Cannes Film Festival, Entry 1

I’ve been holed up sick this past week, and just in time, Cinema Scope and Variety critic Robert Koehler–whose excellent posts from BAFICI 2007 we’re still referring to–will begin filing occasional posts from this year’s Cannes Film Festival. –Doug

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4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

By Robert Koehler

The 60th anniversary of Cannes was meant to be a celebration, but by the end of day four, there’s been little to shout about. I wasn’t about to assume that Wong Kar-wai’s hopelessly banal opener, My Blueberry Nights, was going to be a precursor of the competition program–it was the opener, after all, and we know what openers are like. But who knew that Wong would have any desire to make a Zalman King film, only without the sex? Wong’s densely textured images, drenched in neon, glassy reflections and nocturnal desire–set in New York, Memphis, the open highway, Reno and Vegas–are the reliable decoration to material that alternately borrowed devices from American plays (Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead came to mind all too often), American road movies (Wenders’ pathetic recent ventures kept coming up) and bad American straight-to-video romances. Norah Jones, looking a bit spooked by the whole affair in her debut film role as a gal who’s lost at the game of love (to borrow some of the film’s astonishingly corny rhetoric), tries to keep up with the mysteriously excited and enthusiastic Jude Law, whose New York cafe owner appears to be caught up in some kind of sweeping tale of love that might be happening just off-screen. It’s surely not happening on screen, as Jones hits the road to discover that love comes in all forms (from Rachel Weisz to David Strathairn to a sexed-up Natalie Portman) and usually ends up in disappointment–except when you come back to New York, and find Jude Law still waiting for you behind the counter. The one pleasant matter that My Blueberry Nights confirms is that Wong is, cinematographically, his own man: Sans Chris Doyle–their once-happy collaboration gone seriously off the tracks during the endless making of 2046–he extracts the same level of dreamy image-making from Darius Khondji as he had from Doyle. The remaining mystery, as best summed up later outside the Palais by Amy Taubin: Why does Norah’s blueberry pie, mixed with melting vanilla ice cream, look like afterbirth?

The Romanians are on the march–witness Cristi Puiu (here in Cannes as part of the Un Certain Regard jury with one of our favorite critics, Kent Jones), or the extraordinary The Paper Will Be Blue (which screened January in the Palm Springs festival) and now, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which follows the ever-worsening prospects of two female students during the final months of the Ceausescu regime. Mungiu constructs scenes in single takes, often with an unexpectedly steady handheld camera positioned Ozu-style at the same level as his characters. This tends to create a barely perceptible (at first) pressure that builds inexorably to an astonishing sequence in which Mungiu’s women (Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu) are forced into an awful business arrangement with an abortionist (Vlad Vasiliu, in one of the most astonishing supporting performances since R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, and equally as fierce). What Mungiu doesn’t provide is a political context: Anticipating Ceausescu’s fall, women who had once been called upon to make babies as their patriotic duty either began to practice some form of birth control or abort as an act of political protest. While Romanian audiences will surely read this background into the scenes, non-Romanians just as surely will not, which is why 4 Months seems in the end to be about nothing more than the events on screen, with no resonance to speak of. Mungiu does show, though, an impressive control of dramatic action inside the frame–which, like almost everything in the competition so far, is in widescreen.

Zodiac is still the best of show in the competition at the end of day four–I say this having not seen the Coen Brothers’ widely admired No Country for Old Men–which is perhaps not so surprising for a high masterpiece of American cinema. It’ll be interesting to note what competition jury president Stephen Frears thinks of David Fincher’s densely constructed film, which is among many other things a procedural drama about the dizzying effect that information overload has on intelligent professionals. I say this in the sense that Frears’ The Queen is a procedural about two opposite forms of governance in the modern world (or perhaps more accurately, one that’s pre-modern, and one that’s post-modern) and may very well find some kinship in Fincher’s project. Who the hell can tell though, considering he heads a jury including Maggie Cheung, Abderrahmane Sissako, Sarah Polley and Michel Piccoli? (The latter of whom is just smashing as, of all people, Nikita Khrushchev meeting the Pope in Manoel de Oliveira’s amusing contribution to the festival’s 60th anniversary omnibus film, Chacun son cinÈma.) Thus, rule number one at Cannes: Never expect juries to take the expected path; nobody figured that Wong’s jury last year would opt for such a safe, standard choice as Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, so I can hope that Frears’ team might look favorably upon Zodiac, but I’m not counting on it.

That doesn’t mean that the jury will do something as stupid as giving a prize to Raphael Nadjari’s Psalms/Tehilim. Oh boy. Nadjari has laid the biggest egg so far with a massively disappointing follow-up to his intensely fine drama, Avanim, one of the few worthy Israeli films of recent years. Once again, Nadjari focusses on an Orthodox family in Jerusalem, whose father suddenly disappears after seeming to deliberately crash his car while driving his older and younger sons. Shades of L’avventura, the father vanishes from the film, leaving us with a tale of sons trying to make sense of this rupture in their lives. Or rather, the patina of a tale, which never gets a head of steam or finds any purpose beyond an immediate conveyance of loss. Nadjari trains his telephoto lens on faces, but after the first shock, the camera vainly searches for…something. It’s just not there, and it becomes painfully obvious that Nadjari never had a complete work in his head. Why it’s in the Palme competition is a puzzle right up there with Wong’s blueberry pie a la mode.

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