a way, it is unfortunate that the woman who speaks the line turns out to be actress Cécile de France who then abruptly—gestures, you remember, like Sternberg—volunteers to house the boy on weekends and becomes a figure that assists the child erratically trying to transition from his abandonment by his father.  The line is tremendously beautiful, and would have been more so if it was, as with the ending, an unmotivated occurrence of a sublime reaction to the world.
Still, the film for all its standard movements of story between the surrogate mother and son and the expectation of a moral ending from the filmmakers, Le gamin au vélo evokes a greatly human degree of emotional and existential space inside its two leads through its revelation of gestures within a naturalistic style which intrinsically discounts their meaning—unlike the heightened artificiality of Sternberg where gestures clap out like thunder, the Dardennes' cinema of easy, unfussy realism challenges the viewer to find significant expression in everyday behavior.  From the mother and son are discovered acts of affection and aggravation that speak of subtle internal needs that go beyond—simply, cleanly, without affectation—the scenario’s uncomplex parent-child dynamic.  The boy’s physicality of controlled spasms of attack and movement and the woman’s discreet togetherness of dress and demeanor—a suggestion of living and working on one’s own, and taking care of herself for a long time—are as moving as the film's final, abrupt gesture of acceptance.  If Woody Allen proved at the beginning of the festival the power of making cinema look easy, midway through Cannes the Dardennes have reinforced the theme in a moving and pretense free expression of simplicity and humanity.

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