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Film

PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: This Growing Body of Artful Human Expression

Hannah Eaves
Photo of critical movie-going audience from AspenFilm.org

It's a long road from that little glimmer of an idea to a film's acceptance for screening at Cannes. For those that scored distribution, they must next endure the critique of the movie-going, ticket-paying public.

Festival de Cannes 2007 ran 16-27 May. This is the final installment from Hannah, who wrote 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: In the Thick of It

PopMatters @ Cannes 2007: La Belle Communauté Internationale

Films discussed in this Cannes 2007 installment:

 Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud)

 Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas)

 Triangle (Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam)

 You the Living (Roy Andersson)

 The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)

 The Mosquito Problem and other stories (Andrey Paounov)

The vendors working the beaches have brought down and packed up their tents and gone home, and the glitterati have had their people pack their gowns and tuxedos and jetted off to wherever it is they go next. All that remains of Festival de Cannes 2007 is a touristy town on the French Riviera and this year's legacy of films, added to this growing body of artful human expression. These six films, below, should see wide release (some only in major cities and arthouses). I hope you will be able to see them at your nearby movie theatre where, in darkened, climate-controlled comfort you can schooch down in your seat, surrender yourself to the enveloping effects of surround sound technology, and get lost in the story, that slice of the world, so beautifully captured on the big screen. Don't you just love the movies?

Persepolis

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud)

At a dinner party I attended, a friend explained what it is like to go to an Iranian film festival party. “You go inside and once the door is closed there’s pop music playing, people are drinking, and the women take off their headscarves and loose fitting robes to show off their cocktail dresses. Then it’s mostly just like everywhere else. But only once the doors are closed.”

The Western media doesn’t choose to highlight Iran’s secular intellectual community, leaving many in the US (and elsewhere) with an unbalanced picture of its supposed enemy. The part of the picture left out? The one we might relate to.

Persepolis may be the picture needed to fill the glaring omission in the West's depiction of Iranian people. Marjane Satrapi was eight years old and living in Iran when revolution overthrew the despotic Shah, whose human rights injustices had touched her family. As time went by, the peoples' hope in the new leaders started to dwindle as life became more regimented, woman marginalized, and the war with Iraq started hurting Tehran. Many years later, Satrapi went on to write an autobiographical account of her life in graphic novel form, covering her early years in Iran, then as a teenager sent to Vienna, then back to Iran as a young adult, and finally in France.

These chapters in Satrapi’s life were divided into four books, which were so popular in Europe that the final volume was serialized in the French newspaper Libération. While the books were published by Pantheon in the US, combined into two volumes and translated by Satrapi’s husband Mattias Ripa, their success has been limited. (Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return are available in paperback on

Amazon.com.)

Persepolis - Teaser

After fielding offers from US television and Hollywood producers, Satrapi finally found her collaborators in comic book artist Vincent Paronnaud (aka Wihshluss), and open-minded producers Marc-Antoine Robert and Xavier Rigault, who agreed to let the artists use old fashioned, hand drawn 2D animation for the film, thus retaining the stark look of the original comic books. By the end of the project there were 80,000 drawings for around 130,000 images available. The directors pulled together a dream cast (which will mostly be replaced for the US release) with Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve (who will stay on, redoing her part in English), Chiara Mastroianni and the underrated Simon Abkarian. Abkarian, who plays Marjane’s father, is a national treasure in French theatre. Abkarian was in immigrant to France himself, coming from war torn Lebanon. Satrapi directed the voice actors, with great enthusiasm and the help of few cognacs, so she says in her director's statement; it seems likely that she will voice herself as an adult for the US release.

As a child, Marjane is unconcerned with the strictures surrounding her. She likes punk rock, action films, and Iron Maiden. When control tightens under the regime, Iran can no longer contain her independent spirit. Her teen years in Austria are a kind of abandonment, both of her family and of her ability to take care of herself. Discovering drugs and heartache, the indignant Marjane ends up on the street and in the hospital.

While the chapters between the eras of her life can be a little disjointed on the screen, the moments in between, where one book ends and another begins, are set at the airport, of course. Airports provide a wilderness of sterile nothingness, an immensely powerful metaphor and elegant background for Marjane's life transitions.

We can all relate to the sadness of goodbyes, but the greatest thing about Persepolis is that we can relate to everything else in it, as well –- being a child in an adult world, teenage rebellion, having to grow up in a confusing, violent world. Fast paced, funny, and at times a real tearjerker, there is absolutely nothing inaccessible in the film, which makes it both commercial and powerful. Whether a black and white French animated movie can make it to the mainstream film-going audience, particularly the American film-going audience, which would benefit from Marjane's story, is uncertain, but if it does, it's sure to be loved.

Boarding Gate

Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas)

I wonder who the crazy woman was that Olivier Assayas loved in high school or university. Or perhaps it was just a woman he fantasized about from a distance, or even just dreamed up. Whoever she was, imagined or real, his fantasy of her lives on in his career, running a tenuous line from Cold Water to Clean, and finally to Boarding Gate, his most recent and trashy return to drug-addled, disturbed ladies.

Almost all you need to know about this film you can get from the posters: Asia Argento touching herself on the panties with a gun, pouting. Another has her in spike stilettos and black underwear pointing a revolver at the viewer. Exploitative sexuality like this doesn’t mean much unless something’s done with it, and in this case the dirty façade is all you get.

The story, what there is of it, goes something like this. Asia Argento and Michael Madsen are estranged lovers. (Do their characters have names? Who cares?) Madsen is a whisky swilling businessman living on the high end but rapidly coming down. Argento is a druggie ex-escort he used to give to business associates because it turned him on to think and talk about it. In a twist of circumstance, then calculation, Argento takes her revenge. As a result of both the hit and her new lover, she finds herself embroiled in some international intrigue.

Two thirds of the film is an examination of the emotional and physical power game played between Argento and Madsen. Theirs was a sadomasochistic relationship, full of dirty talk, handcuffs, threesomes, date rape drugs, emotional manipulation and, most sadistically of all, hours of stilted conversation about it. That’s one bedroom game that makes the audience suffer. It just gets embarrassing when people try that hard to shock you through innuendo, indignation and oh-la-la-what-will-they-do-or-say-ne -- oh get on with it already, it’s just not that interesting.

Fans of Assayas will go to see this film no matter the reviews. But how much can even the strongest auterist take? Others will see this film just to watch Asia Argento pull the trigger while wearing skimpy lingerie -- they will be the men who are still stuck in adolescent fantasyland, and the film professors.

To a degree, two of Assays' earlier films, Sentimental Destiny and Demonlover, are both negative portrayals of the loss of one's humanity that parallels the rise of progress. Sentimental Destiny, set over 100 years ago, is about the death of craftsmanship as mourned by a perfectionist porcelain maker. In Demonlover, it’s the deadening crassness that comes from being able to act on your darkest fantasies through the Internet (and don’t tell me the Internet in Demonlover isn’t a metaphor for the cinema experience -- Assayas was a film critic too, after all). Indeed, when he's looking at this noxious culture from the outside, Assayas is at his best.

With Boarding Gate, he has succumbed to the weaknesses of his characters and the world they inhabit and resist. He’s bought into the game. It’s a cheap world, and the tragedy is that the game has no meaning.

Boarding Gate - Clip #1

Boarding Gate - Clip# 2

Johnnie To

Triangle (Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam)

On paper, what an idea! Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To collaborate on a film together. These three legends of Hong Kong cinema have known each other for 30 years and have all managed to produce touchstone films in a crowded field. I may love Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story and Lam’s City on Fire, but Johnnie To’s goofball antics and soft touches will always steal my heart.

Tsui Hark

Triangle went much the same way. This exquisite corpse of a film goes from Hark to Lam to To. Hark cuts too fast and makes mincemeat of the plot, all within the first 15 minutes. Lam then tightens it up, but also sidesteps into a world of bizarre "WTF" obsession. Then To takes the ball and runs with it – straight into slapstick comedy. The film is a mess, but a mess that has a certain charm if the audience can make the leap with it into comedy. The audience I was with did, and there were some redeeming laughs in the finale. But some didn’t. One friend was surprised when I called it a comedy -- his audience hadn’t laughed once. I have a feeling that the line is so fine on this film that a willing audience could make or break it.

Ringo Lam

Ah Fai (Louis Koo) Bo Sam (Simon Yam) and Mok Chung Yuen (Sun Hong Lei) are small time losers out to make some money. Ah Fai gets involved with some gangsters and tries to talk Bo Sam into being the driver on a heist. Fallen antique dealer Mok Chung Yuen talks him out of it. But the three are caught up in another swindle, and with the mystical organizer conveniently dead, there’s nothing to stop them. In the dark of night they steal an antique burial that’s been hidden in a government building, only to get caught up in an elaborate game of cat and mouse with a corrupt cop (who has been bribing Ah Fai and having an affair with Bo Sam’s wife) and the jilted gangsters.

That’s all set-up for the To sequence when the main players -- cops, robbers and gangsters -- get waylaid in a remote restaurant surrounded by fields of reeds and crocodiles. Yes. Crocodiles! People start switching off lights, and combining the old switcheroo with the old shell game, and before you know it the audience might forgive the film its many faults and start having fun.

Roy Andersson on You the Living

You the Living (Roy Andersson)

How to describe You the Living If you’ve seen Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, you'll understand. If you haven't... let’s see... it’s like the best René Magritte paintings. Or think of a hybrid of Charlie Chaplin and American Gothic. See what I mean?

You the Living is a series of scenes that are single jokes, but that also relate to each other. Characters return, but each scene easily stands alone as a small masterpiece of joy, pathos, and the surreal. It’s not surprising most of the awards Andersson has received in his career have been for quirky Swedish advertisements. You can’t describe one of these vignettes without giving away its punch line. Consider the film a trip to a moving gallery.

You the Living

These tableaus add up to tell us that we are all so caught up in the minutiae of our lives -– someone is playing the tuba too loudly, or is in love with a disinterested punk guitarist, or is having a fight with their husband, or has found that a piece of newly-purchased carpet is a foot too short -– that we can’t see past all this busyness to the darkness that lurks, in this case, above. The inspiration for the title comes from Goethe: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”

We learn this from a man trying to pull a tablecloth out from a banquet table set with expensive china. Oh, this is impossible to describe. Like many things in life, it must be experienced. This film is worth the experience.

The Band's Visit

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)

There was a time, when director Eran Kolirin was growing up, that Israeli families regularly watched Egyptian movies on television. “This was weird, actually,” says Kolirin in his director’s statement, “for a country that spent half its existence in a state of war with Egypt.” Then Israel built a new airport and forgot to translate the road signs into Arabic.

So begins The Band’s Visit, with the official Egyptian Police Band lost at a faceless terminal in Israel. Someone was supposed to pick them up in a minivan, but they have not arrived. Taking the situation into his own hands, the quietly domineering band leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), directs his handsome young foil (and rebellious son figure) to buy them bus tickets, which he manages to do. When the band gets off the bus, it soon becomes clear that there has been a mistake in pronunciation, and not only is there no Arab Cultural Center to be found, but they are stranded in a remote town in the middle of the Israeli desert.

Taken in for the night by Israeli restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), both the band and the local Israelis get a lesson in cross-cultural understanding. There is a feeling of the Czech New Wave in the ensemble humor and the undercurrents of tension between the band members. As Dina and Tewfiq become friends, Dina at first flirtatious and loud until she pushes too far, a serious and satisfying tone is set. There is a quiet heart to the film that is content with small detail-conscious conversations set in longer scenes. After an evening of open conversation, the band must set off, back to a world of misunderstandings and conflict. This film received the most enthusiastic applause of any seen at the festival.

The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (Andrey Paounov)

Something is not quite right in the Bulgarian town of Belene. As they watch tourist boats slowly float past them down the Danube, the townspeople are more than happy to talk for the camera about their mosquito problem. They cope using home remedies; one couple demonstrates how to suck them up with a vacuum cleaner, a defeatist turns on a quiet fan, an Italian priest prefers to spray Raid.

One by one we are introduced to the eccentric citizens of Belene, but even while on a boar hunting trip, or being treated to a jazzy piano tuner who happily plugs away with off notes, the mosquito problem keeps buzzing around the conversation. But in the pauses left uncut before and after people speak, there is the implication of something left unsaid. It gradually becomes clear that all that buzzing insect noise is disguising the quieter secrets of this post-Communist town. It once housed a prison camp with a bleak, murderous history. These are the “other stories” of the title.

Documentarian Andrey Paounov loves his “characters”, plays with the surreal, and enjoys teasing the audience. An interview clip from one of the prison guards is thrown in very briefly near the beginning, but is not referred to again until it has become almost dreamlike, leaving the audience wondering where it came from and possibly if they had even heard it correctly. But it does come back, when we find out that the gentleman we’ve been boar hunting with was actually the superintendent of the labor camp. Instead of getting a comment from the former superintendent upon this revelation, Paounov films him silently making a pot of coffee for five minutes.

The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories reveals itself at its own pace, like the slow, billowing cloud left behind an insecticide-spewing truck as it wends its way through the Belene streets. It’s possible to see where the film is coming from as it works its way toward you, and to understand the director’s stylized and stylistic decisions. But alas, there is no emotional payoff equal to the patience required for the cloud to settle, the story to unveil.

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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