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Cannes Film Festival, 2008: short round-up

Synecdoche, New York
Above: Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman ponder a simulacrum of New York in Charlie Kaufman's new movie.
Changling (Eastwood, USA)
If Clint Eastwood keeps making solemn period pictures like Changling, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, their dour, monochromatic, near-anonymous interiors, sprawling, endlessly thorough narratives, and uncomfortable mixture of quaint this-is-Americanism and concrete social criticism might render a great deal of his late career indistinguishable and interchangeable. The melodramatic, human, and female Ying to Zodiac's procedural, informational, male Yang, Changling is about the endless, unforgiving torment of life in an iconic American epoch—Los Angeles of the 1920s and 30s.
It starts with several strong points: an impossibly corrupt Los Angeles police department, a missing boy returned to his mother who says he does not resemble the original child, roller skating telephone operators, and Angelina Jolie as the only person with enough star power to hold out in a society so conspiring to crush her empowerment and sanity as an individual.
Like Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, Eastwood’s film is eventually taken out of its tighter genre roots, the film straying and then sprinting past the two hour mark with matter-of-fact follow-up to every angle of this bizarre true story, from trials to asylum institutionalization, hangings, serial murders, and John Malkovich as the kind of forcefully progressive local pastor you only want on your own side. Jolie handles melodrama admirably, but physically looks uneasy in the time period and the film. And all the more so as it goes on and on, squandering its brash, thickly punchy, and classical attack on American corruption and institutional, as well as professional, distrust. Yet in its unnecessary elaboration and extension, Eastwood makes clear that Changling is a story that is very American. Nothing to see here, just a cycle of everyday life, what with the brutal but then repudiated attitude of those in power and the stalwart, but somewhat delusional, hope of those average citizens.
***
Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman, USA)
If Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—both scripted, among other films, by Charlie Kaufman—were unclassifiable, what, pray tell, to make of his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York? Mind games fall into themselves in a vortex of pity (and self-pity), as Philip Seymore Hoffman's playwright goes through a mid-life crisis to produce a film somewhat akin to a cross between Woody Allen and Jacques Rivette—self-perpetuating neurosis, fear of death, and insecurity, along with a marked habit of creating fictions and fictional worlds for one's body and mind to inhabit.
The result is not as gymnastic as Kaufman's other scripts, but profoundly more unsettling, as the writer's usual conceptual strokes of ingenuity—here, among others, Hoffman using a genius grant to set-up a living theater that emulates his life, which grows to include himself in the play setting up a living theater to emulate his life...—all take the background to create a large, fundamentally half-formed tapestry of worry, depression, and loneliness that surround Hoffman's character as he is unable to—you know—deal with his issues of mortality, with his marriages, his children, and his work. A more individually sad work of American cinema has not been produced in some time, and a more literally incredible vision of a pitiable life, likewise. What Synecdoche, New York really is, though, might only be discerned after seeing it again, if one can stand the sorrow.
***
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
Paolo Sorrentino's political faux-epic Il Divo gets two things right: thunderousness and iconography. To chart the inherently cryptic, presumably grossly criminal success of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, Il Divo shows us the diplomats like they are gangster-rockstars. All slow-motion, Scorsese camera movements, gangs of suited men striding with ‘tude, hyperbolic classical and rock music cues, and a love for machine-gun totting guards, police cars rolling up to government buildings, and a narrative based solely on the propulsion of montage, the caricatured inscrutable taciturnity of Andreotti, and endless, meaningless exposition of names, dates, nicknames, and deaths, this film is like the anti-United Red Army. It moves with thrilling, stomping feet, but fifteen minutes of it will give you the exact same feeling two hours does, if less exhausting and containing a slight degree more hope that the film might pierce the political and moral mystery rather than gleefully glamorize the general ignorance of everyone about the real allure, power, and morality of its subject.
***
Lorna's Silence (Dardenne/Dardenne, Belgium)
Covering the many sections of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, one of the broader patterns were films striving for a non-dramatic, anti-climatic, socially driven style of realism. The approach is nothing new, but what was striking was how strongly the films strove to efface the energy and the sense of closure that artifice can lend a picture.
The Dardenne brothers’ latest picture may serve as a prime example, as their last, the Palm d'Or winning L'Enfant, was so exciting that it may be as close as these social-realist directors would get to Hitchcock. Lorna's Silence goes in the opposite direction, following Albanian immigrant Lorna's (Arta Dobroshi) attempts to wrangle up money for herself and her boyfriend by first marrying a desperate Belgian junkie (Jeremie Renier) and then divorcing him to marry a Russian, in a round-robin exchange of money and citizenship that plays out like just one of potentially dozens of small-time grifts that hide right below society's veneer.
Lorna's money-hungry scorn for the junkie grows into something more humane, but with the exception of a crucial—and the solely dramatic—long-take that reveals the passion cemented over by mountains of self-sufficiently, pragmatic desperation, and ruthless ambition, Lorna's softening into someone of profound empathy and remorse comes so subtly and is so under emphasized cinematically that one might nearly miss it. Moving from the brashly unbelievable act of forgiveness at the end of L'Enfant to something as banal (or Bressonian?) as Lorna hearing the call of a bird in the woods near the film's end, the Dardennes emblematize an attempt to push cinematic realism to a realm of de-dramatized melodrama of the everyday.
***
Un Conte de Noel (Desplechin, France) The exact opposite of that approach might be seen in Un Conte de Noel, which is more hyper-melodrama from Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, My Sex Life...or How I Got into an Argument). One should have known after the contemplative relaxation of his small, brilliant documentary made before this film, L'Aimée, that there would be an itch to return to the kind of cinema Scorsese would make if he dedicated his stories strictly to interpersonal neurosis. Just as frenzied, stylized, and a hodgepodge as much of Desplechin's ambitious, if wearing oeuvre, Un Conte de Noel hones the style even further, taking some cues from Bergman's Fanny and Alexander and condensing an entire family's brutal history and painful present into a skittish, multi-layered and deeply psychological holiday over Christmas time. The mass of family turmoil is as gratingly magnetic and cathartic as ever, and while the film is not nearly as memorably defined as many of Desplechin’s previous works, its minute focus in both limited location and the melodramatic vortex of family affairs points to the director being apt for a sprawling mini-series. As someone in Cannes mentioned, this guy needs to direct his own kind of Berlin Alexanderplatz.

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