Cannes 2011. Rushes: "Polisse", "Puzzle of a Downfall Child", "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

Alice de Lencquesaing, a touching young presence in year after year of French festival films (see: Summer Hours, Father of My Children), drops in on  Maïwenn (Le Besco)'s Polisse and verily walks off with the film. In a movie unendingly challenged by its collage-like collection of incidents professional as well as private within a crew of the Paris Child Protection Unit—a style that disconnects each policeman's emotions from the practical continuity of a story and yields unearned emotional crests, outbursts and lulls throughout—de Lencquesaing unexpectedly shows up as another catalog card of child abuse for the film to collect, display and dispose of.  But in a single scene in a hospital room playing a raped girl delivering a child in stillbirth, the actress miraculously crafts an entirely whole and extraordinarily expressive person solely from a few shots of her sitting her hospital bed loving and mourning her baby. The film strives and fails again and again to create this kind of isolated scene of discreet human, emotional, and criminal poignancy that can stand by itself within the flipbook flow of the narrative. This rare scene dramatically undercuts and shows up the rest of the film for its far too abrupt transitions from police facts to police emotion—the abrupt jumps of Pialat, we remember, always seem crude yet always evoke that which is cut around, that which is missing from the film but present in the ellipsis—and it seems only fair that a wandering, banal and extended television episode could be stolen by a guest appearance.

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Alain Resnais may not have a new film in Cannes (though it's coming soon) but his legacy is alive and well all over the Croissette, from the new Woody Allen to younger filmmakers (Lynn Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin) to older films (Jerry Schatzberg's restored Puzzle of a Downfall Child, 1970, playing in Cannes Classics and pictured at the top of this article).

The first we've already mentioned.  The other two prove an illustrating comparison—even 50 years later filmmakers are calling back to Resnais to explore cryptic, modern psychology and interiority not through melodrama but rather through structural form—the way a story is narrated in time, the organization of details, what is selected to show and from what point if view it's shown, and above all the revelation of ways of seeing the past perceived from the present.

Schatzberg does this smoothly through both Faye Dunaway’s narration and her performance in Puzzle, creating a space within the film’s flashbacks—telling the evolution of a model’s mysterious but suggestive emotional and mental needs as her career develops—that let’s us inside the character as well as observe her from without, simultaneously providing us the distance to observe and the intimacy to experience.  Ramsay’s film, however, fails at creating an equilibrium of storytelling through time: moving the story of a desolated mother (Tilda Swinton) forward in the present while expressionistically pursuing the traumatic secrets of her past through her own flashbacks, we get an incohesive hodgepodge of recollection and rationalization that gives the audience no ground to stand on from which to observe the woman, what she goes through and how she experiences it.  The typically strong lead performance by Swinton is left to hang on a tapestry of images and edits that continue on but never continue to reveal.

The earlier film, made deep within Resnais’ cinematic prominence, cleanly pulls from the master to create a stabilized yet still ambiguous push into a woman’s mind.  The newest work, pitched somewhere between expressionism and impressionism, too influenced by the contemporary tone and feel of “festival” and “independent” films catalogues the past in virtuosic  style but refuses to explore the points it seizes in the past, leaving them lingering in the mind not incomplete—as Schatzberg so successfully does—but rather impossible, implausible, and unimaginable.

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