Cannes 2009: Lonely Billboards and the Cinema of the Past
Scott Macaulay, just returned from a week on the Croisette, considers the films, prizes, trends and lessons to be learned at this year’s edition of the biggest film festival in the world.
There were happy, or at least gently reflective, films at Cannes this year — the festival opened with Pixar’s Up and the Competition included Ken Loach’s crowdpleaser about a Manchester United soccer fan pulling together his life, Looking for Eric; Alain Resnais’s delightful, multi-stranded Wild Grass; Ang Lee’s forthcoming Focus Features comedy, Taking Woodstock; and even Jane Campion’s lushly visualized romance between poet John Keats and lover Fanny Brawne, Bright Star (even if it ends in tragedy) — but when it came time for the awards, the jury went for one of the darkest and most troubling of cinematic visions. Austrian director Michael Haneke won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, for The White Ribbon, an austere black-and-white drama about the odd and violent goings-on in a small, Protestant German town in the years just prior to the outbreak of World War I. In discussing the film, critics referenced Bergman and Dreyer but also Lord of the Flies and, funnily but appropriately, Our Town. Haneke, with a patient and deliberative rhythm, shows us a group of characters – landowners and farmers, adults and children, a clergyman and his following — as their social and family relations are steadily infected by a pervasive malice. The film says something about the German character heading into the horrors of the first half of the 20th century as it also, with its narrator who admits his recounting is a mixture of first-person observation and rumor, comments on the unknowability of evil. The jury was headed by actress Isabelle Huppert (who starred in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher) and included actresses Asia Argento, Robin Wright Penn, and Shu Qi; directors Lee Chang-Dong, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and James Grey; and author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi.
The runner-up prize, the Grand Prix, was given to Jacques Audiard’s The Prophet, a widely praised and tough-minded French crime drama from the director of The Beat My Heart Skipped that critics compared to Goodfellas. The Jury Prize was a tie between two films: Andrea Arnold’s teen-girl coming-of-age tale Fish Tank, and Park Chan-wook’s bloody vampire thriller, Thirst (forthcoming in the States from Focus Features in July); ironically, both directors won the exact same award with their earlier films (Red Road and Old Boy, respectively). Best Actress went to the fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg, who appeared in perhaps the Competition’s most shocking film, Antichrist, by director Lars Von Trier. (In her speech, she thanked her late father, the French singer Serge Gainsbourg, who, in the course of his long career was no stranger to scandal.) The film is a psychological horror movie dealing with madness, sexual fear and loathing that begins with the death of a child while her parents (played by Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) are having sex nearby. It also features female genital mutilation and a talking fox. Christoph Waltz won Best Actor for his role as the Machiavellian Nazi “Jew hunter” in Quentin Tarantino’s irreverent monument to the mythmaking properties of cinema, Inglourious Basterds, again demonstrating the director’s ability to rediscover and reinvent his performers. (Prior to Tarantino’s film, Waltz was mostly known for supporting parts in German TV series and soaps.) Waltz thanked his character, “Hans Landa, and his creator, Quentin Tarantino — you gave me my vocation back.” Best Screenplay went to Mei Feng for Lou Ye’s gay-themed drama Spring Fever, and perhaps the biggest jury shocker came with the announcement of its award for Best Director: the Filipino helmer Brillante Mendoza, whose Kinatay, the story of a man who fails to prevent a stripper from being graphically raped, tortured and beheaded, was decried by many critics, including Roger Ebert, who called it “the worst film in the history of Cannes.” The 87-year-old Alain Resnais was awarded a prize, not one for his Competition comedy but a lifetime achievement citation for his body of work, which has included such cinema-changing classics as Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Night and Fog, Muriel and Mon Oncle d’Amerique.
As much as Cannes represents the pulse of contemporary international art cinema, there was a sense this year that that cinema may be a cinema of the past. At 37, Xavier Giannoli, whose powerful French crime drama with Gerard Depardieu, In the Beginning, played in the Competition, was the youngest director there, and most of the others were at least two or three decades older. Additionally, all of the Competition directors had appeared in the section before. One had to look to other sections for younger talent, like Director’s Fortnight where the twenty-five-year old Joshua Safdie, this time directing alongside his brother Benny, played for the second time in two years with his latest, Go Get Some Rosemary, and where 19-year-old Canadian director Xavier Dolan won three awards for his debut feature, I Killed My Mother. Also appearing in Director’s Fortnight, but as an actor, was American director Ronnie Bronstein (Frownland), who starred in the Safdie brothers’ film and who attended Cannes for the first time. Although Bronstein comments in the film’s press notes that this performance may be his only screen acting venture, audiences liked the movie and his winning portrayal of a scattershot, in-over-his-head dad. “I’m still making heads or tails of the experience,” he wrote to me on his return home. “For one, I was extremely lucky to be moored to Benny and Josh throughout the trip, feeding off their buoyant energy (rather than compulsively nursing my own fear and self-consciousness, which I have a tendency to do). I watched the movie with my hands netted over my eyes, embarrassed by the look of my face and the sound of my voice. And yet I shamelessly preened like a peacock whenever someone stopped me on the street to complement me. The whole thing was like drinking ice-water and hot tea in manic alternate gulps.”
Favoring the old and with the new yet to bust down the door, Cannes this year found the film business at a crossroads, buffeted by the economic crisis but still possessing deep reserves of glamour and worldwide media appeal. So, while Brad and Angelina sauntered up the red carpet, producers and executives huddled in the nearby hotels and in the basement of the Palais to hammer out deals to films both made and not-yet-produced. For one sales agent vet I talked to, technology and the treacherous business environment had stripped some of the conviviality from the Cannes market. “Everyone is connected through email, Twitter and Facebook,” she told me, “so when they see you on the street they no longer feel the need to stop and hear what you are up to. At the same time, meetings take three times as long because everyone has to keep stopping and checking their iPhones and Blackberrys.” Brutal on a less personal but more dollars-and-cents level were the public demands of the Russian buyers who, due to the collapse of the ruble, were insisting that American sellers discount their contractually agreed upon prices by as much as 90%!
The general takeaway this year was that, just like stock market investors, there is among film buyers a “retreat to quality.” “Just being at the dance won’t get you a date,” quipped American producer Noah Harlan, who conveyed the buzz he heard from a top foreign sales agent and a U.S. agency indie financing and packaging rep. “The top end is doing pretty well but there are few films at the top,” Harlan emailed me during the fest. “There are pockets of niche product that are moving. Everything else is totally flatlined.” So, films with stars, perceived broad appeal, and from companies able to reliably guarantee their production and distribution won out over more speculative projects. The former category included films like John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to Shortbus, Rabbit Hole, a drama starring Nicole Kidman from Summit, and Focus Features’ Kevin Macdonald-helmed historical thriller, Eagle of the Ninth.
Signage and promotion in general seemed subdued this year. Some of the billboards felt a little lonely, like the one for Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which sat at the end of a long pier. And for whatever reason, street photographers gathered in front of the Carleton hotel where, inexplicably, a winter-themed display for Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol seemed to be the favored spot for vacationing couples to be photographed. There were fewer lavish promotional events this year, and I heard reports that restaurants and clubs along the Croisette (the main street, lined with luxury stores and which seems to have the highest ratio on Earth of impossibly-stilettoed young women to balding middle-aged men) were calling sales companies and offering them free party spaces just to get people in the door. But that also meant that the parties that did occur were frenzied madhouses that certainly created the sensation that the films or events they were celebrating were hot tickets. Harvey Weinstein reportedly manned the door of the over-stuffed Inglourious Basterds bash, where even some cast members had problems getting in, and I watched a jittery security guard make menacing moves on a gate jumper at the American Pavilion party, which I imagined would be a sedate affair due to its strange scheduling: it began at 2:00 AM and ended at 7:00 AM with a “sunrise breakfast.” I was wrong — full of directors, the programmers from the Director’s Fortnight, reps from the Wild Bunch and other top companies, it was a very pleasant beach soiree. Meanwhile, some of the truly big events happened just out of town. For the first time, the American Foundation for Aids Research (AmFar) held their event at the Eden Roc Hotel in nearby Cap d’Antibes, where Annie Lennox performed for the $1,000 ticket buyers, and where, under the strict eye of host Sharon Stone, Bill Clinton auctioned off his saxophone for the charity.
Cannes is always the place for high-profile announcements, and this year it provided perhaps the most elegant form of “soft launch” for Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad’s new specialty distribution label — they picked up the Campion film for the U.S. despite the fact that their company does not yet even have a name. Martin Scorsese, who was in Cannes to present a restored version of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, held a press conference to announce that his World Cinema Foundation, headed by Kent Jones, will be teaming with two online distributors, B-Side Entertainment and The Auteurs, to present other restored films via the internet. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s former star Jerry Lewis was holding his own press conference nearby to announce his return to the screen in an indie drama, Max Rose, to be directed by Daniel Noah. The conference, I heard, was a hilarious, raucous affair; when Lewis remarked that more people might be at the Scorsese event, one audience member shouted, “Jerry, you’re still the King of Comedy!” Lewis hoisted his Oscar for all to see and at one point turned a broken wine glass into an unexpected sight gag, concealing the break and asking the waiter to refill it and then doing a double take as the wine spilled all over the white tablecloth.
Back to the future, though – or at least its uncertain presence at this year’s festival. I moderated a talk at the American Pavilion on new forms of digital distribution — the kind that Scorsese has organized his World Cinema Foundation initiative around — titled “New Platforms for Filmmakers: Are They Working Yet?” Although there was a lot of talk on the panel about the potential of new forms of delivery, like digital downloading and VOD, most people agreed that for the kind of art cinema that is found in Cannes, the revenue numbers are not at the point where they are compensating for what is being lost in a world of declining DVD sales and diminished foreign sales revenues. Undeniably, though, platforms like IFC’s Festival Direct and streaming ventures like The Auteurs are the way the industry is going. One panelist, Liesl Copland from Endeavor, discussed films that have scored big using internet distribution such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, an Oprah-endorsed phenomenon which, reversing the usual order, moved from an initial release online at $39.95 to cheaper and more mass market forms of distribution. So far, more conventional dramatic narrative features have yet to experience this same level of breakout success.
If there’s one film I saw that felt like something of the future it was Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, a decadent Tokyo riff on the Tibetan Book of the Dead about a drug dealer whose soul floats around the city and into his stripper sister’s life after he’s killed in a police shoot-out. Noé, the director of Irreversible and I Stand Alone, has been working on the film for over a decade, and, influenced by Kubrick, psychedelics and video games, he has made a dark, troubling but also hypnotic and enveloping immersive space for adult viewers. With its impossibly agile camera horizontally tracking over buildings and through walls before tilting vertiginously into apartment spaces and back alleys, and with a first-person, over-the-shoulder point-of-view familiar to anyone who has played an X-box shooter, Enter the Void is both metaphysical and seedy, loopy and profound. Mostly dispensing with or radically altering conventional notions of shot structure, scenes, character development and film storytelling in general, it is a trippy experience that proves filmic sensory overload can be created by more than robots and 3D creatures, suggesting that the big-screen theatrical experience still has some life in it for open-minded arthouse viewers.