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Cannes Dispatch, 2009: Part One

An online exclusive

Top: Vengeance Bottom: Thirst

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


CANNES

At the start of the 62nd festival, the online trade journal indieWIRE posed a quintessentially French conundrum: Does Cannes Matter?

Seeking an answer appears madly inconclusive given the dovetailing, contradictory demands of the various participants. Critics want to see great cinema (or at least, the ones I know do) and they want to discover new talents. The buyers and distributors want accessible movies that are marketable and able to ease into the marketplace.

The fact that a proper and detailed response is so elastic is what makes the festival such a dynamic experience. Cannes is a festival of many parts: How you fit in to the different equation is also part of the festival's enduring appeal. It is precisely that rude, idiosyncratic work the festival is best equipped to champion and privilege. And of course how the people respond is another question not easily answered.

When you arrive, you quickly lose both your inhibitions and any preconceptions about the festival. Before I ever attended, I assumed, given the intellectual strain of art cinema the festival has championed, that many of the critics were open to more formally ambitious works. I remember the ferocious yelling that rained down at the end of Manoel de Oliveira's The Convent in 1995, my first year at the festival.

Thierry Fremaux, the festival’s general delegate, unquestionably believes in the sanctity of the art film. But he's also more open to popular genre movies. A friend of mine remarked after the official selection was unveiled that this year was bound to be the bloodiest Cannes ever. For all the serious and hardcore art movies, the appearance of so many genre works, like Park Chan-wook's Thirst and Johnnie To's Vengeance (their very existence acknowledging the primary of American popular entertainment) is worth getting excited about.

Five years ago, Park's Old Boy captured the devotion of jury president Quentin Tarantino. Park's new film, Thirst — reportedly the first South Korean film to ever draw on production money from an American source — has been one of the highlights of the first two and a half days of the festival. Park is a meticulous craftsman and a very talented director. He's also a serious cinephile, as evidenced by the extended homages to Hitchcock's Vertigo in Old Boy. Thirst is nominally a vampire film, but it's part of his unorthodox manner that he makes a flamboyant piece of work without being mannered. It's also horrifyingly funny.

The early scenes appear steeped in the religious cinema of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer. A pious, devoted young priest (Song Kang-Ho) in a rural community goes to an African outpost to participate as a medical subject on a radical experiment to develop an antibody to infectious strain. He's killed, reanimated as a vampire and repatriated to his Korean community. Elevated by the townspeople who believe he's the lone "survivor" of the killer strain, he is yoked into the middle of a strange, peculiar family —cancer-stricken husband, humiliated wife, domineering mother — that he knew as a young boy.

Already unsettled by his strange, metastasized body, he tries vainly to navigate the emotional and moral consequences of his power (and limitations). The plot kicks into the delirious when he pronounces his love for a woman, portrayed by the beautiful, expressive Kim Ok-Vin. Thirst satisfies on a direct, emotional level, bludgeoning the line between hallucination and reality. It certainly delivers the goods, but it's a soulful movie, built on ideas of absence and emotional vulnerability.

Park remains a gifted stylist. The mise-en-scene, editing, rhythm and camera movements are beautifully designed and choreographed, creating a baroque mélange of the perverse. At 135 minutes, the film is too long, and in need of more pop and a quicker pulse in the second half. It's a horror movie that never really frightens, but instead reaches for a poetic fatalism.

Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro opened the Fortnight. It's Coppola’s first film based on original material since 1974’s The Conversation, the first of two Coppola movies (with Apocalypse Now) to win the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or. Coppola originally turned down the festival's invitation for an out-of-competition screening in the official selection. It's a promising and highly interesting work, on both the personal and professional level. It harkens back to his Zoetrope days, back when he made personal works apparently derived from his own family history.

The Argentina-set Tetro is another of Coppola’s meditations on family and history. The story centers on the attempted reconciliation of two long-separated brothers — a teenager (Alden Ehrenreich) on the cusp of adulthood and his mysterious, tragically inflected recluse, Tetro (Vincent Gallo). The contemporary relationship exposes the family's tragic past, retracing the personal, emotional and sexual tactics engineered by their brutish father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a composer and conductor (like Carmine Coppola, Francis‘ father).

Coppola self-financed the movie and is preparing a June release. After the ambitious though inert Youth Without Youth, Tetro pulses with a manic energy and over the top garishness that makes the movie alternately disturbing, demented and compulsively watchable. It is filmed in some of the most beautiful, silvery black and white widescreen I've ever seen. The third-act muddle is an unfortunate disappointment. It’s not a complete success by any measure, but it’s a film that demands to be taken seriously — something that hasn’t been said of a work by Francis Ford Coppola for quite some time.

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