Cannes Film Festival 2008: Tokyo!, Waltz with Bashir, A Christmas Tale, & More

After the disappointment of Blindness on day one, I enter day two ready to make the most of my time here in Cannes.

Waltz with Bashir
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

After the disappointment of Blindness on day one, I enter day two ready to make the most of my time here in Cannes. I wake up early and work out a plan that will result in me seeing four movies during the day: the Un Certain Regard film Tokyo!, the competition entries Waltz with Bashir and Leonera, and a beach-side screening of Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde. I debate over whether to count Penn’s film in my tally and eventually decide that I will, because four films in one day sounds way more hardcore than three.

Once again, the day starts in a line. This time it’s me, alone, waiting to get into Tokyo!. I’m alone because as soon as my roommate and I walked up to the Debussy Theatre, where the Un Certain Regard premieres are held, an exiting patron handed him a ticket to the screening. Lucky bastard. If I don’t get in, I’m gonna be pissed.

I do get in, but I’m still pissed, because while there may not be a bad seat in the Lumiere, the same can’t be said of the Debussy. By the time the guards let the cinephiles into the theater, the only seats left unfilled are those in the extreme wings, and the design of the theater results in the viewers in these seats being able to see only half of the screen. I’m not about to watch an entire movie with only half of the required visual information, so I’ve got two options. I can either leave and try to get into the Director’s Fortnight repertory screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, or I can sit on the floor by the entrance and watch from there. Since I’m already seeing one older movie today, I side for the latter.

The recent surge in the number of omnibus films, especially at festivals, is a trend I find baffling. It isn’t because I don’t understand the appeal behind them; the chance to see how different auteurs’ sensibilities affect their approaches to a single subject sounds fascinating. In theory. The problem is, these movies just don’t tend to be very good. At best they’re uneven, with a strong miss-to-hit ratio, and the hits are rarely strong enough to justify sitting through the misses. Tokyo!, an omnibus film featuring submissions from Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho, fits the trend perfectly.

The film kicks off with Gondry’s segment, a chronicle of a couple’s attempts to find work in the city. The boyfriend is a struggling director working in a gift-wrapping store; the girlfriend is unemployed, and her feelings of uselessness form the emotional core of the segment. Gondry displays a surprising understanding of the resentment that can form in relationships, but the way in which he resolves the conflict is pure Gondrian whimsy. How you respond probably depends on how well you can handle his unfiltered sensibility. I was torn between annoyance and awe, just as I was during The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind.

There was no such conflict in my response to Leos Carax’s segment, the appropriately-titled Merde (“shit” in French, for those who don’t know), one of the most unbearably shrill, unfunny things I’ve ever seen. It deals with a sewer-dwelling beast known only as Mr. Merde (Denis Lavant) who emerges from underneath Tokyo to terrorize its citizens. Eventually he is captured and put on trial, where he explains his motivations, which involve both religion and misanthropy. The film is packed with broad, irritating jokes and performances, none of which show even a hint of nuance or intelligence. Carax clearly intends the film as an allegory for terrorism, but he has nothing new or interesting to say on the topic. Did you know that it’s widespread and terrifying, that it’s based on blind and illogical faith, and that killing one terrorist does not stop the entire movement? No? Then you are the ideal audience for this film. You are also, not coincidentally, an idiot.

I would have bolted for the exit during Carax’s segment were it not for the knowledge that the final one was directed by Bong Joon-ho, the man responsible for the terrific Memories of Murder and The Host. I’m glad I stuck around, because his segment ranks as one of the best things I’ve seen at the festival. The story of a hermit drawn out of his shell by a beautiful pizza delivery girl, it is by far the most formally accomplished segment of the three, filled with striking, lovely images. It is also the most emotionally nuanced, staking out a moving plea for engagement with the outside world and connections with other people. It would’ve taken a masterpiece to completely wash the sour taste of Carax’s film out of my mouth; Bong’s didn’t do that, but it came close, which is pretty extraordinary in itself.

Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, the second Competition release to screen at the festival, has received some of the most passionate responses of any film thus far. And although it is unquestionably an interesting work, especially in its often-stunning visual style, I’m afraid that I can’t quite join in the chorus.

The only animated film in Competition this year, Waltz with Bashir deals with Folman’s attempts to remember his role in the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shantila refugee camps in Lebanon. It is structured as a series of interviews between Folman and other soldiers broken up by subjective presentations of what occurred during the war. It is a daring structure but one that Folman doesn’t quite have the skill to pull off; the film frequently feels rough and disjointed in its narrative thrust.

The recreations of events are the finest moments in the film. In the interview scenes, the animation style, which was accomplished through a mix of flash animation and both 2-D and 3-D rendering, can appear unpolished and sloppy. In the recreations, it is bold and gorgeous, like a graphic novel come to life. The visuals in these moments are so striking that they seem to have blinded many critics and viewers to the film’s shortcomings.

Like Blindness before it, Waltz with Bashir suffers from a lack of subtlety. The film is little more than a straight-forward condemnation of the horrors of war, made slightly more powerful by the self-critique at the heart of Folman’s project. But Folman too often resorts to obvious statements of theme, and a late-film shift to live-action footage of the massacres is especially blunt and ill-advised. It is difficult, in this day an age, to make an anti-war statement seem essential or even fresh. It takes more than simply telling, saying, or even showing the devastation it causes, and for awhile I thought that Folman had found a way to add a fresh voice to the discussion. When he shifted to live-action, he told me that he did not. Waltz with Bashir doesn’t look quite like anything else around, but there’s still nothing new here.

“Come on, you asshole,” I can hear you saying. “You’re at the Cannes Film Festival. Do you have to be so grouchy all the time?” Good question, anonymous commentator, and by way of response I say this: Martina Gusman’s lead performance in Pablo Trapero’s Leonera, around which the film is built, is the kind of acting that breaks hearts, drops jaws and wins awards. With her work in this film, Gusman becomes the early front-runner for Cannes’ Best Actress prize, and if I see a better performance all festival I will be very surprised.

With that out of the way, I do feel obligated to report that nothing else in Leonera stands out as much more than solid. The title, which is Spanish for “lion’s den,” refers to a prison for women with children, a sort of jail/daycare, where the pregnant Julia (Gusman, also Trapero’s wife) ends up after being charged with murdering her boyfriend and assaulting his male lover (Rodrigo Santoro, also quite strong). It’s a unique approach to the women-in-prison film, but that doesn’t prevent Trapero from lazily utilizing some of the genre’s more outrageous conventions, from horny lesbians to frequent catfights.

Julia’s evolving relationship with her son provides the film with an emotional focus as it goes through the motions detailing the circumstances surrounding her trial (Trapero never explicitly reveals whether or not Julia is guilty of the crimes of which she is accused, although there is no question where our sympathies are meant to lie), and Gusman wrenchingly balances Julia’s strength and dignity with her desperation to maintain custody of her child. At the end of the screening, the film and the filmmakers received a standing ovation. I was clapping too, but my applause was directed at only one person.

Then I watched Bonnie & Clyde on the beach. Maybe you’ve seen it. It’s pretty good.

[Note: Since I’m already pretty behind and Internet access is so scarce here, I’ve decided to dump the journal format and just stick with short reviews of the movies I’ve seen. If it’s good enough for Glenn Kenny, it’s good enough for me.]

After a somewhat lukewarm day two, filmwise, day three got started off with a bang. Actually, “bang” may not be the correct word, because Three Monkeys, like Ceylan’s previous films Distant and Climates, is slow and methodical, and filled to the brim with emotionally-charged pauses and long silences. But “day three got started off with a lot of emotionally-charged pauses and long silences” just doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Still, compared to the gorgeous but emotionally dry Climates, Three Monkeys seems almost conventional, at least from a narrative point of view. It deals with a family, the father of which goes to jail after being paid to take the fall for a hit-and-run accident committed by his employer, a prominent Turkish politician. While in jail, the man’s son begins hanging out with a street gang, and his wife carries out an affair with the politician. Once he is released, he must deal with the consequences of these events, which gets even harder once the politician turns up murdered.

It sounds like the stuff of a pulp novel, but Ceylan’s style never allows for straight-forward narrative process. The title refers to seeing, hearing and speaking no evil, a metaphor for how the family deals with its situation and provides Ceylan with the basis of his formal strategy. None of the tragedies that occur throughout the film are presented on screen; instead, we are shown the characters’ reactions to them. Ceylan is interested in exploring the nature of truth and denial, and he repeatedly is able to craft the perfect images to fit his themes. Characters are often isolated in the frame, either in long shots or extreme close-ups, and the stylized, grim color scheme results in some absolutely stunning images. Among the most beautiful recent films I’ve seen, Three Monkeys is my favorite of the fest so far.

For many people, the favorite seems to be Desplechin’s new film, a sprawling, character-driven fable of healing and forgiveness. Like Desplechin’s last feature, the terrific Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale runs for well over two hours and still manages to pack in enough emotions, character relationships and formal experimentation for a film two hours longer. It’s exciting cinema, but it can just as easily be seen as unfocused as thrilling. Still, even if A Christmas Tale sometimes (okay, frequently) seems more than a little messy, there’s enough life on display here that it’s hard to begrudge Desplechin his excesses.

A Christmas Tale focuses on a family that comes together at Christmas when matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is diagnosed with cancer. Junon’s husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) wants everyone to get along, but his children’s complicated relationships make that unlikely. Henri (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is the black sheep, removed from contact with the family by his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, also from Diving Bell). The youngest brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) is in town with cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto), who is still in love with Ivan’s wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni).

There are too many complications within these relationships to detail within the course of one review. A Christmas Tale is a complex film, but it can’t decide whether it wants to be a realistic one or not. Many of Desplechin’s characters behave illogically or react to situations in ways that occasionally stretch belief. It is a slight step back from Kings and Queen, which had the emotional core to support its experimentations. Despite a number of terrific performances (Amalric is especially good) and an undeniably moving finale, A Christmas Tale never quite reaches those heights.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Matt Noller

Matthew Noller is a senior associate in the Sacramento office of King & Spalding and a member of the firm’s Government Matters practice.

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