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by Harlan Kennedy


Is there intelligent life on Planet Earth? If so, who now holds the licence to make it?

Just when you thought God was winning all the battles in a world at war with reason and science – all those Creationist classrooms (at least in ‘God’s country’), all those deaf ears turned to Darwinian theory – along comes a man-made living cell. Yes: the human species has created life. It has created a bio-storm in a test tube. And it has done so without God’s permission. It hasn’t needed to use a spare rib from Eve. It hasn’t even needed a thunder-and-lightning show over Castle Frankenstein.

So far the human species hasn’t been struck down for its hubris. But keep watching this space.

No wonder the 63rd Cannes Film Festival celebrated three score years and three – a new trinitarianism – by showcasing three films about human beings who invent, create or reconstruct the real. Reading from east to west they are Abbas Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY (in competition), Christoffer Boe’s EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE and Jean-Stephane Bron’s CLEVELAND CONTRE WALL STREET (both Directors Fortnight).

In all three movies the main characters manufacture actuality, or a likeness of it, from the projection of their wills and imaginations. It’s an act of faith, by which we mean the new faith – in human potentiation – not the old faith in a supreme being with a beard and sheet.

Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami has been here before. Quite literally. He competed at Cannes in 1997  and on that occasion won the Golden Palm with a film made at the frontier between fact and fantasy. A TASTE OF CHERRY ends with a production crew – Kiarostami’s – browsing the very landscape in which the movie has generated its story.

But CERTIFIED COPY, in content if not form, is bolder still. In Tuscany a French single mother (Juliette Binoche) meets and romances an English author (played by opera singer William Shimell) on his book-signing tour. After attending his lecture, she hooks up with him; they walk and talk. They impulsively, improvisatorily start to playact being a married couple. Before our eyes they start creating new lives, spinning new backstories. Soon the notionally unreal seems to be becoming real.

It’s a simple if novel conceit for a story, and the story takes place all in one day. But as Shimell’s character says: “There’s nothing very simple about being simple.” At the end the man and woman find their old honeymoon hotel – or pretend to or appear to – and visit their old honeymoon room. Like Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA Binoche wanders the furnishings, touching and feeling them, palpating the past. Shimell ends the movie gazing and soliloquising into a mirror, wondering who he really is.

These two people have, as it were, given each other memory implants. They have injected each other with cells from lives that never happened – their own lives! Never happened, except in that most nourishing and fostering of hosts, the human imagination.

Kiarostami is playing God, you could say, except that in our new age God no longer exists. People themselves shape their destinies, with the intriguing notion here that that existential shaping can extend to past as well as future. (And in a parallel universe, which today has more cred than God anyway as a sciento-philosophical possibility, who is to say the shared past of Binoche and Shimell’s characters did not happen?)  

In Danish director Christoffer Boe’s EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE an entire, thrillerish chain of events is forged – ‘forged’ here being the right ambivalent, morally enshadowed word – by the paranoid mind of a hero convinced that what is happening is real. So are we convinced. Until it isn’t. And even then it still might be. Think of THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (or if you’re too young SHUTTER ISLAND) and take away the finality even of their surprise twists. Who says the protagonist’s world in those films, which is really a lunatic asylum, isn’t really the world after all? Or in a Wagnerian sense a world-asylum, a Welt-Krankhaus?

We are the makers of our individual worlds and dimensions, suggests Boe (whose past films include the similarly Borgesian, metaphysical RECONSTRUCTION). Or, for good or ill, through volition or the volatile vagaries of victimhood, we can be. Esse est percipi: ‘To be is to be perceived’ (as the philosopher Bishop Berkeley put it). If reality is proved only by being perceived – fact of human existence – ergo, what we perceive and the way we perceive it are the reality.

CLEVELAND CONTRE WALL STREET is as nutty a title as you would expect from a French-produced ‘documentary’ staging a mock trial in the main city of Ohio. A group of foreclosure victims act as plaintiffs – act in the existential not theatrical sense (though you could argue that too)against 21 Wall Street banks put in the dock as villains of the meltdown.

It was in the poorest quarter of Cleveland, we are told, that the first days of America’s subprime crisis were worst felt. The Clevelanders lodged a suit for real against the banks, but the banks wouldn’t play. They stalled and stymied. So this fantasy courtroom fight is the best the action-bringers can get. They play or present themselves, with help from a local lawyer, while the banks are represented by a ‘hired gun’ flown in from New York.

For an unreal trial, it becomes scarily real. It’s as if the Clevelanders have rubbed a magic lamp and the genie – the genie of believable make-believe – comes out. They get, after a fashion, what they wish. But beware of what you wish for. The life-giving properties of the human imagination confer autonomy on their creations, just as parents hand down self-determination to their children. The Clevelanders lose the trial. They are outfoxed by the hired gun.

In all three films the freedom to re-think or re-invent a life ends ambiguously at best, chasteningly at worst. So is creating life the ultimate power or the key to ultimate powerlessness?

Think of poor God, up in His Heaven. So lonely, so insecure. He demands to be worshipped. He demands to be praised and thanked. He seems to need these things in order to be reified, never mind deified. How insecure can you get? He seems to need to know that His creations won’t injure, reject, repudiate or despise Him. That they won’t end up, in their ungrateful way, un-creating their creator.

Which, let’s face it, they now have. The living cell new-made by man kicks over the last traces of God, or might be reckoned to. Like a hurricane whirling backwards it wipes out the Bible from Revelations to Genesis.

Genesis? We do the genesis from now on. But as Kiarostami, Boe and Bron so note, don’t expect the power of creating life to turn our own lives into a walk in the park. Or perhaps they will be a walk in the park. But, as any filmmaker will tell you who comes from the noir side of the tracks, nasty things can happen during a walk in the park…..




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved