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Cannes Film Festival 2008: Badges and Blindness

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Cannes Film Festival 2008: Badges and <em>Blindness</em>

My first day at the Cannes Film Festival begins in a line. Me and my fellow students, twenty-five deep, wading in a sea of tiny old French women, waiting to get our badges. Right now my expectations are at once tempered and sky-high. On the one hand: My door to the Cannes Film Festival is about to be opened. On the other: From what I’ve heard about how cinephiles are treated, I would not be surprised if our badges were printed on graham crackers and written with ball-point pen. And since the food here is so expensive, the time may come when a graham cracker sounds delicious.

Thankfully, our badges are pretty legit, if not as nice as the Market and Press badges. I won’t look like an idiot with it on, and hopefully I won’t ever be struck by the urge to eat it. With that out of the way, it’s time to check out the movies. I open up the film schedule, and—what? The official Cannes films don’t start until the 7 p.m. premiere of Blindness. The rest of the films playing today are Market screenings (which means that a distributor paid the festival to let the film be shown in local Cannes theaters). There are no restrictions on quality, and as awesome as Zombie: The Beginning sounds, I decide to spend the day napping until it’s time to beg for Blindness tickets.

At 4 p.m., I head back into Cannes, decked out in my tuxedo, wielding every cinephile’s most treasured possession: a sign, written in Sharpie marker on printer paper, reading “Invitations S.V.P.” I strut up next to the Lumiere Theatre feeling remarkably confident. I’m well-rested, I’m looking good, and I’ve got a sign. France ain’t gonna know what hit it.

Needless to say, I don’t get a ticket to the red-carpet premiere. My date with Julianne Moore will have to wait. I do, however, get a ticket to the follow-up screening at 11pm, which I’m psyched about, but have to wait four hours to see. Luckily, some of the students I’ve gotten close to so far have also failed in their mission, so we’ll at least be bored together. And hungry. It’s time for dinner. As highly-cultured film students trying to get the full French experience, we pick McDonald’s.

At 10:30, we return to the Lumiere, flash our tickets to the guards and walk onto the red carpet. There are no gorgeous celebrities to ogle, but standing here, staring up at the theater, I am quite certain that this is the single greatest moment of my life. We step inside, and it gets even better; Femme Fatale exaggerated the interior of the Lumiere slightly, but not by very much. We’re not even inside the actual screening area yet, and it’s already beautiful. The theater itself, we soon find, is huge, like a sports stadium without the stench of stale beer. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and the screen is absolutely gigantic. I’m so high on the experience right now that I don’t think it would even matter what the film is that we’re about to watch. Which, it turns out, is a good thing, because the film we’re about to watch is Blindness.

By most accounts, José Saramago’s Blindness, which I have not read, is a stunning novel, and I believe it. There’s clearly a great movie to be made from this material, but Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation is not it. Cursed with a constant need to over-enunciate its themes, Blindness is a clear case of a director being, quite simply, out of his league.

This should come as no surprise; Blindness would be a tough assignment even for a really smart director, and Meirelles has always been a fundamentally shallow one. Gifted with a formidable visual sense but little else, he has made his name creating striking, yet intellectually hollow films. His breakthrough hit, City of God, was a derivative, but viscerally exciting Scorsese rip-off, and The Constant Gardener, one of the first of the many recent “white guy in Africa” films, is a prime example of undeniable formal chops used in the service of wrong-headed and offensive ideas.

Blindness is smarter than either of those films, but not thanks to Meirelles. The original story—that of an unnamed country whose citizens are stricken with an infectious disease that causes blindness—is rich with moral and allegorical implications, but Meirelles seems ill-equipped to fully understand or explore them. Instead, he narrows in on a handful of the more obvious themes and then spends two hours hammering them into the ground.

The problems are immediately apparent. The film begins with a voice-over from Danny Glover, in the role of the wise black man (I guess Morgan Freeman was busy). “I don’t think we went blind,” Glover intones. “I think we always were.” Yeesh. Apparently, the film’s conceit isn’t extreme enough to already be a clear metaphor; we need to be told right away. The voice-over returns periodically throughout the film, popping up any time Meirelles feels the need to explain a character’s emotions or emphasize an especially important thematic note.

If you still don’t get it, don’t worry; Meirelles has your back. One of the key motifs of Blindness is the surfeit of stimuli that dominates our lives: traffic, television, radio, white noise. A point is made to distinguish between regular blindness, which results in darkness, and the “white blindness” of the film. The difference is clear: rather than the emptiness that darkness implies, the film’s citizens are driven blind by the buildup of these stimuli; white is, after all, the result of combining every color of the spectrum. Like many of Blindness’s ideas, it’s an interesting one executed poorly. Whereas a work like Don DeLillo’s White Noise approaches this theme with subtlety and tact, Meirelles does so by framing seemingly every shot in as unnatural and cluttered a way as possible. Objects protrude into every corner of the frame, dominating the characters’ environments. It’s a rigorous strategy that results in a few striking images, but it mostly just comes off as showy, as does Meirelles’ tendency to end scenes with a blinding fade to white, an obvious and irritating tactic designed to imitate the characters’ condition, as if we didn’t already have a pretty good idea what that would be like.

These techniques also distance the audience from the characters, who remain nameless throughout. This would be fine if Meirelles had the balls to embrace keeping his audience at arm’s length. But once the protagonists—led by Mark Ruffalo’s doctor and his wife (Julianne Moore), one of the few not stricken by the disease—are shipped off to an asylum for quarantine, Meirelles attempts to draw pathos from their increasingly desperate circumstances. The victims descend into chaos, fighting over food and shelter. A vicious despot (Gael García Bernal) emerges, taking charge of the asylum and hoarding food, exchanging it for valuables and sex.

The idea is, I suppose, to structure the story as an allegory for the creation of civilization, of blindness and chaos eventually leading to knowledge and control. It’s another interesting idea, likely handled exceptionally well in the novel, but Meirelles presents the madness of the asylum in such an obvious way that it’s almost laughable. Many of the events are truly disturbing, but it’s cheap and easy to elicit emotional response through horrifying images. It’s much harder to do so through character and tone. Audience reaction should be earned, not forced, and Meirelles consistently comes down on the wrong side of this line.

The one exception is Moore, who stands out brilliantly among an uneven cast (Ruffalo is wasted, and Bernal is effective but seems to be performing in a different movie). It’s perhaps not a shock that Moore can pull off the role of a suffering housewife, but there’s more to it than that; as she attempts to lead her followers through the tragedy, her face and body gradually register increasing measures of horror, exhaustion, and strength. It’s deep, layered acting, powerful but never showy; Meirelles could learn a thing or two from her.

Matt Noller lives and studies film and journalism in Athens, Georgia. You can also read him at Uh, movies.