Cannes 2012: Italian realities, American dreams
Cosmopolis, On the Road, Reality, Killing Them Softly
Welcome to a strange society: a world rigidly segregated where the population identifies themselves via a visible colour code: yellow, blue, white and red. Some have whispered that it is possible after the correct genuflections to the appropriate authorities to move from yellow to blue but the whispers are met with frank disbelief and no one would ever claim to move from yellow to red, and certainly not white. At the top of the hierarchy, the elite require no such colour coding; they are kept apart, protected, ushered from one place to the next, gawped at, worshipped, glimpsed, but occasionally exposed to the foulest abuse.
Welcome to Cannes: a miniature ten-day world, with its own police force, rules, protocol and gods. It is an alternate reality and through its various portals, the theatres LumiÃ¨re and Debussy, BuÃ±uel and Bazin, as well as the zombie, kung fu and soft porn infested market underworld, we go to our other realities.
Matteo Garrone’s Reality is an apt starting point. Badly misrepresented as a comedy, or worst still a satire, Garrone’s film is actually a Neapolitan slice-of-life drama, a mash of Visconti’s neo-realistic social concern wedded to a Fellini-esque portrait of an Italy of cheerful artifice and familiar and familial performance. Luciano (Aniello Arena) is a man on the make, who between illegal scams and his fishmonger’s stall has provided his family with some measure of security. However, when he reluctantly agrees to audition for Big Brother the lure of easy celebrity proves gradually corrosive, not only to everything he holds dear but his own sanity. The tackiness of reality television is only passingly attacked, taken as a given as in the vacuity of Enzo, a former house mate and local celebrity, with his luridly insincere English catchphrases. Garrone’s project is actually more subtle and ambitious than that. His target is a society that has been prepared by centuries of sanctified credulousness and the hypocrisy of the ‘bella figura’ (the cool Italian version of ‘keeping up appearances’), and consequently made ripe for amoral exploitation by Endemol and its ilk.
If Garrone’s film is ultimately a pessimistic portrayal of how an individual can be crushed by an oppressively realised alternate reality, Behn Zeitlin’s ecstatic debut Beasts of the Southern Wild is a paean to irresponsible freedom and youth; a childhood of slinging fireworks about and setting things on fire; an adventure that should end in tears, except for a brisk optimism and a tough-minded resolution not to shed a single one, goddammit. Hushpuppy lives with her daddy, in the Bathtub – a cross between skid row and a hippy commune located below the flood line in Louisiana. Physically, socially and geographically marginalised, the inhabitants of the Bathtub are heroic in their insistence on their freedom and way of life. This is the authentic Huckleberry Finn version of American freedom that would see the wheezy, flatulent Tea Party poseurs run a mile if they ever caught sight of it. The world is falling to pieces though, and ancient beasts are awakening. A storm is coming and, with her daddy ailing, Hushpuppy must prove herself.
Another version of American freedom came with the big Hollywood entries into the Official Competition. On the Road was a worthy, well-made, beautifully crafted, handsome yawn. It takes Jack Kerouac’s source novel unjustifiably seriously, its whole point being the writing of On the Road, which gives the whole project an overbearing air of self-congratulation while neglecting the question: if that was the point of the film, what was the point of the book? Was it so Walter Salles could make this film? Everyone is too handsome or pretty; the intellectuals wear glasses, funerals are held in the rain, books are placed with their covers in view as if the film is trying to impress us on a first date with the fact it reads Proust. Ultimately, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) just becomes John Boy Walton, intoning chunks of his own novel as an older and wiser man over a lovingly produced Merchant Ivory reconstruction of an imaginary era.
The anti-road movie was given by David Cronenberg’s gridlocked Cosmopolis. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a billionaire financial trader who sets out on a journey by limousine across New York’s traffic-strangled streets in order to get himself a haircut. Of course, this is not a journey so much as an odyssey into the dark heart of the American dream. Taken from possibly Don DeLillo’s worst novel, the politics seem outdated rather than topical. The protest movement comes from central casting; the gobs of social commentary is smugly convoluted and blankly intoned and the secret admiration for Packer, who resembles nothing more than Patrick Bateman’s weedier brother, feels (like much of the film) to have more to do with the 80s than the present crisis.
A much tighter criticism of the USA as a capitalist sink hole came with Andrew Dominik’s self-consciously un-epic genre piece Killing Them Softly. The crime drama tells a well-rehearsed tale of the knocking over of a mob-run card game and the consequences that follow. The story is familiar. In fact, Cogan (Brad Pitt), the enforcer called in by the mob, is so familiar with it that he gives us a pretty accurate précis of what’s going to happen before it even gets going. The interest is in the brilliantly played ensemble who create an underworld reality of criminals and their own rules. There might be changes, crises, murder even, but in opposition to Cronenberg’s infantile lusting for the apocalypse, Dominik is as clear-eyed as Cogan in seeing all this as no more than business as usual.
Other self-sustaining realities came in the shape of the Romanian religious community that featured in Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills and the dilemmas of Byelorussian partisans in the fascinating In the Fog, directed by Sergei Loznitsa. Both films indulge in long takes, a creeping pace and an acting style that could be kindly described as naturalistic or could perhaps more accurately be called monotonous, but whereas Loznitsa’s film gains a hypnotic power from these choices, Mungiu’s manages only to replicate the stultifying oppressiveness of the community he portrays.
Stylistically similar, but to far stronger effect, was the winner of Un Certain Regard, After Lucia, directed by Michel Franco. Set in Mexico, the film tells the story of Alejandra (Tessa la Gonzales), a 15- year-old girl who has moved to a new town with her father following the death of her mother in a car accident. At first things go well: she is welcomed to the school and makes friends with a bunch of rich kids, but following a drunken tryst she finds herself the target of her class for all sorts of abuse. The film is an unrelenting and often harrowing depiction of the psychopathology of bullying. The cruelty of adolescents has rarely been so effectively captured. The reality of the school and her peers is entirely separate from the glibly indifferent school authorities and her affectionate father, who is overwhelmed by his grief. Alejandra’s isolation is complete and as her ordeal worsens, the film becomes necessarily difficult to watch, but there is nothing here that we won’t recognise as a more extreme version of something we ourselves experienced or committed not that long ago.
The worst film of the festival was the arrogantly stupid Confessions of a Child of the Century. Directed by the previously talented Sylvie Verheyde, this period drama with no feel for its period is destroyed from within by a central performance by Peter Doherty as Octave, the libertine who falls in love and then becomes obsessively jealous and so on. Doherty is so bad you’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t Peter Doherty: not only can’t he deliver the lines with any sense of conviction, he can’t even wear a hat convincingly. The routinely awful Charlotte Gainsbourg as Brigitte, the object of his affections, actually seems quite good by comparison. And what is it about period films that they are now so fascinated with the weather?
Incidentally, the weather at Cannes this year was the worst in 15 years.