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Cannes Film Festival 2008: Changeling, Delta, The Headless Woman, & Che

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Cannes Film Festival 2008: <em>Changeling</em>, <em>Delta</em>, <em>The Headless Woman</em>, & <em>Che</em>

Changeling (Clint Eastwood). Few things over the past week have been more baffling to me than when the solid but deeply flawed Changeling began racking up the most positive reviews of the fest. I’m not sure whether it’s the international press’ tendency to praise Eastwood for anything he does, or whether I was simply too exhausted to recognize that it is, in fact, a near-masterpiece, but there has yet to be another film on which my opinion and the reviews have differed so strongly.

In the first line of his Variety review, Todd McCarthy favorably compares the film to the overwrought Mystic River, which might, despite my inability to see what the hell thematic similarities the films have, help to explain my reservations. Because despite his typically graceful and lovely directorial hand, Eastwood seems, with Changeling, to have embraced his melodramatic side whole-heartedly. Some of the film is beautiful and moving. The rest tends toward the unbelievable and shrill.

The reason for this may be that Changeling is one of Eastwood’s angriest films. The target here is institutional corruption, embodied by the Los Angeles Police Department. Based on actual events, Changeling recounts the story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a 1920s housewife whose child, Walter, is abducted from their home while Collins is at work. After a five-month search, the L.A.P.D. return a child to Collins who they claim to be Walter. Problem is, the child is clearly not her son, and when she complains, the cops send her to an insane asylum in order to get rid of her.

Eastwood is a masterful director, but he loses control of his picture’s tone. For about an hour, he seems to be in top form, but Changeling goes off the rails once Collins is committed. The scenes in the asylum are straight out of a bad horror movie or Girl, Interrupted. Once Collins is released, the film turns into, alternately, a crime procedural and a courtroom drama. Eastwood has proven his adeptness at genre deconstruction before in his anti-western masterpiece Unforgiven, so it is possible that he is executing a similar experiment with melodrama in Changeling. But his overwrought excesses don’t cohere into anything like satire or analysis; they seem instead like the work of a man too passionate about his material to realize that so much of it feels so very false.

Delta (Kornel Mundruczo). I hit a festival wall during the screening of Delta, a Hungarian drama about two long-separated siblings who start an incestuous relationship, dozing off repeatedly throughout its running time. I was awake for enough to get the gist of the narrative trajectory and themes, but certainly not enough to write any sort of real review. So I’ll just say that it’s lovely but very, very slow, and that the relationship between the brother and sister, which draws the ire of their fellow townspeople, seems to function as some sort of allegory for the downtroddens’ resentment of the wealthy. Make of that what you will.

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel). The spare, emotionally distant style that defined Martel’s previous films is stretched to the breaking point in The Headless Woman, which is visually striking but almost entirely unaffecting. Martel’s presentation of her story, about a woman who seems to suffer from some sort of amnesia after striking something or someone in her car, is so bare-bones that the audience is left with hardly any idea what the protagonist’s relationship to the other characters is. Martel’s rigorous formalism remains sharp, but the emotional cohesion of The Holy Girl is all but gone, as is any sense of narrative momentum. It’s hard to care about a character when you know nothing about her, and when nearly every scene of the movie focuses on that character, the result is stifling. The Headless Woman is a look into the psyche of a cipher. What, exactly, is the point of that?

CheChe (Steven Soderbergh). Quite possibly the most anticipated premiere at the festival, Soderbergh’s 268-minute epic biopic is, whatever its flaws, one of the most ambitious and important films from an American director of the past several years. As much an event as a single movie, the still-unfinished version of Che that screened at Cannes was made up of the two individual films that will be released separately in the States.

The first film, The Argentine, covers the successful Cuban rebellion led by Fidel Castro, for whom Che Guevara was a crucial lieutenant. The film cuts between the battle for Cuba and Che’s time as an important member of the Castro government. Controversially, Soderbergh neglects to include—or at least ends before—Che’s work as Fidel’s prosecutor and executor, but the film has little interest in political messages. Rather, it is a rigorous, if somewhat dramatically shapeless document of a social movement and its impact. After a while, the seemingly endless string of similar battle sequences gets repetitive, but Soderbergh’s formal mastery—his preternatural sense of composition, his experimentation with film stocks and other optical tricks—keeps things interesting through the siege of Santa Clara, one of the most thrilling war sequences of recent cinema.

As an account of a successful war effort, The Argentine is structured, both narratively and formally, as a traditional war movie. The images are bright and clear and the presentation of Che the military leader borders on the heroic; it feels like a Hollywood movie, albeit an uncommonly formally accomplished one. On the other hand, Guerrilla, the second film in the diptych, which focuses on the failed Bolivian revolutionary campaign that ended in Che’s death, has its own unique formal qualities. Shot mainly on trembling hand-held camera with a poetic sense for the natural world, it feels at times like a Malickian tone-poem, a depressive funereal dirge for its fallen protagonist. Where The Argentine’s camera is often gods-eye and triumphant, Guerrilla’s is more subjective, more inclined to get up close with the characters as they trudge slowly toward inevitable failure. At Che’s death, we get the first point-of-view shot of the film, as the camera falls to the floor and fades to white.

I’m not sure what I think of that choice, but at least it is one. Che is a messy, challenging, sometimes unfocused work of popular art. It has and will continue to provoke argument, discussion, thought. I’m not sure it’s a great film—for one, I saw both pieces together, where each part reflects and strengthens the other; individually, Guerrilla is the more successful work—but it is a crucial one, from an artist I wasn’t sure would ever do work like this again. Welcome home, Steve. It’s good to have you back.

Since the Festival decided to end the Competition screenings with its worst film (I’m convinced that even Serbis, which I walked out of, is the much more interesting work), that does it for me at Cannes. It was a great but exhausting experience, and I want to thank Matt and Keith for giving me the chance to share it with you. Also, thanks to all the readers and commentators who followed me on this journey. As an aspiring film writer, I feel like a dwarf among giants, a no-name sharing print with some of the finest writers on the web. I hope I held my own okay, and if not, oh well. At least I had fun.

Once more, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.

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