CANNES, France - Among the many slices dividing the gargantuan fruit tart known as the Cannes Film Festival, the most unpredictably gooey is the Marche du Film. It claims the title of the world’s largest film market. According the festival’s figures, last year’s market action drew more than 10,000 people, who brought, bought, sold or passed on nearly 1,000 films from nearly 100 countries.
Back in 1984, a buyer named Daniel Battsek traveled to Cannes. In the market he caught a film called “Blood Simple,” a low-budget Texas-set crime drama, or black comedy, or nervous-making hybrid, depending on how harsh your sense of humor happens to be. The film came from Joel and Ethan Coen, brothers, writers and directors born and raised in a Minneapolis suburb.
Battsek walked out halfway through “Blood Simple.” But not like that: He walked out halfway so he could buy it.
Now the president of Miramax Films, Battsek is back at Cannes. He and his colleagues at Paramount Vantage, co-distributors of his latest release, are here representing “No Country For Old Men,” the latest genre mash-up from the Coens. It’s based on the 2003 novel by Cormac McCarthy, in which a bloody, drug-related mishap under a desolate West Texas sky leads to a string of killings and a world of regrets.
The film, opening in November, is considered by some to be a contender for the Palme D’Or, Cannes’ top prize. The Coens won the award some years ago for their ode to the terrors of writers’ block, “Barton Fink.” As in that picture, as well as most films they’ve made, much of the comic dread emanates from the narrative presence of a stone-cold psycho. The one in McCarthy’s story is played by Javier Bardem in a Dutch-Boy haircut, a serial killer wielding a slaughterhouse stun gun. He resembles the dead-eyed Peter Stormare character in “Fargo,” only with a more formidable resume of evil.
Talking to the “No Country for Old Men” people Sunday, in a tented restaurant on the beach, the Coens acknowledged the recurring Unstoppable Evil archetype in their work, and the potential dangers of mishandling such an archetype, especially in a story with a core of moral seriousness to it. “We were aware of that,” Ethan says of the risk of one-dimensionality. “We didn’t want him to come off like ... ” A half-second later, brother Joel, wearing dark shades like Ethan, finishes the sentence.
“`The Terminator,’ ” he says, dryly. “We didn’t want that.”
The Coens say they didn’t want or need to venture too far from the structural design of McCarthy’s novel. Only one major character, a teenage runaway who arrives late in the book, has been excised, along with much of the violence-scarred back story relating to the character of Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones.
On a first viewing and seeing any film in the blurry context of an international festival means you’ve barely seen it at all - “No Country” seems to present the Coen brothers conundrum anew. It’s exquisitely made in many ways, and easily their strongest and least overtly comic in several pictures. Yet in adapting McCarthy’s story, they have declined to wrestle with McCarthy’s subtler and more troubling perspectives on violence and the American character. The way the “No Country” psychopathic killing spree is handled, in terms of tone, cutting and nihilistic humor, the Coens only go so far in preparing the characters and the audience for an eventual shift into a different, mournful key.
That said, there won’t be a more strikingly photographed picture this year. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has made nine films with the Coens, and this may be the most visually supple, as attuned to West Texas (New Mexico, actually; the tax incentives are better there) as the Coens and Deakins were to Minnesota landscapes in “Fargo.”
The best scene in “No Country” is one of the simplest. It involves Josh Brolin, playing the nominal protagonist, running for his life, eluding an attack dog and crossing a river, all in one impeccably paced sequence. There’s more than cold-blooded technical expertise afoot in it; it’s the exact visual corollary to McCarthy’s spare, sharp prose.
Of the competition screenings I’ve seen these first six days at Cannes, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” from Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu (up for the Palme d’Or) and Taiwanese director/co-writer Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon” (entered for consideration for the Un Certain Regard prize) linger the longest.
Both are exquisite and deeply humane works, though “4 Months” is one of the most wrenching sits I’ve had in a long time, dealing with the moral and practical considerations of illegal abortion (though it never settles for being an “issue” picture). The Hou Hsiao Hsien project by contrast pays homage to the 1956 evergreen about the Paris boy and his mascot, and it is bittersweet charm incarnate, a reverie on theatrical illusions and the ways people come together and come apart. It’s set largely within the Paris apartment occupied by a disheveled singer mother, played by a supremely droll Juliette Binoche, and her young son, played with unaffected grace by Simon Iteanu.