Even before Cannes 2009 had started, critics and film buffs had celebrated this year’s line-up as the strongest official selection in years, primarily on the basis that some of the most bankable directors in world cinema had rushed through post-production to take their latest offerings to the Croisette. And with Michael Haneke’s excellent The White Ribbon (Das WeiÃŸe Band) winning the Palme d’Or ahead of a handful of mostly satisfying entries, including Jaques Audiard’s intensely gripping A Prophet (Un ProphÃ¨te), Park Chan-wook’s slick and stylish Thirst (Bakjwi), Johnnie To’s likable Hong Kong action drama Vengeance, and British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s assured second feature Fish Tank (also screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June), the prestigious competition section did to some extent live up to its promises, even beyond the usual predominant poles of Dardennes-style reality bites and mainstream juggernauts. Yet what really made Cannes a thoroughly enjoyable experience was the wealth of ‘smaller’, weird and wonderful films that screened in the festival’s increasingly popular sidebar sections or at the Marché du Film.
Despite being a little patchy this year, the Un Certain Regard selection remained a good place for discovery. One of the most pleasurable entries here was Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos’s prize-winning Dogtooth (Kynodontas), a nice little oddity that centres around the daily life of three teenage siblings cut off from the outside world and confined to the fake, grotesque universe dictated by their parents’ cruel games and extraordinary educational methods. A hyperbolic piece of absurdist satire that skews genre conventions to the extreme, the film creates a convincingly bizarre world beyond the garden fence where the kids spend their days dwelling in their induced infantilism, until nasty, violent reality catches up with them in the form of a woman who is allowed into the house to have sex with the son.
From the fairly large selection of Asian titles, I quite enjoyed the new film by Hirokazu Koreeda, Air Doll (Kûki NingyÃ´), a poetic and soft-centred urban fairy tale about an inflatable sex doll that suddenly comes to life (based on the graphic novel by Yoshiie Gouda), as well as Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Nymph (Nang Mai), a slow-paced, abstruse yet strangely engaging ghost story about a pseudo-happy married couple who take a trip into the forest. But the pick of the festival for me was the superb and beautifully accomplished Mother by The Host director Bong Joon-ho. Offering a standout lead performance by long-time Korean TV actress Kim Hye-ja as a feisty widow determined to prove the innocence of her fragile, dim-witted son who has been accused of murder, the film merges a stunning visual language and use of sound with a brilliant script. It creates a poignant exploration of pure, uncompromising motherly love against the backdrop of a tense, twisted murder mystery, intensified by rare moments of violence.
The biggest disappointment by far this year was Lars von Trier’s latest work, the constrained and increasingly infuriating horror essay Antichrist. Another let-down was Spanish thriller Hierro, which had its premiere at the market. After the first showing was cancelled when a mob of demonstrating French electricity and gas workers blacked out cinemas around the Palais des Festivals, the rescheduled screening revealed an initially decent but ultimately weak and hollow thriller about a woman’s frantic search for her missing son. Eagerly awaited (and hyped) as the latest hit in Spanish cinema’s wave of feral, aggressive and stylised chillers, the film failed to deliver anything like the powerful, subtle and uniquely terrifying experience provided, for example, by last year’s Cannes stand-out, Pascal Laugier’s controversial French horror tale Martyrs.
All in all, this year’s festival offered a passable feast of gore and horrific thrills, and it was perhaps Park Chan-wook who contributed with the most enthusiasm. His Thirst not merely adds another pleasurable angle to the renewed interest in the vampire genre but shows signs of Park getting back to form, with a style that is reminiscent of his wildly imaginative, brooding Vengeance trilogy. It’s a tale of a troubled and sick priest who volunteers for a dangerous medical experiment and who, to his utter disgust, inadvertently becomes a vampire as a result. While the film certainly has its flaws and the plot becomes increasingly erratic and messy, Thirst is a visually riveting and peculiar experience, as indeed the festival was overall.