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by Harlan Kennedy


It has happened before, it will happen again. The best spectacle for moviegoers at the 60th Cannes Film Festival was the 60th Cannes Film Festival. As night falls you need only book your bench on the Croisette. Grab a bag of popcorn from a passing vendor and settle to watch the whole of human life pass before you, on the widest screen in Europe. This is Life the Movie; or as the French say, L’Existence le Spectacle.

From shore to sparkling shore it unfolds. There are firework displays, jugglers, celebrities (isn’t that Michael Moore? Aren’t those Brad and Ange?). The distant yachts at anchor resemble giant illuminated cutouts from a Fellini fantasy. Sometimes there is comedy: a pratfalling waiter trying to carry a giant dish from the Carlton to the party on the Carlton beach. Sometimes there is adventure. A millionaire yacht. No casualties: but we had to be reminded that this wasn’t a fiction dreamed up by Irwin Allen and provided by Cannes as the Hollywood film surprise.

Fiction has a tough task trying to compete. It met it boldly in 2007. We who have been attending this beanfeast since it was a bonne bouche a modest bash boasting a thousand-odd journalists and a hundred celebrities – are seldom awestruck by the menu issued before each festival. But this year’s seemed designed to show off, to celebrate, the longevity of an event begun in 1946. That was after the false start in 1939 when the fest crashed out of the history, thanks to a man called Hitler invading a country called Poland. Not the least satisfaction among those provided by Cannes’ continuance is the thought that it saw off, and had the last laugh over, the super-pest of the 20th century.

Here in 2007 were sumptuous-sounding main courses prepared by veteran Cannes chefs: the Coens, Emir Kusturica, Gus Van Sant. Novelty appetisers were promised from Romania, China, Mexico, Korea, Russia. And since no festival is complete without a Tarantino – even an incomplete one – his stark mad car-chase-cum-girlie-movie DEATH PROOF was extracted for Cannes from the single-pack double-bill that had been GRINDHOUSE in the US (before US critics ground it to mincemeat) and presented like a bloodspattered buffet on the Salle Lumičre screen.

In the event, Romania and the Coens rose quickly to the top of the festival polls and stayed there.  NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a masterly modern western from the American brothers who have been winning at Cannes for 20 years (Golden Palm for BARTON FINK, Best Direction for FARGO).

Watching the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS is like having an operation without anaesthetic. There is no protection for the nerves, no cushioning for the sensitivity, in this brilliant reality drama about illegal abortion. Though set in the Ceausescu era, there is nothing to indicate – at least to non-Romanians – that its picture of female vulnerability, police surveillance and unsparing bureaucracy all belong safely to a distant epoch.

A four-months-pregnant girl (Laura Vasiliu) is accompanied by her nervously loyal university roommate (Anamaria Marinca) to a rendezvous with a baby-terminator in a seedy hotel. This backstreet Torquemada has his own bedside manner: a polite but deadly sotto voce in which instructions to endure pain are mixed with demands to hand over extra money, or failing that, to hand over sexual favours. Each girl surrenders to a quickie intimacy. The man then does his stuff with his surgical tackle. The roommate hastens reluctantly to a party date with her boyfriend’s family. She returns to find blood on the bedclothes, police in the lobby and fear filling her soul as if from an unstoppable faucet.

The film’s portrait of the foeticide trade makes Mike Leigh’s VERA DRAKE seem a stroll in the family planning clinic. Mungiu favours long takes in which the camera watches a room until the walls almost start peeling. The humans move around, sometimes out of shot, as they play chess with death and destiny. They do so not for fun but because their lives depend on winning. In communist Romania it was a crime to have a child out of wedlock and a capital crime to have an abortion. But at least you could do the second undetected – if lucky. The scariest scenes in ‘4-3-2’ (as the film was quickly dubbed) are those in which the fragile orderliness of a totalitarian society is fractured, either to reveal the hatred beneath or to expose the machinery of monitoring and mind-control which keeps a citizenry in order.

This is political cinema, but with a human face. Indeed it is about the human face that lurks, or should do, under the veil of politics; or that hides within it, like the imprint of Christ in the Turin Shroud. This subject also exercises Alexandr Sokurov in ALEXANDRA, Carlos Reygadas in STELLET LICHT and Marjane Satrapi in PERSEPOLIS.

Sokurov movies are often the killer savoury at festivals: that last course you don’t really want but feel you should eat to please your hosts. The near-monochrome photography; the near-monotone soundtrack; the opacity of theme and image that can be like following signposts at night on a foggy motorway. They’re all here in ALEXANDRA, but so is a clever script, a subtle radicalism about war – which surely won’t please some powers in Russia – and above all Galina Vishnevskaya, ex-opera legend, in the main role of a soldier’s grandma on a visit to a Chechenya encampment.

The poignancy of Vishnevskaya’s participation, as a widow seeking a meaning and a future, for herself and by implication for the Russian soul, is surely enhanced by the recent death of the singer’s husband and co-legend Mstislav Rostropovich. Seeing her here is like seeing the Tsarina review the troops – the shimmering ghost-troops of art and freedom – after the death of the Tsar. Vishnevskaya is old but majestic as this surreal interloper who wanders the tents, climbs inquiringly into tanks, finally breaks curfew to visit a Chechenyan market place and befriend a vendor, who takes her home for tea. There is no doubting the film’s message: the ‘strangers,’ the ‘enemy’ are our own soldiers brainwashed to fight a futile war. The ‘friends’ are the peaceful members of the other side, no different, no less bemused, no less appalled in their hearts than the Russians. Is there a message here for those who send men to die in Iraq?

Carlos Reygadas is an oddity. This austere director has no business being Mexican, any more than we would expect Carl Dreyer to wear a sombrero or Robert Bresson to dance the Cucuracha. Reygadas gives up portraying Mexicans at all in STELLET LICHT (LUMINOUS SILENCE), which though set in that country centres on a Mennonite community. This Germanic sect, with its own guttural dialect, Amish-style wardrobe and technology-defying traditionalism, provides him with the perfect milieu – strict and Luddite – in which to set a countervailing tale of passion and adultery. The film is very slow, like watching life grow. But the images are epiphanic: from the sweat-baptised lovers wrestling in the bedroom above the sun-gilded ice cream shop to the rainstormed car trip in which a husband and wife wash their lives out in a violent rinsing of quarrel, contrition and unexpected, shocking finitude. But don’t mention death. And don’t trust its finality. Reygadas, you might say, is “only obeying ORDET.”

PERSEPOLIS won the Lumičre Goes Loony award for a standing ovation in the main salle that defied probability and endurance. I was there as people clapped and cheered in a perpendicular position for 20 minutes. Tears rolled down the face of beneficiary Marjane Satrapi, standing in the centre row in a sea of limelight. It was the climax to her long journey. The director-screenwriter had also authored the 4-year-old graphic novel, based on her life, which inspired this anime in two kinds of black-and-white: not just chromatic but political as Satrapi’s native Iran gets savagely villainised while western Europe (more precisely her adoptive France) is showered with kisses.

Satrapi must know what she’s on about. She grew up under the Islamic Revolution. Its grisly taskmasters are drawn as black-garbed demons, hissing their edicts of repression, confiscating pop CDs, executing two of Satrapi’s relatives. (Iran registered an official protest. It cannot bear its citizens leaving the country to spread the truth about Muslim fundamentalism). Funny when not horrifying, touching when not funny, PERSEPOLIS deserves to be seen worldwide, though in Popcornopolis people may shriek with dismay at the lack of colour, digital 3D effects and Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy doing the voices.

For days in this year’s Competition it was one damned gem after another. Sated with sparklers, we had to keep taking our eyes to be repaired. The ophthalmologists advised us to get a lot of sleep, to pour champagne onto our retinas, and to spend a few hours each evening vegetating on the Croisette. Here the sight of a black velvet sea, a starry heaven and a few dozen wheeling gulls lit white on their undercarriages by the town’s incandescence would heal our ocular powers.

Unfortunately – Cannes being Cannes – there was a firework display every evening. This meant one had to go back to have one’s ears repaired as well.  (“Crash!” “Bang!” “Fizzz!” “Wheee!” “Bang!”). But it did put us in the mood for films of calming yet complex melancholy, like Hungary’s THE MAN FROM LONDON and South Korea’s SECRET SUNSHINE.

Bela Tarr is known to some as ‘Pesty Budapesty’ (the Pest from Budapest). He makes flicks in miserablist monochrome. He grew up eating books of Piranesi drawings for breakfast. He gives the term ‘film noir’ a new remit: at times you can hardly see a thing. Take the moody dockside prowlings of THE MAN FROM LONDON, a Georges Simenon adaptation depicting a robbery, a murder and a police quest in an unnamed, and largely unlit, French port. 20 minutes in I was mesmerised, though, while others were already leaving. You just have to forget plot, character and comprehensibility in a Tarr movie. It is poetry maudit. It's Baudelaire’s fleurs du mal thrown on a compost heap of eternity. It is Rimbaud bedding down with Kafka in a dosshouse of  the ur-welt. Why not go and see it?

SECRET SUNSHINE is simpler. This beautiful Korean movie could have made off with a Golden Palm in a less strong year. The young widow and her kid who come to re-settle in a provincial city after dad’s death are delineated with loose but delicate realism. So is the goonish, goodnatured garage mechanic who falls for the woman. It looks, early on, like a comedy of readjustment. Then it becomes a tale of horror. The child is abducted and murdered. The least likely character is the killer. The downward spiral of the heroine’s mind is briefly checked by a religious conversion: she joins a god-loving glee club, predatory and controlling. Disillusioned in time, she continues her spinning nosedive.

It cannot end well. How will it end? Does grief really ever end? As human beings, what do we do to resolve the unresolvable – especially if we have the sense and stamina not to accept bogus palliatives? Do Yeon-Jeon’s brilliant performance as the mother put her in the crosshairs of the Best Actress prize. Lee Chang-dong’s direction is naturalism at its best, limpid, responsive, alert to every tiny details that turn the particular into the universal.

You would think from the account so far – the account of Cannes 2007 – that there wasn’t a fleck or flaw on the radiant canvas of perfection. That’s because I have spared you news of Olivier Assayas’ BOARDING GATE (Asia Argento in a drugs-‘n’-death D-movie), Fatih Akin’s THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (laboured race parable from the HEAD-ON hopeful), Gus Van Sant’s PARANOID PARK and other major patience testers. These are films that make us say: “Every gifted director has a bad movie in him. Every doubly gifted director has two bad movies in him.”

This must certainly be so with Van Sant. His latest belongs up there, or down there, with EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES. Based on a teen anguish novel by Blake Nelson, PARANOID PARK is a maudlin flicker-book of martyrology, its central spaces occupied by an Oregon adolescent (Gabe Nevins) posed in consecutive postures of painterly suffering. The boy accidentally kills a security guard on the edge of a skateboarding park. After that it is open season for the beautiful torso bared to the weeping shower, the golden-locked Botticelli profile lunar with melancholy, the thriller developments that never thrill or develop; and for as much JS Bach on the soundtrack as one can stand without calling the portentous-religiosity police.

By mid-fest, as it happened, all capacity for religious feeling at Cannes had been co-opted by a certain couple. Brad and Ange, no less, descended from the skies, halo’d with stardom. Filmdom’s answer to Zeus and Athena, or Romeo and Juliet, or Heloise and Abelard, Pitt and Jolie gave this party on the Med so much fresh star cred that the paparazzi couldn’t stop snapping them. Everyone else became supporting cast.  The chap with the manly chin and salt-and-pepper hair? That’s George Clooney. The baby-faced guy with the blond close-crop? Just Matt Damon. Andy Garcia? Lost in the crowd.

You get the picture: we certainly did! – it was called OCEAN’S THIRTEEN. But even the hottest new blockbuster from Hollywood soon fell into the recycle bin. The news –  inscribed on every front page and cybersite – was another film entirely: Jolie’s first big acting challenge and young Mr Pitt’s prestige producing chore. A MIGHTY HEART, directed by Britain’s Michael Winterbottom, was devoted to that quintessential US tragedy, the kidnapping and execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl: the first blood on the wall almost – or the first to touch the G-spot of universal horror and pity – in the newest, longest chapter of ‘George W Bush versus Jihad.’

Jolie is far better as Mariane Pearl than any screen gawper was authorised to hope. As a French-accented widow-in-the-making, with a ‘no make-up’ look Ingrid Bergman would be proud of, the actress virtually vanishes into the role. Only those bee-stung lips sometimes hover in the air, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.

Screenwriter John Orloff scratches the idea of recreating Daniel Pearl’s own purgatory. It would be putative, even prurient. We stay instead with Mariane and battle with the airy demons of fear and conspiracy theory – the worst of each proving well-founded – until the revelation of horror comes with the ultimate video nasty. Receiving news that her husband is dead, Jolie allows herself the one overreach moment in her performance. A long primal scream, a howl of grief: something like Olivier’s stage bloodcurdler in OEDIPUS REX combined with Vanessa Redgrave’s screen ululation in THE TROJAN WOMEN. Maybe Mariane Pearl did this. Or maybe Jolie thought subtlety would get her only so far in her stalking of the Best Actress Oscar.

Transplantation can be a transformative thing. Jolie gets rejuvenated by donning an accent and doffing the Max Factor. Deneuve gets a new notch in her united-colours Beneton belt by dubbing an Iranian cartoon (she was the mother’s voice in PERSEPOLIS). Carlos Reygadas swaps Mexes for Mennonites. And look what happened to Hou Hsiao-hsien when the Taiwan minimalist brought a feelgood French comedy – of all things – to the Croisette. From the dour master of CITY OF SORROW, THE PUPPETMASTER and THREE TIMES comes THE FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON, a Paris-set heart-tugger, inspired by Albert Morissot’s old chestnut about the boy and the dirigible. The pic is an unblushing charmer. Juliette Binoche skitters in a blonde wig as a distrait career mother; the boy is a tumble-haired winner; the linear script proves Hou doesn’t have to pixillate our brains before serving his picture-stories.

BALLOON was the opening film in the Un Certain Regard sideshow. That event’s other highlights included Barbet Schroeder’s TERROR’S ADVOCATE from France and Li Yang’s BLIND MOUNTAIN from China, two films dealing from different angles with the abuse of justice. Schroeder’s documentary is a study of the controversial lawyer Jacques Verges. Verges began his career defending Algerian terrorists in the 1950s – he married the most famous one, Djamila Boujired (mythologised in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) – and continued onward and upward into such death-defying client choices as the German Red Brigade, Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie (‘Butcher of Lyon’) and Slobodan Milosevich.

How Verges is still alive, we can only guess. His words on camera alternate between outrageous provocations, such as denying that Pol Pot committed mass murder, and witty rejoinders. Would he defend Hitler, he is asked? “I would even defend George Bush,” he replies. Schroeder works hard and successfully to present him as a cerebral version of the cine-portraitist’s other great documentary sitter, Idi Amin, though physically this slim, bird-featured, heavy-lidded man could not be more different. If you want to cast him in a fiction film you must ask Michael Caine to lose weight, add some pallor and dress up in the French judicial drag.

BLIND MOUNTAIN, translated with weird contrariness as ‘Deaf Valleys’ (Sourdes Vallees) in the French subtitles, comes from the maker of BLIND SHAFT. That was Li Yang’s brilliant exposure of corruption and murder in the Chinese mining industry. This time his hapless heroine (Lu Hunag) is a young student sold into wedlock by her parents. The marriage is a virtual kidnapping. The girl is confined in a northern village where Communist ideals have long vanished – peasants pay for education and medical treatment – and where a woman’s place is either in the field, slaving to grow crops, or in the bedroom, enduring conjugal rape. Bride-selling of children by parents is illegal in China but apparently rife. The impotence of the law, with the police seemingly powerless to oppose such crimes, constitutes another myth of Chinese communism dashed to the ground. 

Controversial? It was nothing compared to the closing show of non-competitive Cannes. This was Russia’s REBELLION: THE LITVINENKO CASE. Hastening into the west faster than a phial of polonium, Andrei Nekrasov’s recently completed documentary sets out to poison our trust in Vladimir Putin. The murder in London of ex-spy and defector Alexander Litvinenko, attributed to businessman and/or secret service agent Andrei Lugovoi (a man whose extradition to Britain has been blocked by Moscow), is laid at the door of President Putin, much as a cat lays a mutilated rodent. Nekrasov’s film sifts evidence and subpoenas witnesses to argue that Putin, who was hired by the KGB while still a student and later left a trail of state-sponsored crime (says Nekrasov), laid in place the Russia we know today, a country which pretends (again according to Nekrasov) to be a burgeoning democracy while acting as the old, corrupt autocracy.

Convincing? We need to know more. The film rushes us through its story, poking microphones at everyone from Litvinenko himself (while alive) to the now-slain dissident  journalist Anna Politkovskaya to Lugovoi. The scene with the alleged polonium dispenser gives rise to the one laugh-out-loud moment in the movie. Interviewed in his home, Lugovoi courteously offers the director a cup of tea, to which Nekrasov replies, very swiftly, “No, thank you.”

How we love to believe the Iron Curtain is still in place; or that if it isn’t its ghostly implacability lurks as a salutary threat to freedom and western complacency. The Palme d’Or was duly handed to Romania’s FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, TWO DAYS. As well being a masterpiece of modern realism, Cristian Mungiu’s film shakes the skeleton of the Ceausescu past as if to say, “Look what will come back if you don’t behave.”

It didn’t quite deserve to pip the Coens’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. But Cannes was no festival for old movie genres, even a western brilliantly revamped for crueller times by the doomsday wits who made FARGO.

There was no genre into which you could fit the runner-up honoree either. Naomi Kawase’s THE MOURNING FOREST from Japan is a melancholy lyric comedy – a road movie without a road – in which an addled old man and his young carer trek through a sacred forest to the resting-place of the widower’s wife. She has been dead 33 years, which means, in eastern religion, that she can finally leave the earth to become a Buddha. In our own religion – I speak occidentally – 33 was of course the age of Christ when he departed this earth.

I have no wish to elevate myself by comparisons. But 33 years ago was when I first started going to Cannes. Do I get to be a Buddha? Do I get to be crucified? Or do I get another two score years at the annual Cote d’Azur passion play? At that point I shall be happy to help the festival celebrate its centenary. I shall assist in the blowing out of 100 candles, though which of us by then will have more puff is in the lap, or the lungs, of god. Or Buddha. Or whoever is the deity du jour in 2047.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved