[21 May 2012]
When the Competition lineup for the 65th annual Cannes Film Festival was announced a few weeks back, two questions came immediately to the fore: Why aren’t any female filmmakers represented, and after a 2011 slate that featured four?”; And, “What’s with the generous inclusion of so many American films?” I don’t have an answer for the former, particularly with the quality of some of the films included. But in regards to the latter, in addition to fest opener Moonrise Kingdom, there are a whopping six more American films in the Competition strand this year (for comparisons sake, there were two last year, and as a fest that prides itself on international democracy, it’s rare to see the selection committee so liberal with the national selection ratio). Would these films really be that good—or worse, were the other foreign products so disappointing as to not warrant inclusion (well, I’m here, and I can tell you that’s certainly not the case). Or were there other factors at play, something that would facilitate a Lee Daniels film (um, for example) in the main category of the world’s biggest film festival?
I can only speak for two films thus far—and I’m certainly in the tank for the charming Moonrise—but if the inclusion of John Hillcoat’s Lawless is any indication, we may need to keep our guard up for the last quarter of the fest, when five of these remaining American films premiere over the last five days. And it’s not even that the film is bad, per se, but it’s glaringly flawed in a way that provokes curiosity concerning the selection process. A film already stacked with A-list talent and sporting the heavy-hitting distribution muscle of the Weinstein Company wouldn’t seem to need the added exposure of a international festival bow (or at least not a Competition slot). Then again, it’s a genre film (remember, Drive premiered here last year), and it’s nice in a sense to get some relief from the stern disposition of the majority of it’s competitors.
Director John Hillcoat has been on the road to making a film like Lawless for the majority of his career. His very strong 2006 breakthrough, The Proposition, injected a shot of adrenaline into the Western genre by instilling a real sense of authenticity to the production. You could smell the cowhide and nearly choke on the dust kicked up by the film, which represented for Hillcoat’s Australian heritage by enlisting a near-complete Aussie cast, in addition to screenwriter and composer Nick Cave, whose days leading his band, the Bad Seeds, seemed to have fortified his vivid, often times sadistic storytelling skills. Which is partially what makes Lawless a minor if inoffensive disappointment. It’s inevitable that Hillcoat would graduate to a status worthy of major Hollywood stars at some point, but in the transition—which, it should be noted, also included his intriguing but plagued adaptation of The Road—he and Cave seem to have sacrificed a certain aspect intrinsic to the palpable sense of realism that marked The Proposition. What remains is big budget, Hollywood entertainment, as easy to watch as anything you’ll come across this year, but geared toward more demographics than probably needed.
Lawless stars Tom Hardy, Shia LeBeouf, and Jason Clarke as three bootlegging brothers running liquor in and out of Depression-era Virginia, and Guy Pearce as militant Special Agent Rakes sent in from Chicago to thwart, forcefully if need be, the efforts of the Bondurant brothers. The acting is where the film most succeeds, with Hardy (in full-on marbled-mouthed enunciation mode) and especially Pearce deliciously digging into show-stopping set pieces and violent outbursts. An almost cameo-length appearance from Gary Oldman, however, nearly eclipses each, and though the presence of his Floyd Banner is felt throughout the film, a more prominent role may have turned this into a Heat-worthy acting showdown. Ultimately, though, the actors can’t parlay a disjointed opening few sequences, a couple of female characters (played well by Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain) who, if excised, would still have no real bearing on the story, and a ridiculous and unnecessary coda which proves once and for all that Hillcoat needs serious intervention when it comes to ending his films.
First time director Brandon Cronenberg, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to need help ending his films, but rather on when to end them. Perhaps his father could be of some advice. The son of cult Canadian icon David Cronenberg, Brandon brought his very first work, Antiviral, to the Un Certain Regard strand of Cannes this year (the same year his father competes for the Palm D’or for his latest, Cosmopolis), letting loose a two-hour whirlwind of body-horror shocks, celebrity fetish satire, and drug-induced, future-shock paranoia. He was promptly met by critics with not only accusations of inspiration but outright theft from his elder. Yet this appears to be the point: Antiviral, despite not making a lick of sense, confronts his father’s reputation head-on, stealing, referencing, and in a few key areas, jumping-off from daddy’s original conceptions. Brandon throws so much at the wall here—at one point it seems as if he’s simply trying to outdo his own conceptual oddities from one scene to the next—it would be impossible for it all to stick, but with a first hour as bracingly original as anything I can remember in the horror genre recently (and then a second that spins it’s wheels almost as nauseously), it appears his father’s legacy is in good hands.
Another legacy was paid tribute on Saturday night further down the Croisette at the Director’s Fortnight, which happens to sport a line-up of auteurs this year to nearly equal that of the Competition. Legendary Chilean director Raoul Ruiz, who passed away last year at the age of 70, found his final completed work, La noche de enfrente, posthumously premiered and honored in front of a packed house which included cast, crew, and producers in attendance. In essence, Ruiz’s last film, 2010s Mysteries of Lisbon, felt like a fitting conclusion to a career of innumerable films (seriously, we’re talking somewhere in the range of 100 pictures), as it seemed in many respects to be the ultimate Raoul Ruiz film: four hours in length, tackling an equally mammoth piece of literature, and encompassing the full spectrum of his at times playful, pretentious, and psychedelic aesthetic. As artists often times seem to intuit as they approach death, however, Ruiz reconciled, fortifying himself through his art while saving perhaps his most personal work for last (he finished editing the film in May of 2011 and had begun filming yet another movie which never saw completion).
Based seemingly as much on his own nostalgic musings concerning death as it does the series of short stories by Hernán del Solar which grace the opening credits, La noche de enfrente follows the last days of an elderly man revisiting his youth in the company of his family. What initially seems like a modest (for Ruiz), chamber drama eventually explodes into a hallucinatory trip through the head of a man vibrant with life but slowed by the effects of aging. As if often the case with Ruiz, it’s initially difficult to make heads or tails of a conventional plot, but once his coordinated motifs and symbols lock into place, the film takes flight as Ruiz’s cipher, Sergio Hernández, embarks on a kind of ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ journey through his childhood memories (reminiscent in parts, particularly in a recurring sequence of encounters with Beethoven, of his 1984 television series Manoel on the Island of Wonders), illuminating the adolescent experience which brings him full circle into a mental reconciliation with his younger self late in the film.
Despite the more intimate locales of La noche, Ruiz still manages to display an array of his stylistic tricks either indoors or across the sun-drenched coasts of Chile, from color filters to deep focus photography to rear projection/moving walkway tracking shots to split diopter compositions to techniques that probably still have yet to be defined. Many of the less flamboyant opening scenes remind me a bit of the late work of Luchino Visconti, in both physical limitations and color palette (lots of browns and warm shades), but these intimate gestures from a seemingly resigned veteran soon prove to be a red herring, as the final thirty minutes of the film expand into a succession of exaggerated set pieces and playfully rendered analogue effects sequences reminiscent of the man’s mid-80s peak. Disorienting, nostalgic, and mournful, but alive with personality and an undying exuberance, La noche de enfrente is Ruiz’s last will and testament, a beautiful, affecting bookend to a career that never stood still.