And I thought Another Year was grim. Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first film since winning Cannes’s Best Director prize for Babel in 2006, makes Leigh’s film seem downright cuddly in comparison. Working for the first time in years without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Biutiful thankfully sheds the showy fragmented narratives and we-are-all-connected thematic nonsense that Arriaga brought to 21 Grams and Babel. Unfortunately, González Iñárritu has not lost his proclivity for outrageously deterministic melodrama. Biutiful is a relentless, unrevealing battery of unmodulated miserabilism, a pointlessly dour slog willing to do anything it takes to cynically manipulate its audience.
Javier Bardem—frontrunner for the fest’s Best Actor prize by default, though he is quite excellent—stars as Uxbal, a man with the ability to tap into the afterlife and communicate with the recently deceased. At the beginning of the film, he is diagnosed with a terminal case of what appears to be late-stage prostate cancer. Given just months to live, he tries to hide the bad news from his two children. To provide for them, he earns pocket change performing budget séances for grieving families, supplementing that meager income by providing immigrant labor to a Chinese sweatshop.
Not content with just giving Uxbal cancer and two kids (of whom he has sole custody) to support, Iñárritu also saddles him with a dead father to cremate and a brother who is fucking his wife. (The wife, incidentally, is a bipolar ex-junkie whose parenting style involves a whole lot of neglect and physical abuse.) Oh, and Uxbal is also responsible for protecting the immigrants responsible for selling the goods the sweatshop makes by bribing the police; and when one salesman is arrested and deported, Uxbal takes it on himself to house and provide for the man’s wife and infant child.
There isn’t a single moment in Biutiful where one can’t feel the director pulling the strings, piling melodramatic contrivance on top of melodramatic contrivance, all the better to browbeat the audience into submissive tears. Things reach their nadir when there’s an accident, to some extent Uxbal’s fault, that results in a number of deaths. But this never feels like anything but a device; the accident is only treated as tragic to the extent that it affects Uxbal and the one victim he knew personally, and Iñárritu couldn’t seem less concerned with the other victims except for insofar as they are dramatically expedient.
All of this is perhaps more obnoxious for the fact that Iñárritu is a genuinely talented craftsman with a strong sense of place and texture. It’s his dramatic instincts—humorless, dour, and never content to suggest something when shoving the audience’s face in it will suffice—fail him every time. Bardem does his best to wrench some genuine pathos from the proceedings, but it’s the equivalent of a piano virtuoso banging on the same shrill note for two and a half hours. At a certain point, there’s just nothing he can do.
I admit that my positive reaction to Stephen Frears’s adaptation of Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel Tamara Drewe may have been somewhat affected by the relief it provided from González Iñárritu’s dark slog. Even without that context, though, I suspect I would have been won over by the film’s frothy wit. Set on a farm in a dull British town, Tamara Drewe follows the locals on the farm—Nicholas (Roger Allam), a smarmy, philandering prick of a trash novelist; his hardworking wife Beth (Tamsin Grieg); and their hunky gardener Andy (Luke Evans)—and the amateur writers who gather at the farm for an annual retreat, foremost among them an academic named Glen (Bill Camp), who is struggling with a book on Thomas Hardy. Things get a little more complicated when newspaper columnist and former resident Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) returns from London, sporting a brand new nose job, to work on her first novel. Naturally, the arrival of this spunky city girl wreaks havoc on the sleepy little town. Meanwhile, two bored teenage girls (Charlotte Christie and the exceptional Jessica Barden) dream of shagging rock stars and play reckless pranks on the townsfolk. Tamara Drewe is insubstantial but highly enjoyable, getting by on good cheer, a pitch-perfect cast, and a sharp script. Its emotional punch is limited to a loving empathy for the boredom of growing up in the small town, but I was also oddly moved by its implicit defense of intellectualism and personal expression as essential aspects of art.
Is Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism art, a film, a video installation, or just posturing pseudo-philosophical claptrap? I have no idea. It’s not often that I leave a film having been completely unable to engage with what I saw, but that’s where I find myself now. Rumored to be Godard’s last film, Film Socialism adheres to the general style of contemporary Godard (an essay film with aggressive dialectical montage, a complete disregard for narrative, “characters” who speak “dialogue” consisting solely of Godardian aphorisms) but is 10 times as abstruse as previous efforts like In Praise of Love and Notre Musique.
I’m not going to actually review Film Socialism, as any type of critique I could make would be fundamentally worthless. To praise it would be to pretend to understand something I did not; to attack it would amount to no more than a superficial dismissal. Neither of those options is acceptable to me. What I will do instead is simply describe, as best I can, what few surface details I was able to ascertain on one viewing.
First things first: If you haven’t liked Godard’s contemporary films up to this point, Film Socialism seems unlikely to sway you. If you’re a fan, you will at least be familiar with his techniques here. As you have probably heard elsewhere, Film Socialism is “subtitled” only in the loosest possible meaning of the word; the dialogue is in several different languages, primarily French, and maybe half of it has been translated into English. What has been translated is presented in a disjointed pidgin English (“German Jews black,” “nocrimes noblood,” and “aids tool for killing blacks,” to give you some idea). It’s virtually incomprehensible if you don’t speak French, and I have no idea if this technique is a commentary on modern international communication, a linguistic expression of his dialectical philosophy (word fragments clashing and relating), or just a petulant baise-toi to unilingual Anglophones.
Film Socialism appears to be divided into three sections. The first takes place on a cruise ship, where passengers from different countries interact. The second involves a film (or news) crew hanging around a home, attempting to film and interview the family. The third travels to Egypt, Palestine, Odessa, “Hell as” (a pun on the Greek word for Greece, as well as on hélas, the French word for “alas”), Naples, and Barcelona. Throughout, dialogue and image refer, as ever, to nature, historical memory, cinema, art, literature, atrocities (the Holocaust, the Palistinian conflict, the Odessa Steps massacre), imperialism, government and political theory, the French revolution, and the United States’s effect on Europe, among many other things. The film is shot on digital video that ranges in texture from pristine HD to muddy, cellphone-quality footage. Audio is similarly variable, with loud voices and atmospheric noise consistently blowing out the soundtrack. The film ends with a rapid-fire montage of textual intertitles that make a point of not clarifying what came before.
But, of course, a description of Film Socialism can’t come close to approximating the experience of actually watching it. I’ve tried—and failed, I’m sure—to describe what it is; how it feels and what it means are entirely different issues, ones I’m not remotely capable of addressing right now.
Leave it to Abbas Kiarostami, who himself spent most of the 2000s making imposing experimental video projects, to have made the first genuinely great film of Cannes 2010. The Iranian director’s return to narrative filmmaking, Certified Copy is warm and funny while still representing the most controlled artistic and intellectual statement of the festival. Operating on some levels like a Tuscan Before Sunset, it follows an art gallery owner (Juliette Binoche, who richly deserves the Best Actress prize Lesley Manville will probably win) and an English writer (opera singer William Shimell, superb in his first film role) who go on a tour of southern Tuscany after the they meet at a local conference. He is speaking on his recent book, Certified Copy, about the relationship between original works of art and their copies. The book’s argument is that an imitation is just as good as the original, so long as it has the same effect on the viewer; the history of work doesn’t matter—it’s all in how you look at it.
Certified Copy internalizes these notions, acting as a self-aware commentary on art, as well as an examination of reflection, imitation, and performance in love and life. The tour begins in a car, with the characters chatting as beautiful reflections of Italian architecture carve out space in the corners of the windshield. Shots of the pair from within the car recall Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and Ten, a relationship he winkingly acknowledges. “We’re just driving aimlessly,” Binoche observes, then expresses concern that their conversation is distracting from the landscape, at which point Kiarostami cuts to a shot of the countryside. Eventually the car ride ends, and Binoche takes Shimell to a coffee shop. When Shimell steps outside to take a phone call, the owner of the shop mistakes him for Binoche’s husband, and Binoche doesn’t correct her, instead fashioning a narrative of their relationship. Shimell goes with it, and soon the two are playacting as an unhappy married couple on their 15th anniversary.
The transition occurs suddenly and without signal; it takes a little while into their first argument to realize that the two are no longer speaking as themselves but as their characters. The reason for the shift—whether a bit of magical realism, or Shimmell playing along for the sake of an argument, or something else entirely—isn’t explained or even relevant, and to get hung up on practicalities is to miss the point. It’s possible to read their charade as an excavation of their vague personal histories (Binoche has a son but is no longer married, if she ever was, while Shimell’s past is unclear), but what’s certain is that it comes to express their skepticism about love. It also functions as a deconstruction of idealized Hollywood romance. The two bicker, argue about nothing, and express disappointment with what their marriage has become; a scene set in a chateau where young couples are getting married contrasts their youthful hope with Binoche and Shimell’s weariness. It may not be possible to maintain that perfect young romance forever, so you have to do what you can—which means, respect, consideration, and kindness, and not lingering on the missed opportunities, failed plans, or broken dreams. Or, as in the subtitle to Shimell’s book: “Forget the original, and get a good copy.”
Certified Copy is interested in representations and the act of looking, and Kiarostami explores these themes with a stunning formal control. Reflections abound. Faces are framed straight-on, often as characters look at each other or themselves in a mirror. Characters are placed in front of windows or doorways—frames within frames—or off to the side as events occur in planes of action behind them. But Certified Copy is not remotely a dry formalist exercise. For one thing, it’s absolutely gorgeous, wrapping everything in a warm, golden glow. And there’s a playfulness to the film, from the script—with its in-jokes and funny, observant dialogue—to the performances, which are wholly lived-in and naturalistic. It’s that rare marvel: a film as pleasurable as it is sophisticated.