Cannes Film Festival fuses art and chance

[7 June 2007]

By Michael Phillips

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

What happens at the Cannes Film Festival does not stay at the Cannes Film Festival. This is very good news for cinephiles whose lives exist outside the bubble of the premier international movie bash, the one devoted to what Chinese director Wong Kar-wai called “a darkened space bathed in anticipation.”

For 12 days every May, the festival takes over the Cote d’Azur resort town more or less the way Napoleon conquered continental Europe. At Cannes, a picture’s reputation, marketability and life expectancy can be determined in a few dozen overlapping Altmanesque conversations conducted en route to the fifth screening of the day. The surprise is this:

Winning isn’t everything.

On May 27, at the awards ceremony capping the annual festival, jury president Stephen Frears (director of The Queen) announced the winner of the top prize, the Palme d’Or. It was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s sharp, clear-eyed and superb drama set in 1987 Bucharest.

In dispassionate visual terms the film chronicles the difficulty two young women have in securing an illegal abortion in the late-communist era under Ceausescu. Photographed by Oleg Mutu, who created a similarly sober palette in one of the best films of 2006, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months is a narrowly focused story that opens out to create a portrait of a dehumanized society built upon a series of mercantile transactions. Everybody barters everything in this universe, from cigarettes to Tic Tacs to prostitution.

Winning the 2007 Palme d’Or certainly won’t hurt such a film’s limited commercial chances in America. But amid all the other buying and selling, Independent Film Channel (IFC) First Take acquired 4 Months five days before it won.

That’s the idea in this mad amalgam of art and roulette: You wager when the timing is right. While a release date hasn’t been determined by First Take, 4 Months will be launched in simultaneous theatrical art house and video-on-demand formats. And if First Take is fortunate, it will make a modest profit on its good taste.

Every festival has its own peculiar life cycle. This year’s Cannes, widely considered one of the strongest in a decade, began with a pretty dud, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights (Norah Jones in search of herself and America—she should hunt down an acting coach instead). The festival concluded with, among others, a virtually unwatchable picture from director Emir Kusturica, Promise Me This, misery-inducing enough in its overscaled slapstick to actively erase your fond memories of his first Palme d’Or winner, When Father Was Away on Business. Many in attendance couldn’t make it through 20 minutes of Promise Me This; it was my sole walkout in 37 films this year.

Yet between these balsa-wood bookends, a remarkable volume of films got people talking, arguing and waving frites in merry, sleep-deprived agitation at the nearby bistros.

This year’s jury selections favored a brand of meticulously heightened realism, to mostly admirable results. In a rich field of performances vying for the best actress award, Jeon Do-yeon won for her sterling portrayal of a young widow in Secret Sunshine, a small marvel from South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong. Few among the press gaggle adjoining the Grand Lumiere Theatre awards ceremony Sunday could fathom the reasoning behind Russian actor Konstantin Lavronenko winning for The Banishment, from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return). The pick was odd enough, in fact, to make you wonder if Jean Cocteau had the right idea in 1953 when, as jury president, he required jury members to see each film twice. If this year’s jury slogged through The Banishment a second time, well ... we’ll never know.

Here is the strangeness of Cannes: At the same moment hundreds of people are emerging, scathed, from a 10-ton religious allegory, a quarter-mile away Jessica Simpson is getting blasted by digital camera flashes in the vicinity of a rent-a-yacht, hired to promote a movie that has yet to begin shooting. For every image of the festival, an undermining counterimage lurks in the darkness.

Or the light: The press screenings begin at 8:30 a.m., and if there’s a sure way to de-glamorize the world’s most famous red carpet, it’s the sight of a bunch of pasty, crimson-eyed press folk stumbling up those hallowed stairs in the harsh light of morning, without a single photographer in sight.

Last year, my first Cannes, I felt as if I had been run over by the same truck 12 times. This year, getting off the train from Paris, I heard an ominous rumble from that same truck. But art trumps fatigue every time, and nearly half of what I saw in competition, out of competition or in the slew of market screenings was actually worth discussing. That’s a remarkable percentage, in a medium and a business more typically hewing to baseball batting averages.

What happens in Cannes does not stay here, which is too bad for The Weinstein Company, which bought the domestic distribution rights to My Blueberry Nights. Some people liked the picture. No one, however, would argue that its quality could compete with the quality of the blueberries for sale at the farmers’ market north of the Palais. The market happened to be right across from a bakery where the baguettes were enough to make grown Americans cry at the beginning of another day devoted to the darkened space bathed in anticipation.

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The five best films I saw at Cannes 2007:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, directed by Cristian Mungiu. Calm in technique, devastating in impact, this is social realism at its most carefully considered, a portrait of late communist-era Romania as seen through the eyes of a young woman seeking an illegal abortion. To be released in the U.S. by IFC First Take.

The Flight of the Red Ballon, directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien. A highlight (though not a winner) in the festival’s competitive category known as Un Certain Regard, this tender but unsentimental homage to the 1956 film The Red Balloon stars a wittily disheveled Juliette Binoche as the single mother of a young boy whose new nanny happens to be making an homage to The Red Balloon. Also to be released in the U.S. by IFC First Take.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, directed by Julian Schnabel. Working in French with a mostly French cast, the American artist and director won this year’s directing prize. I found it both elegantly made and tremendously moving, anchored by Mathieu Amalric’s evocative portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the magazine editor who in effect blinked out his memoir after being virtually paralyzed by a brain-stem injury. To be released in the U.S. by Miramax.

Secret Sunshine, directed by Lee Chang-dong. From South Korea, a grim but bracing story of a young mother and widow who seeks solace in religion following a terrible loss. No U.S. distributor as of press time.

Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas. Owing a considerable debt to the redemption and resurrection landscape of Dreyer’s Ordet, as well as a bit to Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, the Battle of Heaven director tells a simple story of adultery set in a northern Mexican community of Mennonites. No U.S. distribution set; rumor has it Reygadas is preparing a shorter version of the film for the festival circuit.

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HOW U.S. FILMS FARED

The international nature of film financing makes it very tricky to categorize any one project’s identity by country. That said, by common consensus five of this year’s 22 pictures competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes were American. Here’s how they fared:

No Country For Old Men, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. An early favorite for the Palme d’Or, the Coens’ latest—an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, with only a modicum of McCarthy’s moral gravity—walked away with nada. Yet many who had issues with the film’s tone, as I did, admired the craftsmanship, the unshowily beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography, and scenes such as Josh Brolin going head-to-head with a determined attack dog, while crossing a river down Texas way. To be released here in November.

Paranoid Park, directed by Gus Van Sant. A Cannes favorite returned with a small but astute adaptation of a novel about a teenager whose immersion in the local Portland, Ore., skateboarding culture leads to trouble. One of the more overrated festival entries, I thought, but judge for yourself when it hits the States.

Death Proof, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Expanding Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse does the film no favors. One of the duller lap dances in screen history plus a lot of extra Tarantino gab: Eh. I enjoyed the original version better, and the best stuff remains untouched, i.e., Zoe Bell getting tossed around on the hood of a speeding car.

Zodiac, directed by David Fincher. Already released in the States, the serial killer procedural got a (deservedly) warm reception at Cannes.

We Own the Night, directed by James Gray. I’m not sure why this was in competition: Writer-director Gray’s cops-and-mobsters drama has a fine cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall) but almost nothing in the way of freshness or clever plotting. Columbia paid $11.5 million for the domestic distribution rights.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/cannes-film-festival-fuses-art-and-chance/