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.”