Pamela Jahn reports back from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Complaining about lacklustre films at festivals is a favourite pastime for critics, but it seems that this year interesting films are genuinely harder to find. Still recovering from a disappointingly underwhelming Berlinale edition in icy February, my hopes were high for a more exciting experience of high-profile festival programming on the bright and bustling Croisette. At least on paper, this year’s line-up didn’t look as predictable as in 2009 where the Competition section primarily featured a handful of established old masters such as Palme d’Or winner Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon), a couple of cine-provocateurs of the von Trier and Tarantino variety and some of the most talked-about up-and-comers. Although there was no unexpected breakout gem to impress jury, critics and audience alike, the festival’s 63rd edition offered a late spate of extraordinary finds and must-sees in the Competition and Un Certain Regard section, as well as in the screenings of the Marché du Film.
Among those were Olivier Assayas’s sprawling, yet thoroughly enjoyable five-and-a-half-hour television docu-fiction Carlos, a compelling portrait of one of the world’s most notorious terrorists of the 1970s and 80s, and Pang Ho-Cheung’s excellent slasher Dream Home, which sees a young woman fight back against Hong Kong’s corrupt property market practices in a vicious and brilliantly dark comical way. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s delicate, dreamy Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives deservedly won the Palme d’Or and – like most of Weerasethakul’s work – stood out as both an artistic and cinematic revelation. Drawing on the Buddhist notion of animism, the film follows an old man in need of kidney dialysis, who returns to the jungle and encounters the ghost of his deceased wife and the monkey spirit of his disappeared son, and also includes a fairy tale about a princess, a slave and a talking catfish. A film of wonderfully subtle emotions, both harrowing and heartening, Uncle Boonmee achieves a soft, yet ambiguous philosophical transcendence that confirms Weerasethakul as one of the most inventive and insightful artist filmmakers of our time.
Among a strong Korean contingent, directors Im Sang-soo and Hong Sang-soo made solid showings with, respectively, The Housemaid and Hahaha, the latter taking home the Un Certain Regard prize. A slick, slow-burning remake of Kim Ki-young’s cult 1960 Korean movie of the same name, Im’s The Housemaid profits hugely from its opulent production design and the performance of Kim Ki-young veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jeong in the role of the elderly housekeeper Byung-sik, yet does not quite produce the exciting result one could have hoped for. Depicting an affair between a rich, narcissistic husband and a newly employed maid, the plot soon turns into a twisted tale of male anxiety, materialism, sexual competition and obsessive psychosis. Perhaps the film is too slickly Hitchcockian for its own good, but there are some great moments, in particular the stunningly violent ending.
Although it was written off by many critics (just like The Housemaid), another notable Competition entry was Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage, his first yakuza gangster film in a decade. Despite the typical crime plot becoming a bit too muddled towards the climax, it was great to see Kitano back on form, both behind and in front of the camera, in what is arguably his most direct and violent film to date.
While Hideo Nakato’s eagerly awaited latest endeavour Chatroom proved very disappointing, one of the strongest films in the Un Certain Regard section was Carancho by Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero, whose Lion’s Den impressed us last year. Although not quite as good as its predecessor, Carancho is a well-crafted, tough-as-nails thriller built around the world of ambulance chasers, corrupt hospitals and unscrupulous lawyers who make their money out of late-night traffic accidents and other calamities. Echoing the style and moral decay of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood film noir, it feels at times like Trapero is a little too caught up in his own ambitions to push social realism on screen beyond its usual thematic and emotional boundaries, and to get the right balance in the web of corruption, murder and love that connects Sosa (Ricardo Darín), a legal vulture who is tired of his job, to young ER doctor Luján (Martina Gusman). But as predictable as the narrative is, the procedural set-pieces in which the culmination of car crashes and the couple’s dangerous liaison play out are shot in a handheld style with great old-school skill and energy, and the intense performances by the two leads make for a gripping film that aptly rings alarm bells for the state of the nation.
Another thoroughly enjoyable find was Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which screened at one of the always well-attended midnight slots. Although the film didn’t turn out to be as stunning and exceptional as one would expect from the American enfant terrible – especially as a follow-up to his wonderful Mysterious Skin – Kaboom spins a totally out-of-this-world narrative of teen sex, drugs, dreams, cuckoo conspiracies and animal mask-wearing cultists. At the centre of this maelstrom is handsome but shy college student Smith, who secretly lusts for his chav surfer roommate Thor, but prefers hanging out 24/7 with his sarcastic lesbian best friend Stella. It’s a candy-coloured, bizarre, chaotic, silly joyride that wins you over instantly once you abandon yourself to its wackiness. Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko might obviously have been influences for Araki here, but Kaboom is way too soft and outright ridiculous to ever draw you in in the same way. Nevertheless, it’s sexy to look at and a fun piece of cinema for short-term pleasure.
When the official festival programme lets you down, Cannes’ Film Market usually offers plenty of distractions. My personal stand-out was David Michôd’s Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, which caught my attention as it had just premiered at Sundance, where it deservedly won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize. Animal Kingdom tells the story of Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) and his entry into a world of armed robbery, drugs and murder as he falls into the care of his two uncles, who are working with their business partner Barry ‘Baz’ Brown to protect their eldest brother, the heinous Pope, from the police. Soon Josh gets caught right in the middle of the conflict, but he quickly realises that the only way to survive is to learn how to play the game. Striking a perfect balance between moments of extreme violence and gut-wrenching drama, Animal Kingdom makes for a riveting, thrilling, and in the end, heartbreaking cinematic experience. You could argue that alone made the trip to Cannes worthwhile.