Cannes 2010: The Festival Stays Strong

By Scott Macaulay | May 25, 2010
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme D’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

On his return from Cannes, FilmInFocus’ Scott Macaulay looks back on the 2010 edition of the world’s most high profile film festival.

Anyone traveling the festival circuit during the last year has picked up on a certain anxiety concerning festivals and their role in today’s film industry eco-system. Should film festivals be more responsive to shifting audience taste, shorter attention spans, and the trend toward watching films on small screens or in their homes, on demand? Should they take note of the economic tsunami that’s been rocking the film business’s established revenue streams with business initiatives of their own? In the States, festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW have been grappling with these issues by partnering with cable and online providers to stream films for home viewers during the festival, or by sending their films on the road, or by programming sidebars of work that breaks with film’s established formats.

Not so Cannes. In what can be viewed, depending on your point of view, as either a weakness or a strength, Cannes remains the same — the film world’s most impressively choreographed spectacle devoted to the premiere of international art cinema. The Palais, where the Competition and Un Certain Regard films screen, remains an imposing monolith, with guards quick to bar the nighttime audience member who didn’t make it back to his hotel for black tie in time. The bar at the Hotel du Cap in nearby Antibes is still filled with the film world’s rotating power elite. And the nighttime parties remain impressively stage-managed simulations of fun, even as the most deep-pocketed hosts change each year. (This year, the most lavish parties were thrown by the Middle Eastern festivals, with Abu Dhabi and Doha organizing the splashiest events. At the latter, Martin Scorsese appeared and then fireworks lit up the sky as the Doha Film Institute announced a three-year partnership with his World Cinema Foundation that will lead to the restoration of culturally significant international classics.)

Given the monumental edifice that Cannes has built for itself over the years, it seems unreasonable to expect Cannes to change. And if it did, could the art film industry survive without the spectacle and aura of importance that the festival provides? In his roundup, Roger Ebert offers his opinion. “I've been to 35 festivals in Cannes,” he writes. “I'll tell you the truth. I doubt if there will even be a Cannes Film Festival in another 35 years. If there is, it will have little to do with the kinds of films and audiences we grew up treasuring. More and more, I'm feeling it's goodbye to all that.”

David Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover represented American indies at the fest

David Mitchell’s The Myth of the American
Sleepover represented American indies
at the fest

All this is not to say that social, technological, and political change was absent from this year’s festival. The online site The Auteurs used Cannes to relaunch itself as the less-Gallic “Mubi” and to announce a plan to bring its rich library of art cinema to the Playstation 3. And one of the festival’s best-received films was Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, the French director’s rousing account of the life of famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It wasn’t eligible for prizes, though, as it played outside of the Competition. Because the five-and-a-half hour film was financed as a three-part TV miniseries and scheduled for cable premiere the day of its Cannes screening, it was deemed ineligible for the Cannes competition — despite the fact, as its sales agent Vincent Maraval told Variety, that French television is the dominant funder for most movies that premiere in theaters.

Smaller kerfuffles surrounded Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, the latest cultural/historical jape from the ornery genius of European cinema. Again repped by Maraval’s company, the Wild Bunch, the film was scheduled to be available on VOD alongside its premiere in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section — a decision that could flaunt French exhibitor law and prevent its theatrical release. But for non-French speakers, the film’s controversies were of a different sort. In Film Socialisme, Godard’s camera prowls a luxury cruise ship full of gaudy vacationers that’s docking at a series of ports in locations ranging from Barcelona to Naples and Odessa. The digital video images range from painterly and beautiful (of the deep ocean) to garish and distorted (the vacationers discoing on the ship’s dance floor), and the sound design is thrillingly jarring, with radical left-right separation and blasts of wind noise when the mic is taken up to the deck. Of the story, I won’t say much due to Godard’s decision to subtitle the film in what was described as “Navajo English.” Long bits of dialogue and literary quotations were reduced to lines like “German Jew Black” or, for “Money was invented so we don’t need to look God in the eye,” “money invented.” Of course, the ability to access meaning is culturally determined, and, as the Navajo allusion might indicate, the American film industry has been complicit in reducing the ability of other cultures to create meaning. That said, for non-French speakers, after about 20 minutes it became hard to take Film Socialisme, which might play better in a gallery context alongside Godard works like Histoire(s) du Cinema, as anything other than a sour provocation.

Jafar Panahi, invited to Cannes as a juror, was jailed in his native Iran and could not attend

Jafar Panahi, invited to Cannes as a juror,
was jailed in his native Iran and could
not attend

If Godard’s message was typically dense, allusive, and often confounding, the Cannes jury made a more direct political statement by placing an empty chair onstage during the awards to symbolize the absence of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who had been invited to be on the jury but was imprisoned in an Iranian jail and undergoing a hunger strike. Iran denounced the festival’s “completely political” actions in their own press release, although, at press time, there are reports that Panahi is being freed on bail.

Panahi’s countryman Abbas Kiarostami also called for Panahi’s release while at the festival with his own Competition film, Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche, and his first picture set outside Iran. In Tuscany, author James Miller (opera singer Williams Shimmell in his film debut) meets a woman (identified only as “Elle”) while promoting his latest book, an intellectual treatise on the relationship between the copy and the original work of art in contemporary culture. The two spend the afternoon together, driving to a small village where they witness a younger couple getting married. When they are misidentified by a waitress as husband and wife, the two decide to play along, drifting into a bitter psychodrama in which they enact the frustrations of a long-married couple. The engaging and sympathetic Binoche deservedly won the film’s Best Actress prize for her work in this slender and somewhat dry piece of cinematic gamesmanship.

The festival’s Jury Prize went to The Screaming Man, directed by Chad’s Mahamet-Saleh Haroun. Middle-aged Adam, a former championship swimmer, spends his days working alongside his son while leisurely tending a hotel swimming pool. When the hotel is taken over by Chinese management, its staff is downsized, and he is demoted to a position manning the hotel’s driveway entry booth. Sad, and financially strapped, Adam is unable to contribute a tithe to support the government’s war effort against advancing rebels — a failure which leads to his son getting drafted and, of course, his own recapturing of his old job at the pool. The Screaming Man’s neorealist ironies advance to full-blown tragedy in an expansive final reel that is a vivid portrait of both the physical and psychic effects of a country at war.

Outside of the Competition were two films dealing with the world financial crisis and its origins in the American sub-prime market. Charles Ferguson followed up his essential Iraq doc No End in Sight with Inside Job. More so than any other documentary about the financial crisis, Ferguson both clearly and vividly lays out the chain of events that lead to the near-collapse of our banking system while also passionately arguing that the behavior of the crises’ main actors in the banking community constitutes criminal activity. What’s more, while lucidly explaining the role of complicated financial instruments like CDOs and derivatives in the crisis, he also draws members of the academic community into his crosshairs, arguing that business school heads provided intellectual cover for the banking industry’s most egregious practices. The more human side of the financial crisis was explored in Cleveland vs. Wall Street, an odd documentary by Swiss director Jean-Stephane Bron. Bron traveled to Cleveland where he staged a cinematic “mock trial” pitting lawyers representing the city and its neighborhoods of foreclosed buildings against those representing the Wall Street banks. The film’s best moments are those in which mortgage recipients described the inducements they received to go deeper into debt but, overall, without someone like Jamie Diamond taking the on-screen stand, the film’s judicial conceit seemed somewhat silly.

Two American indies — David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and Cam Archer’s Shit Year — played in, respectively, the Director’s Fortnight and Critic’s Week. The films couldn’t be more different, but both depend on high degrees of formal control for their effectiveness. In Myth, a group of high-school students cross paths during one long evening during which various sleepovers and all-night parties take place in a small Michigan town. Recalling not only films like American Graffiti but also La Dolce Vita (and for me, the glamorous American naturalism of Friday Night Lights), the beautifully shot and directed Myth of the American Sleepover is less about plot and more about the awkwardness of desire and the vividness of its memory. Shit Year mines a bluer shade of melancholy with its depiction of a middle-aged actress, played by Ellen Barkin, who, after retiring from the Hollywood stage, discovers that she has no real inner life. Stunningly filmed in black-and-white 16mm, the film mixes Barkin’s world-weary musings with bizarre fantasy sequences in which she imagines herself as a subject of some kind of outer-space experiment.

Perhaps my favorite film among those I saw in Cannes (a list which, sadly, did not include well-received titles like Another Year, Biutiful, and the Palme d’Or prize-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) was Sophie Fiennes’ unexpected art documentary, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. Fiennes visits German artist Anselm Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France, where he creates not only his imposing paintings but also astonishing sculptures and installation works on the grounds of a former silk factory and underneath in its industrial sewers and underground corridors. Immersing the viewer into an environment as all-enveloping as Tarkovksy’s The Zone, Fiennes avoids the usual tropes of the artist doc, like gallery shows, talking-head art critics, pedagogical voiceover. Scored to music by Gyorgy Ligeti, Fiennes’ camera snakes among Kiefer’s artworks, occasionally pulling back to allow us to watch the artist and his factory assistants throw dirt, molt steel, and bash metal in order to construct them. To depict an artist whose work is so entwined with history, Fiennes dispenses with context altogether. She concentrates on that which only cinema can do, knowing that, if we are interested, we’ll head to our computers after the screening to learn more about Kiefer’s meanings and methods. By trusting the audience and acknowledging the ubiquity of commentary and criticism online, Fiennes’ film felt to me among the most modern of the festival.

The festival’s Grand Prix went to Xavier Beauvois for his tale of life in an Algerian monastery, Of God and Men; Best Screenplay was awarded to Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry; the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature was awarded to Michael Rowe for Ano Bisiesto; The Best Actor prize was split between Javier Bardem (for Biutiful) and Elio Germano (for La Nostra Vita). The Palme d’Or for Best Short went to Serge Avedikian for his Chienne d’Histoire.

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