So we’re nearly halfway through the festival, and it’s pretty much agreed across the board that it’s been one hell of an off-year, at least so far. The only competition title—out of the seven that have now screened—that has found any sort of positive consensus is Another Year, which now has to be considered the early favorite for the Palme d’Or. It’s not hard to see why. Despite its flaws, it is, with the possible exception of the genial but slight On Tour, the only film yet offered that even seems to belong in competition—let alone to deserve the festival’s top prize.
The two competition titles screened for the public today—Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man and Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier—typify much of what has been lacking in the fest so far. Both are altogether “worthy” films, and the reason for the scare-quotes is that in this case I mean that as an insult. Both films treat their somber subject matter with the utmost respect, which would be fine if either film actually had anything substantial going on beneath the surface.
A Screaming Man is the threadbare tale of a pool attendant in Chad who, after the hotel at which he works falls under new management, is fired and replaced by his son. “The pool is my life,” he says, and in order to get his job back, he “donates” his son to the army, which is currently fighting a civil war. The film’s dramatic thrust—essentially: Don’t donate your son to the military to get your job back or you’re probably going to feel pretty guilty about it later—is barely enough to motivate a short film, let alone A Screaming Man’s mercifully brief 90-minute runtime. And its political content is glancing at best; there’s an argument to be made that the father’s struggle is an allegory for Chad as a whole, but if that’s the case, then it’s an incredibly superficial critique that does nothing to get at what has caused Africa’s strife or what could be done to fix it.
The Princess of Montpensier is even more hollow, and it runs a full 45 minutes longer. A historical costume romance, Tavernier’s film is a perfect example of the French “Tradition of Quality”—dull, “respectable” literary adaptations or historical dramas—the French New Wave tried to kill off 50 years ago. The Princess of Montpensier certainly feels dead, though that doesn’t stop it from lumbering dumbly around, stretching a gruel-thin love-triangle plot way past its breaking point. Mélanie Thierry stars as Marie, the titular princess, an aristocrat who is married off by her father to Philippe, the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). Trouble is, Marie is still in love with Henri (Gaspard Ulliel), a war hero to whom she already promised her heart and body. And then there’s François, the war deserter assigned to protect and educate Marie, who soon falls in love with the young woman but is quickly rebuffed. The three men battle to earn Marie’s affections, while she struggles to choose between Philippe and Henri. And that’s it, for nearly two and a half hours. There’s exactly one interesting moment in The Princess of Montpensier, when Marie and Philippe’s father consider their business arrangement sealed at the precise instant Philippe breaks Marie’s hymen. But Tavernier does nothing more to advance the idea of patriarchy-as-transaction; it’s just another element passed over as the film trudges dutifully toward its conclusion.
Less serious, but no less hollow or out of place in competition, is Outrage, the latest from Takeshi Kitano, and his first yakuza-centered effort following a stretch of bizarro self-reflexive films. And I guess Kitano was happy to get back to directing gang violence, because that’s literally all there is here. The majority of Outrage follows a simple structure: in one scene, a group of yakuza talk about hurting someone; in the next scene, they hurt that person. (It’s next to impossible to figure out who most of the gangsters are, or what their relationships are to each other, though as usual, the central figure is played by Kitano himself.) The violence comes in several varieties—knife, gun, chopstick—and for a little while, it’s mildly amusing to see the inventive ways Kitano can turn murder and assault into gags. Before long, though, monotony sets in, and by the end, Outrage has regressed into a seemingly endless series of faceless yakuza getting gunned down one after the other. Which is, in its way, every bit as tedious as any half-assed art film.
Like his last film, 2008’s 24 City, Jia Zhang-ke’s Un Certain Regard title I Wish I Knew is a documentary/fiction hybrid about modern-day China. Where 24 City took a personal focus on the citizens of a Chinese town affected by the construction of a high-rise condominium, I Wish I Knew takes a broader view, examining the history of Shanghai as viewed from the present. It combines interviews with citizens, actors, and filmmakers with architectural shots of present-day Shanghai and footage of actress Zhao Tao wandering the city. The film is never less than gorgeous, and there’s often an intuitive and pleasing internal rhythm to how he cuts within and between shots.
It’s also a bit inscrutable, never quite locking down an easy theme or single organizational strategy. In this sense, I Wish I Knew can feel quite a bit like Jia’s version of an essay film, a sprawling commentary on the relationship of the past to the present through such disparate means as memory, political dialectics, storytelling, performance, and film. For the most part, interviewees, rather than talking about themselves, discuss their ancestors and family histories, many of which connect to the civil war between the Communists and Nationalists. These stories are augmented by historical footage and archival inserts, and are often juxtaposed with languorous modern-day sequences depicting the locations being discussed. Later on, Jia turns his focus to cinema, interviewing directors (like Red Persimmon’s Wang T’ung and Flowers of Shanghai’s Hou Hsiao-hsien) and performers who have been involved in Shanghai-set films. He intercuts footage from these films, relating cinematic representations to historical, political, and personal views of the city.
As a largely intellectual project, emotion often takes a back seat in I Wish I Knew. On the whole, its interviews are not nearly as interesting as those in 24 City, largely because Jia seems less interested in his subjects’ stories than in what those stories represent. The film drags at times and, at nearly two and a half hours, is longer than it needs to be. I ultimately prefer the more emotionally engaging 24 City, but I Wish I Knew is a sensuous and thought-provoking experimental documentary, far more deserving of a competition slot than any of the three titles reviewed above.