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The Golden Donkey Cannes 2010: The French Connection

"I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant." 'Tis bard quote is inevitably uttered by the Ferroni Brigade, while suffering the Cannes juggernaut, usually sooner than later—often enough, in fact, during the opening movie. But this year it was somwehat different: Robin Hood, that turgid revisionist doodle by Sir Ridley ("the wrong") Scott, had been inflicted on most of the international press beforehand, so by the point it screened half-faded was the memory of a tradition besmirched, and, yes, that would stretch past the obvious reference point of Richard Lester's touching Robin and Marian (1976) to Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1991). After all the only, extremely dubious achievement of the wrong Scott's slick, humourless hodgepodge was that it even failed when it tried to make fun of the French. Inconceivable, but it probably helped its opening night selection ("irony"), thus helping to set the mood for a festival that for all the handwringing from commercial punters and cinephile hipsters was the same endurance test as usual—three truly worthy films in competition, plus a handful of reliables elsewhere (the soul-saving capacity of the market should not go unnoticed), and maybe a dozen others worth seeing to varying degrees, amidst a legion of experiences that are most charitably described as "a tough watch."

And yet, there was an unexpected element: the French. Not necessarily those you'd run into, of course (nevertheless, in passing, the Ferroni Brigade hereby awards a special social donkey to the wonderful people of the restaurant Chez Sabrina & Stéphanie). But starting with the generally pleasant surprise of Mathieu Amalric's Tournée, and especially its magnificent gas station scene (comparable candidate: the OPEC hour of Assayas' Carlos), there were unusally strong French contenders, especially in that most dreaded of sub-species at major festivals: the national competition entries. Now, the Ferroni Brigade is well known for being highly critical of certain tendencies in French cinéma, but this is the perfect moment to give respect where it's due. Was 2010, per Peter Hyams' visionary announcement, The Year We Make Contact? Well, yes and no. But really, don't worry, Ferronian suporters, we haven't weakened. It's still, mostly: no. And so, although the jury surprisingly recognized two of the three competition standouts with the festival's major prizes, we hand ours to the third.

The Golden Donkey for the most Ferronian Film at Cannes 2010 goes to: La princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier.

Admittedly, there were some positif notices, but really: That this, a masterpiece of classical style and a profoundly personal work by a major director, was greeted mostly with indifference and incomprehension, says quite a bit about estrangement in current film culture. Even kind notices in the trades made a huff that it was "too intellectual," although they probably meant "too intelligent," which apparently in today's marketplace is some kind of sin, especially when you honestly subscribe to a tradition of popular filmmaking. Meanwhile, much "cinéma qualité" yawns emanated from pseudo-progressive sources that eagerly continued to subscribe to what these days actually constitutes the equivalent to "tradition of quality" (if you want to call it that, especially when you consider such competition candidates as the usual Mike Leigh movie or Abbas Kiarostami's joke). Sorry, folks: Bertrand Tavernier is right, unfashionable as he may be because of unthinking applications of outmoded arguments (we could also mention that unfortunate legacy of another Daney piece)—but surely even more so because his great theme is the most unfashionable of them all: morality and its consequences. On the one hand, La princesse de Montpensier is about conscience and the price you pay for it, but the love on that subject went to another outstanding French film with classic virtues and a pitch-perfect, quietly luminous Lambert Wilson performance at its center: Xavier Beauvois' Des hommes et des dieux, which had some superb shots of donkeys, and whose spiritual bent allowed for absorption through the canon's (honorable) Dreyer-Rossellini legacy. On the other hand, Tavernier's film appears in the guise of a great swashbuckler, finessed with the expertise of a true connoisseur—it frequently brings to mind that Tavernier has written (with Jean Pierre-Coursodon) what arguably remains the best book about American cinema (it also remains sadly untranslated, which may also say something about film culture), but of course his deep knowledge and admiration of the world's other film cultures shine as well. Now, that's the Ferronian spirit!

But in the end, this is not about how sad it is that it counts for so little how Tavernier follows another legacy that has ostensibly been discarded to some degree, even as it includes no less crucial antecedents such as Max Ophüls (especially his 1946 masterpiece The Exile) or Edgar G. Ulmer (not just the beautiful quote of his 1955 Western wonder The Naked Dawn). Or that Tavernier can stage action bursts in a way that make you want to strap Sir Ridley to a chair and force him to watch 24/7. Or how his intricate choreographies of courtly interactions unravel the complexities of protocol as well as the emotional toll involved with casual, staggering skill. Or his knack for harmonious orchestration, from the rhythmical weaving of motifs to the structural balance of elements or the poetically stylized speech. And so on. You get the point. Finally, though, all these things must add up to a meaningful vision: Adhering to the stifled spirit of classic popular filmmaking, La princesse de Montpensier reaches far beyond the superficial confines of its genre, to say something profound about the way the actual world works—it's a film about life, and devastatingly so.

A few days after its premiere, Tavernier graciously stepped on stage to introduce Andre Dé Toth's restored beauty Two Girls in the Steet (1939), but his enthusiastic and insightful illuminations were cut short by festival head Thierry Frémaux, visibly impatient and uninterested, which seemed to convey the presiding spirit perfectly. On that occasion, the Ferroni Brigade would like to point out that much misfortune might have possibly been avoided, had our suggestion of sacrificing Thierry to the volcano been accepted.

As a counterpoint, we offer our other contemporary award to a film screened in the market. A Silver-Winged Donkey goes to: The Eagle Path by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

It's time to pull out the Little Red Book of the Ferroni Birgade ("Il cinema secondo van Damme" by Simone Bedetti and Lorenzo De Luca, Castelvecchi, 2000) and point to its opening chapter: "Van Damme con(tro) Godard." After all, a brief, uncrompehending Variety review provoked by pointlessly comparing Jean-Claude's rather singular sophomore effort to Uncle Jean-Luc in general (the Ferroni Brigade appreciates that the first donkey of his no-comment Cannes contribution was caressed extensively, but nevertheless fervently decries the metaphorical abuse inflicted on it and, even more severely, other members of its noble species). But to brief ourselves: If anything, The Eagle Path, announced as "un drame psychologique," is a lunatic variation onThe Shanghai Gesture(1941), played out in full Eighties action trash mode (replete with peculiar postdubbing, further enhancing the Sternberg-artificiality of its underwater atmosphere), edited—by none other than the auteur—in a manner that evokes Alain Resnais on a really crazy binge, and culminating in a jaw-dropping montage that is some kind of inverted Bruce Conner explosion for YouTube times, while the auteur, also acting, furiously, in the part of—and we kid you not—Frenchy, emerges as some incomprehensible saviour-mixture of Jesus, Mary and Jean-Claude himself, sacrificing himself to save the world (sic). "I have a complicated mind," the auteur announced helpully before the screening to prepare for the assault of this cri de coeur. We have to agree. The evidence is overwhelming. Since, unlike JCVD, this blunt confession will not carry any hip cachet with the so-called smart crowd, The Eagle Path may be doomed to a shadowy existence as a strange, spiritual exorcism-experience foisted at very unsuspecting viewers. But we still hope the eagle will sprout its wings and soar. After all, this was the most mind-blowing film shot in Thailand, or, for that matter, anywhere, to screen in Cannes this year.

Finally, the Grey Donkey is proudly presented to Pierre Schoendoerffer's La 317ème section (1965). Since it may seem almost too simple to hand this award to a towering masterpiece by a key auteur of Ferronian cinema—although the screening of a restored print, with a visibly moved Schoendoerffer in attendance, was a very special expercience—two well-deserved special mentions should be made: Let's hear it once more for Andre Dé Toth, or rather, to indulge in the Ferronian passion for full names and original titles (especially if lots of diacritics are involved), Tóth Endre, born as Sasvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály, and his Thirties gem Két lány az utcán. And for Marcel L'Herbier's Au petit bonheur (1946, also known as "the enjoyable" Happy Go Lucky), a splendid, frantic farce about French snobs trying to commit suicide. Now that was funny.


***

The Ferroni Brigade is Barbara Wurm, Olaf Möller, Christoph Huber, & The Hidden Member.

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