Cannes Film Festival, Entry 3

Silent Light

By Robert Koehler

The Palmares were handed out Sunday night, in what was alternately a
respectable and nutty show (with Charlotte Rampling, Carole Bouquet
and Jane Fonda keeping things classy, and The Diving Bell and the
director Julian Schnabel blabbering on like a fool). The
results could have been worse, and were in some categories striking
and even brave. Several of the recipients, happily enough, line up
with what I would argue were the few really worthy films in the
competition: A Jury prize for Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (shared
with Marjane Satrapi’s disappointing Persepolis); the well-deserved
Grand Prize for Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest; the actress
prize to Jeon Do-yeon, who explores every facet of her massively
complex and contradictory grieving mother in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret
; a special 60th anniversary prize to Gus Van Sant, who came
to Cannes with one of his most personal and fully realized films and
one of the few formally inventive competition titles, Paranoid Park;
and, capping the evening, the Palme d’Or to Cristian Mungiu’s 4
Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
, which has already become overrated.

Everyone had anticipated that last year’s jury president Wong Kar-wai
would lead his group to make some provocative choices; he didn’t, or
at least, tried and failed, leading to a Palm for Ken Loach’s
perfectly OK The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a compromise choice
on a jury whose members were deeply divided over Colossal Youth.
Odds were that this year’s Stephen Frears jury would operate in the
middle-brow manner that Wong’s group surprisingly did: This is the
man, after all, who made the quintessential middle-brow film of 2006,
The Queen. The results above suggest that, once again, juries
seldom obey prediction, but the guessing game that fills
conversations here in (especially) the final five or so days is
fueled by assumptions based on the jury president and makeup. In this
case, yes, there were the esteemed presences of Abderrahmane Sissako
and Marco Bellocchio, but there were also no less than four female
actors–two, it’s true who had made films themselves (Maria de
Madeiros, Sarah Polley), plus Toni Collette and Maggie Cheung, and
one male actor, Michel Piccoli. Actors can be wonderful, but on
juries, watch out: They can, in my experience on numerous juries, be
a notoriously mercurial bunch, with sometimes a vague sense of
aesthetic standards. It’s one of the reasons, for example, that the
Academy Awards are so often wrong: The Academy’s actor branch dwarfs
that of other branches in the voting.

In other words, I sure as hell didn’t expect a prize for Kawase or
Reygadas, let alone both. But it’s also not like this jury didn’t
blow it on occasion, in a grand collapse of taste. Handing Schnabel
the director prize is just nuts (as I noted in my previous post, the
real filmmaker of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is
cinematographer Janusz Kaminski), but handing Fatih Akin (who some of
us, deep into some beer-filled nights, began to nickname George W.
Bush-style as Fatty Atkins) the screenplay prize for the wretchedly
structured narrative of The Edge of Heaven is flatly an insult to
screenwriting. The most accomplished screenplay in this competition
was James Vanderbilt’s brilliant Zodiac adaptation of Robert
Graysmith’s book–Zodiac, putting aside Gus and Coen Brothers, who
were both in first-rate form, was easily the best American film on
the Croisette–followed by Secret Sunshine (Lee once again
displaying his prowess as a veteran novelist). Handing a Palm to
actor Konstantin Lavronenko for Zviagintsev’s risibly pretentious
The Banishment is just weird, especially from a jury so stuffed
with actors.

As for Mungiu’s 4 Months, nobody can really complain, though its
shortcomings became quite apparent on a second viewing. Festival
goers called it “The Romanian Film” from its first screening on the
second day of screenings–like last year, the Palm winner was
unveiled extremely early in the lineup schedule–and I started
teasing people about it. “Why can’t you call it, say, ‘4 Months’ for
short? Or how about, in classical Cannes parlance, ‘The Mungiu’?
Mungiu is too hard to pronounce?” This went on for days. I finally
resorted to “432,” figuring that was the best shorthand of all. I’m
not sure that it was picked up by many. But it goes to serve that,
regardless of what one called it, “432” was a film that stuck with
people and remain locked in their memories, long after many other
films had come and gone. Mungiu’s drama deals with an abortion that’s
being handled rather badly by a nervous and somewhat mousy college
student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), whose roommate Otilia (Anamaria
Marinca) is doing her best to make things as comfortable as possible
prior to the illegal abortion. Bebe (the spectacular Vlad Ivanov, who
owns the film for the 35 or so minutes he’s onscreen) is the
abortionist, and the manner in which he verbally slaps the young
women with a chilly splash of realism on one hand, and then uses
their ineptitude to extract sexual favors on the other. We are in a
very hard, cold world, where mutuality has dried up and blown away.

Mungiu appropriates a variation on Ozu’s technique for positioning his
camera at the level of the actors, whether organizing things in their
dorm room, or sitting on a bed, or having dinner. He tends to control
his action, actors and mise en scene to excess, though; this is
brought out in the way he frequently films with handheld cameras, but
with such a tight rein on the camera that one hardly notices for many
minutes that it is handheld, which in turn begs the question: why
shoot handheld at all? To a degree that’s bothersome only on a second
viewing–since a first viewing is so emotionally enveloping, you
don’t notice–his script is uncommonly dependent on Gabita fucking
matters up at every step of the process. It’s understandable that she
might forget to make a timely reservation for a room in the hotel
Bebe specifically requested; it’s another thing to forget to pack a
proper plastic sheet. Gabita’s biggest screw-up is lying to Bebe
about how many months’ pregnant she really is (read the title for
that answer); out of shame, she reduces the time period, but by doing
so, she risks her health. But Mungiu’s rhythms literally push the
viewer past all of these concerns and others (Pierre Rissient, for
example, was citing some bits of action in the hotel bedroom that,
upon further consideration, couldn’t have possibly happened),
pressurizing his drama at every step. “432,” to that extent, has
some of the physical properties of a thriller, even as it’s also an
extended observational portrait of a country built on corruption and
deceit. “432” makes its own deal: Sacrifice greater resonance and
overarching meaning beyond the mere events at hand, in exchange for
placing viewers in an ethical and medical pressure-cooker. It isn’t
the kind of deal quite worthy of a Palm (Gus needed no such
compromises for Paranoid Park), but as we noted near the top, it
could have been a whole lot worse.

Next, a look at where the good films in Cannes (hint: Don’t peruse
the competition roster)……

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