Cannes Film Festival 2011

by Ron Swanson

‘Cannes. Shit. Still in Cannes.’

After a few days with minimal sleep, spending hours on end queuing in the blazing sun, eating and drinking more unhealthily than usual, that was my first thought upon waking up most mornings. I had planned to adhere to two rules when writing this column, the first of which was ‘no complaining’. Thankfully, the second was not to state my admiration for Hitler at all, and I feel like that’s been achieved.

When the Festival starts, Cannes is a place unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s a mixture of the glamorous and the trashy, a place without much class, and a place that I love, almost unreservedly. If only there were nobody else here – as it is the festival-goers are rude, entitled and snobby, a combination of industry insiders, journalists and wealthy, elderly local residents for the most part – it would be just about perfect.

The sedate world of the London Film Festival, which I’d been frequenting for years before I first came to Cannes, doesn’t prepare you for this. Fighting broke out this year as people jostled for position for the first screening of Terrence Malick’s wonderful The Tree of Life. While Leicester Square is no stranger to a brawl, it isn’t usually over who will get an opportunity to see the new work from auteur X first. As I queued, unsuccessfully, to see Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a woman two or three places behind me launched into an astonishing tirade against the security guard who had just announced that the screening was full. She did accuse him of impinging her human rights. She did not, unfortunately, compare him to Hitler.

Any self-respecting article about the 64th Cannes Film Festival has to address the Von Trier issue head on. I would have liked to have been able to say that, maybe, Von Trier’s lack of self restraint was as evident in his two and a half hour opus as it was in his press conference, but unfortunately, I didn’t get in to see it. What I will say is that this year Cannes has welcomed Mel Gibson, whose anti-semitic rants are on public record, and, in previous years, convicted criminals like Mike Tyson. Choosing to ban a director for saying something stupid is hypocritical and naive at best. Interestingly, considering Von Trier’s film split critical opinion, Kirsten Dunst won the award for Best Actress. But enough about films I didn’t see.

One of the first films to receive buzz as a potential winner of the Palme d’Or was Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. An adaptation of the very successful novel by Lionel Shriver, Ramsey’s film proves that the narrative trick at the centre of the book’s structure masked a story of very little substance. In spite of the positive reviews, many of which bordered on the fanatical, this is a particularly disappointing film, which showcases little other than Ramsey’s fetishistic eagerness to cover Tilda Swinton in red liquids. You would think such a lauded film would have a subtler way to ask the question of whether she has blood on her hands.

Another film that attracted huge amounts of buzz was Markus Schleinzer’s Michael. Schleinzer is a former colleague of Michael Haneke, and this film has much in common with Haneke’s work; it’s cold, emotionless and designed to cause controversy. The central character is a paedophile, with a young boy locked in his basement. The echoes of the Fritzl case must have thrilled Austrians everywhere. It doesn’t work as a character study, as we never get close enough to the characters to find out much more than their pre-determined roles of abuser and victim. As such, like most of Haneke’s work, it feels more like an exercise in provoking the audience into anger than any real attempt to understand or shed light on such a relationship or the society that fails to stop it, and it’s as tiresome and unpleasant as that sounds.

Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is one of my favourite films of the year, so I was excited to catch his latest film Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai in 3D. However, it lacks the flair and style of his previous film, the 3D could be much sharper and the film as a whole falls flat. Bruno Dumont is known as one of the enfants terrible of French cinema. Films like Twenty Nine Palms and Flanders mix unconventional narratives with acts of brutal violence or graphic sex. Hors Satan, Dumont’s new film follows the same pattern, and is deathly, deathly dull.

“Guilty of Romance”

One of my biggest disappointments was Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang, which shared the prize for Un Certain Regard with Andreas Dresen’s Stopped on Track, which was another film I missed. I’m a big fan of Kim’s, and have been lamenting his absence from our screens in the UK, since 3-Iron in 2005. What I didn’t realise was that he hadn’t made a film in the three years before Arirang. The break is explained in his latest, a documentary about his current life, mental state and ambitions, as being due to an accident on set in Dream, the last film he made.

I was intrigued by the idea of the film investigating one of Korean cinema’s best and most prolific directors (eight films in five years before the hiatus), but Arirang is hugely self-indulgent – he interviews himself about his creative block, including, in one of the film’s funnier moments, as a shadow . The first half, in which he talks semi-coherently about his films and his career is fine, but the second half, which seems, solely, to consist of him singing the titular Korean folk song, and screaming into the camera is as uncomfortable and unpleasant a viewing experience as I can remember. I’m baffled as to how this won the award.

One film I saw that played out of competition is set to be released in the UK in October – Paddy Considine’s bleak Tyrannosaur, which features a pair of fantastic performances from Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman. Mullan plays a violent alcoholic, who forms a friendship, of sorts, with the Christian owner of a charity shop (Colman). Considine’s film is violent, upsetting and occasionally powerful. It’s not as good as the best work of his mentor, Shane Meadows, or Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth, which feels like a definite influence, but it does show promise.

Two of the most hotly anticipated films on the Croisette, at least judging by the number of people in evening dress at 7.30am asking for tickets on artfully designed placards, were Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In and Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place. While each film had their merits, I found both disappointing.

In This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn plays a rock-star who sets out on a quest to find the Nazi concentration camp guard who tortured his recently deceased father. That’s really what happens, I’m not kidding. The film spends an hour setting up Penn’s character, who is a kind of Ozzy Osborne meets Robert Smith mess of hair, make-up, mumbling and sciatica. There are flashes of the kind of flair that made Sorrentino’s debut, The Consequences of Love one of the best films of recent years, but they come too infrequently to give this a chance of being his breakout hit. Penn received good reviews for his performance, but I found his work too mannered, too showy to be truly affecting and overcome the shock of his appearance. This Must Be the Place won the Ecumenical Jury prize, which is given to the film that best “reveals the mysterious depths of human beings”.

Almodóvar’s film, meanwhile, sees him tackle some of his favourite themes – kinky, but queasy, sexuality and the precarious balance between love and power. Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon whose wife was horrifically scarred in a tragic road accident. He’s spent the years following the accident trying to perfect synthetic skin, ignoring ethical concerns in doing so, by testing on his own personal human guinea pig. Moulding someone into a previous lover is most famously done in Vertigo, a debt Almodóvar acknowledges explicitly here. This is Pedro attempting to do Hitchcock, via Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. His control is impressive and the film looks typically beautiful, but he’s at his best when cutting loose and being as flamboyant as possible, and it’s only in the last 45 minutes that that happens here. I’d still recommend the film, but it’s not among his best work.

Aki Kaurismaki’s deceptively slight Le Havre is a gentle comic drama about a shoe-shiner, his ill wife and a young illegal immigrant from Gabon. Once his wife goes into hospital, our hero sets about finding a way to get the young boy to the UK and his mother’s flat in Whitechapel before the local police can track him down. The film played extraordinarily well – receiving a ten minute ovation after the screening I attended. It’s unlikely to strike such a chord with British audiences, but is a charming little film from one of Europe’s great filmmakers.

Amongst a handful of American indie dramas, Sean Durkin’s Martha, Marcy May, Marlene was the pick. Shown as part of Un Certain Regard, this story of a young woman (a brilliant performance by third Olsen sister Elizabeth), who joins a cult, escapes and goes to live with her sister. Alongside Olsen, there’s solid work from John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson. Equally well acted (by Linda Cardellini and Michael Shannon), yet less effective due to the familiarity of the story, is Return, which is about a soldier failing to settle back into her normal life after active duty. An Israeli film, Footnote, about a father and son who are warring academics won the award for Best Screenplay for writer/director Joseph Cedar. I liked it, but would have thought that there were better options, like Naomi Kawase’s elegant Hanezu.

“Where Do We Go Now?”

Many film festivals choose to ignore, or slight, genre filmmaking, so just before we get into my top six, here are three fine examples. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive stars Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver, who moonlights as a getaway man. It’s odd casting, but Gosling is good as the mysterious anti-hero of the film. Refn’s film is his most mainstream to date, a lean thriller with a very good B-list supporting cast, including Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman. It reminded me of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Refn, who has previously gained plaudits for Bronson, was named Best Director by the Festival Jury.

Two of the year’s more shocking films on the Croisette were Hong Jin-Na’s The Yellow Sea and Maiwenn’s Polisse. The Yellow Sea is quite extraordinarily violent, it takes the bleakness of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and adds some, literally, unbelievable action scenes. Na is definitely channelling Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, but also the likes of Kim Ki-Duk’s Bad Guy. It’s a great watch – thrilling and compelling, but it’s not afraid of being utterly unpleasant at regular intervals. Polisse is a different kind of shocking. We follow the Child Protection Unit in Paris as they deal with all sorts of crimes involving children throughout the course of a year. The film could have been a worthy-but-dull look at people frequently risking their sanity and scruples to deal with some horrifying aspects of humanity, but Maiwenn has made a comedy, an ensemble drama and an action movie, and melded them into a very entertaining whole. Polisse received its just reward, when it won the Special Jury Prize at the festival.

As for my favourite films of the festival, there were six that I would have given full marks. Joachim Trier wowed me with his debut film, Reprise, and Oslo, August 31st is a superb sophomore effort. Like Reprise, it’s a wordy film about the problems of educated, middle class young men. It tells the story of a day and night in the life of Anders, a recovering drug addict released from his treatment facility in order to attend a job interview. He plans to see friends and family around the interview and attempt to make the first steps back into his life. Anders Danielsen Lie gives a brilliant performance – one of the best of this year’s Cannes – in a profoundly moving film.

I loved Nadine Labaki’s debut film, Caramel, so I was really looking forward to her follow-up, Where Do We Go Now? It’s an ambitious film, a study of peace in a small Middle Eastern village between Muslims and Christians, a peace protected by the women of the village, while war rages all around them. The director’s ambitions extend beyond the subject matter. Labaki throws in song and dance numbers, moments of base comedy and great pathos. As in Caramel, Labaki wants to celebrate the women of the region, and shows them as strong, funny, sexy and brave – doing ever more incredible things to preserve the peace.

Sion Sono’s film, Guilty of Romance, plays like a hyper-crazed sex dream, where death and violence linger from the first frames of the film. Sono’s films play at a ferocious level of intensity, and Guilty of Romance is no exception. The story of a woman succumbing to her carnal side is nothing new, and Sono revels in its luridness, while he brings an air of menace and violence to bear on the movie in its entirety. While it’s unfair to compare either film, so distinctive are they in their ambitions and design, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Enter the Void. If anything, Sono’s film, absent Gaspar Noe’s dreamlike narcotic influence, is more brutal and more gleeful in its perversity.

“The Artist”

I was surprised by the critical antipathy to the Dardennes brothers’ last film, The Silence of Lorna. While it didn’t represent the pinnacle of their work, it was still one of that year’s best films. The Kid With the Bike sees them back in more familiar territory, and on their best form. It’s a film that is possessed by a furious energy, personified by the young lead. He’s a ball of rage and confusion, whose life teeters on the edge of some very dark places even after his fostering by a kindly hairdresser (an excellent Cecile de France). In a nice touch, the feckless father of L’Enfant, Jeremie Renier, is also the feckless father here – a small and brilliant cameo. The Dardennes brothers are two time Palme D’Or winners, and this year they walked away with another award, splitting the Grand Prix award with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

It was inevitable that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life would divide audiences, somewhat – he’s a bone of contention even in the MostlyFilm offices, normally a harmonious, if entirely fictional place. Equally predictable, given my love of his previous films, was that I would love it. I clearly wasn’t alone, as the jury, headed by Robert de Niro, awarded it the highest Festival prize, the Palme d’Or. It’s obviously a Malick film, from start to finish. The pace is ponderous; Malick’s interest in conventional narrative storytelling negligible and the cinematography is stunning. It also was a very moving experience for me – something about the way that Malick links the creation of the universe with the unremarkable childhood of three boys, one of whom grows into Sean Penn.

There’s probably nothing here to convince Malick-haters or agnostics of his intrinsic worth as a filmmaker, but fans should find plenty to cherish – not least for me, the chance to see him shoot in a modern, urban setting. Like Malick’s previous work, it’s concerned with the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual – but here, Malick seems to be interested in telling the story of Christian faith – as opposed to the Native American tribes in The New World or the indigenous Islanders in The Thin Red Line. The opening lines of the film talk about the challenge of living with grace, and the film provides that with the performance of Jessica Chastain. As the boys’ mother, she gives a superb performance.

My favourite film of Cannes 2011 was Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a charming and moving homage to the transition from silent cinema to talkies in a beautifully recreated Hollywood. Jean Dujardin (brilliant) plays the hero of silent movies, who fails to accept the need to transition towards a new cinema filled with sound. Meanwhile his protégé, of sorts, Berenice Bejo, becomes one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It’s not often that a film can live up to such ecstatic reviews as greeted The Artist after it’s early screenings, but this actually exceeded my expectations. Dujardin was rightly awarded the Best Actor award, and I’m going to place a bet that the film will be nominated for Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s hilariously funny, had me in tears, and served to remind me just why I love movies. As, every year, does Cannes.

Ron Swanson either gatecrashed all those screenings or is some kind of film biz big cheese. We haven’t been informed which.

8 thoughts on “Cannes Film Festival 2011

  1. Apologies if I only ever seem to comment on things Japanese (not true, of course, as I did comment on Meek’s Cutoff), but, given your praise for Guilty of Romance, I’d be curious to know what you thought of Sono’s Cold Fish. I’ve liked other Sono films I’ve seen, but I really hated Cold Fish with a vengeance. Enough to make me wary of his films in future.

    So, was Guilty of Romance more Cold Fish or more Love Exposure?

    Also, shame to hear the Miike was a disappointment. I’ll still want to see that one for myself, though.

    Of the non-Japanese films you mention there, I think Polisse has most sparked my curiosity.

  2. Great piece, interesting to hear such a strong and convincing position being taken against the otherwise unanimously acclaimed Kevin.

  3. Yeah, lovely piece. I quite enjoyed Shriver’s novel, which surprised me, so I’m disappointed if not surprosed to hear Ramsey’s film isn’t very good. Swinton is just too damn weird, anyway.

  4. Am I the only one who looked at the top picture and thought “shit, I’ve been in a coma for 43 years and Adele’s *still* making records”?

  5. Are you any relation to Gloria Swanson, Ron? Anyway, this is a lovely round-up and there’s a lot here I’m really looking forward to – though no more semiFritzl stories for at least a decade would be good.

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