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Michael Moore's 'Sicko', the buzz of Cannes.
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Festival de Cannes 2007 runs 16-27 May.  This is the second of several installments Hannah is writing on the event for PopMatters See PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: Preview. For this year’s complete line-up, see Cannes Film Festival 2007 Official Selection.


See also:


PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: Preview
PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: La Belle Communauté Internationale
PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: This Growing Body of Artful Human Expression


Editor’s note: trailers and stills will be added as they become available.



Films discussed in this Cannes 2007 installment:




 Breath (Soom) (Ki-Duk Kim)
 Sicko (Michael Moore)
 The Mark of Cain (Marc Munden)
 Savage Grace (Tom Kalin)
 Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies)
 L’avocate de la Terreur (Barbet Schroeder)
 No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)




It often happens that one’s preconceived notions are circumvented by the facts. On arriving in Cannes it didn’t take long for me to realize this was the case for my own public declaration of the true facts behind the Cannes Film Festival. Most notably, when I wrote that the festival is, for all intents and purposes, a private event, I was wrong. Cannes is one of the most public film festivals around.


To begin with, there is a new system for getting regular people into screenings called Cannes Cinephiles, which accepts applicants from students and film clubs, as well as “film enthusiasts” from the local region. They are still barred from the Palais, which is central headquarters for market and press screenings. Beyond the Cannes Cinephiles program and the public nightly screenings on the beach, there is the town itself.


Photo by Hannah Eaves

Photo by Hannah Eaves


Anyone can come to Cannes and gawk. And they do. There are thousands of tourists who come here and stay either in the city or in outlying towns, and line the streets waiting for a glimpse of a star, any star, on the red carpet. There is a cordoned off area especially for the gawkers, shared by photographers, where together they keep footstools and ladders locked up overnight, ready for the next day’s camp out.


Celebrity sightings are rare on the streets, except for the nightly red carpet events, but people hang out around the private hotel beaches and the entrances to cocktail parties hoping to snatch a cellphone photo of someone, anyone. Like a character whose moral courage is challenged, it’s tempting to drift into one of these groups to see who’s at the centre of the excitement, but really, the best remedy is to just keep your head down and plow on to the next screening.


Breath

Breath


There are plenty of them. The press has it pretty easy with a solidly programmed, steady stream of screenings that walks them in tandem through the competition films from beginning to end. This year there have been several hot screenings which have seen some press turned away, most notably Kim Ki Duk’s Breath (Soom), which was only press screened once, and almost caused a riot when even some of the highest credentialed journalists were barred.


There are more options for Market pass holders, who are usually in the business as producers, buyers or film festival programmers and have paid for their passes. They choose between films that are only screening in the marche, films that are screening in the sidebars, competition films which require a lot of queuing, and red carpet premieres.


Photo by Hannah Eaves

Photo by Hannah Eaves


Getting into a gala premiere at the Grand Théâtre Lumiére, the thing you’re most likely to see on TV and associate with Cannes, is easier to achieve than expected. Market pass holders can go online for tickets before the event and book them for free depending on availability. There is a points allowance which creates an opaque class system. Basically, you know some people can get more tickets earlier and easier than yourself, but there’s nothing in the system to offend you because it’s difficult to tell what exactly is going on. On the lower rung all the tickets are for the balcony “nose bleed” seats where you can’t even see the orchestra seating below.


Going to a special screening like this is an experience in itself. The balcony ticket holders are basically considered the rabble. The rabble in bow ties and formal wear, that is. Clearly, if you can only get balcony seats you are not all that important. The balcony entrance to the red carpet is closer to the front doors, so it is almost as though the carpet itself is a village, with exclusive real estate reserved for others. That said, you do get to actually walk the red carpet, as I did for the official premiere of Michael Moore’s Sicko. It’s probably just as well we’re kept away because the people surrounding me relentlessly, embarrassingly, photographed themselves and their friends standing on the red carpet.


Twenty minutes before the screening, a group of us, all dressed to the nines, were herded like cattle to our seats in the balcony, where we could watch, projected on the theatre’s screen, the serious arrivals take place. There was some enjoyable excitement in the air for Moore’s new film, partly because he is an icon, and partly because the US Treasury is trying to charge him for breaking the Cuba trade embargo by bringing 9/11 volunteers to Cuba for medical treatment they couldn’t afford in the US. The screening ended with a 10-minute standing ovation. As could be seen by his image projected on-screen Moore was wiping away a tear or two, clearly moved by this reception. (More on Sicko, below.)


Photo by Hannah Eaves

Photo by Hannah Eaves


The city of Cannes itself is a bit of a disappointment. The first thing that strikes you is that you can barely see the beach. It is almost entirely obscured by the festival complex and the white tents of the market and pavilions. When you can see the beach it’s just not all that impressive. The water isn’t azure, for starters, it’s a kind of dull blue. Even though the city is full of exclusive designer stores, it feels a bit run down and dirty.


Parties take place either along the waterfront, in the hotels, or up on the hill in rented villas. They are full, as is the city, of absolutely beautiful young women, many in revealing attire. Until now, I was unaware that there were so many 6 foot tall 19-year-olds with wavy long hair and perfectly even tans in the whole world, let alone gathered at Cannes.


These events mostly fall into the pretentious category, and sometimes more fun can be had by going to the Petite Majestic bar, or a small French restaurant up the hill and away from the action.


And the films, ah the films.  Hundreds of them. Unfortunately my experience of them almost without exception has been full of brutal violence or sex. Or both.  Many of these films, narrative and documentary alike, have drawn on real life events, which makes them even more disturbing.


The Mark of Cain - unofficial poster

The Mark of Cain - unofficial poster


Not screening in the official selection, the British drama, The Mark of Cain was made for television, and unfortunately can’t shake some of the limitations of its original medium. A gritty fictionalization of an Abu Ghraib-like prison scandal, The Mark of Cain follows several young British soldiers on their path to becoming the “bad apple” scapegoats of a larger institutional lapse.


Although it draws on the history of sadomasochism in British schools that has been so brilliantly portrayed by other filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson, echoes of fratboy pranks, and a don’t-squeal-on-your-friends attitude should ring very true to many, not least US audiences. It is a brutal and depressing reality that weak young people can be broken by the horrors of war and by the memory of their own culpability in uncharacteristic acts; the slow downfall of The Mark of Cain’s characters makes for extremely difficult viewing. As in another recent Iraq drama, The Situation, many of the early scenes come off sounding like a lecture on Iraq, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that these are the trite conversations – about Iraq in particular, about war in general, about what is right and what is wrong – that soldiers are actually having.


Savage Grace

Savage Grace


Since Tom Kalin’s 1994 award-winning debut Swoon, audiences have been waiting for his next feature foray as a director. Instead, he teased them with gallery works and producing efforts with critical successes like I Shot Andy Warhol. Warning, there is a semi-spoiler coming up. Screening in the market at Cannes is his new film Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore as Barbara Daly Baekeland, who married into the Bakelite fortune and was later murdered by her disturbed adult son. It is made clear early on that Mrs. Baekeland is manipulative and unstable, what you might generously call a crazy bitch, and it takes a long, uncomfortable lifetime, from 1946 to 1972, for her to impose her insanity on her son through a disturbing relationship that devolves into incest.


Savage Grace is well made, but despite many written words to the contrary, it is hard to ever see the attraction of Moore’s character, and a film filled with unlikeable people doing bad things to each other can be hard to watch. Overarch, detached and fragmented, it is difficult to make any emotional connection to this story. We critics often talk about directors judging their characters, and with the exception of the emotionally distant father and husband Brooks, Kalin comes off as a director who does not. You can take that or leave it, for what it’s worth.


Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue


In the small town of Aramoana, New Zealand, 1990, residents suffered a horrific massacre that lasted almost 24 hours and ended only after 13 seaside residents had died. It is not surprising that the dramatization of this event, Out of the Blue, has grossed quite a bit of money in its home country, knocking Heavenly Creatures out of 10th spot on the list of top grossing New Zealand films. What is more surprising is that the Weinstein Company picked it up after a buzz-heavy screening at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.


Any film about such subject matter is bound to make for tough viewing, and this simple but engaging film makes a valiant effort with touching performances and an attention to detail that reveals intimate knowledge of the place and people. Out of the Blue makes for a solid, non-exploitative memorial to the tragic events of Aramoana, and has probably had therapeutic value for the residents of that town who’ve seen it. Whether audiences overseas will be able to get past the premise to appreciate the film’s power as a portrait is a less sure prospect.


Sicko

Sicko


There is something fascinating about watching thousands of people in fancy dress give a long standing ovation to a piece of agit prop propaganda, and for that I thank Michael Moore and the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t long ago that you only got to see films like Sicko on a well used VHS tape circulating around the local university, media centre, or anarchist office. It is even better when it’s propaganda you believe in. Have no doubt, Sicko, Moore’s hilarious documentary about the US’ broken healthcare industry, is simple-minded manipulation geared to appeal to the lowest common denominator.


Thankfully, he leaves behind his proclivity for personal attacks and confrontation to instead craft a completely engaging and tragic-comic story of a terrible situation. When I moved to the US from Australia almost a decade ago, I was astonished at the media engine that never let universal healthcare become a possibility in the US, because the tales they were telling about universal healthcare in other countries were so bewilderingly untrue.


That said, universal healthcare can be great. I received far better care when I needed it in Australia than I ever did in the US, and it was paid for with my taxes, which were fairly high. I didn’t have to wait forever to see a doctor, and I could see whatever doctor I wanted to. Upon arriving in the US, it quickly became clear that almost everything in American society was geared towards putting its citizens into debt and keeping them there—through university fees and the cost of medical care, as just one example—or at least getting them into a situation where not working would put them in a vulnerable situation, if not on the streets. Moore tells my story, and if the creative use of stock footage is anything to go by, he’s been watching some Adam Curtis films, which can only be a good thing.


Sicko starts with a look at the kind of treatment US citizens receive under their healthcare system; that is, those who actually have health insurance.  It covers some tragic personal stories, including some who lose all but their shirts to pay for the medical care their insurance doesn’t cover, and then works its way into portraits of countries where universal healthcare is in place; Canada, France and England. 


In Canada, France and England, Moore unerringly tries to approach the issue in terms that Americans will understand, mostly by finding middle class or conservative or American people to debunk various myths about healthcare, with a liberal dose of MGM-like sunny skies and comedy thrown in for entertainment. People from those countries will doubtless be offended that their healthcare systems are being portrayed as a panacea when they are in fact plagued with problems of their own. However, the bottom line is correct: taxes are high in these countries, but the health care coverage is there for everyone, “for free”. At least for now.


These types of open healthcare systems tie in to the countries’ citizens living with high taxes, yes, but unlike they’re US counterparts, they’re not living without the same kinds of fears and debts that Americans face. As Moore so clearly points out, in other Western countries, if you cut off two fingers it won’t cost you US$12,000 to put back one or US$60,000 for the other, and you won’t have to sit in the emergency room trying to make up your mind which one to keep. Why create a disabled person, or a disabled industry, if you don’t have to?


The publicity coup de grâce comes at the end of the film when Moore, after hearing repeatedly on the news about Guantanamo Bay’s state-of-the-art hospital, takes a group of people, ill from their volunteer work during 9/11, for treatment. Surprise, surprise, they are turned away at the gate.  So Moore and company ventures into Cuba, instead. The rampant poverty there is touched on once, ever so briefly, before the patients are whisked into a Havana hospital. When the health minister, or head of the hospital, heard that some Americans were there with a camera they must have creamed their pants at the opportunity. Needless to say, the 9/11 volunteers are treated well in the Cuban hospital, but the kicker comes when one of the patients gets her prescription filled in Havana. In the US, that prescription costs her $120; in Cuba, it costs her around five cents.


L’avocate de la Terreur

L’avocate de la Terreur


Another worthwhile documentary, this time screening in Un Certain Regard, is Barbet Schroeder’s L’avocate de la Terreur, a title that roughly translates to Terror’s Attorney. Schroeder hangs this film on his fascinating central character, Jacques Vergés, an enigmatic lawyer whose roots as an outsider in colonial Vietnam and England led him to a murky life defending terrorists and monsters around the world.


The film is structured around an interview with Vergés who comes off as an arrogant man with fixed beliefs and who enjoys, even revels, in his notoriety. It is jarring to see groups of intelligent men talk calmly about terrorism as an ideological and intellectual weapon in war. This is a case where the do-ers are the sane front to the crazy leaders – or are they? Vergés’ penchant for falling in love with his beautiful terrorist clients, and his psychological need for secrecy and intrigue which culminated in an eight year disappearance, are hooks into a larger look at how some international terrorist organizations work.


L’avocate de la Terreur gets bogged down at times in mounting details of organizational relationships and plots, especially difficult for those not familiar with the historical events tackled, but it usually gets pulled back into line with Vergés’ dynamic reappearance on screen. The logic behind these directorial decisions becomes clear as these details are used in the rationale for Verges’ defense of a Nazi war criminal, but a simpler approach might benefit the film.


Finally, there has been positive attention given to several films so far competing at the festival, particularly for the Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which, alas, I didn’t catch). Overwhelming accolades have been given to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.


No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men


No Country for Old Men, based on Corman McCarthy’s book, is both the perfect activator and antidote to the violence of the films surrounding it. Its loud, brutal violence—overwhelming, bloody and nauseating—feeds into a mounting wave of existential dread at the eternal presence of bad men and the sometimes slow, but always inevitable approach of death for us all. It is not an upbeat film.


Filmed in the beauty of New Mexico doubling for the desolation of small town West Texas, No Country for Old Men follows Lleweyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as he stumbles across an isolated desert post- drug deal gone wrong. Finding the money, and hoping it will provide a better life for himself and his wife, Moss goes on the run, hunted by psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurh, played like the devil himself by the magnetic Javier Bardem. Also looking for Moss is tired Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who brings with him the defeated voice of time and the country.


Reminiscent of Blood Simple, this is a new, hard kind of film from the Coen Brothers that comes together in a sad crescendo of bloodshed, heat, and quiet philosophy for its last moments. If you are worried about the times you live in, and the time of life you face, No Country for Old Men will touch heavily on your fears.


No Country for Old Men - Segments


Hannah Eaves has published several articles on PopMatters, and is a regular contributor to other outlets both online and in print, including the glossy magazine SOMA, and the daily newspaper The Santa Cruz Sentinel. Her writing has also been reprinted in book form by Faber.


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