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Cannes Dispatch, 2009: Part Four: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

Michael Haneke, whose The White Ribbon won the Palme d'Or


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


Fittingly, the bloodiest Cannes ever extended to the jury's own contentious deliberations. The festival's 20 competition titles were tinged in blood and marked by gruesome deaths, sadomasochistic flourishes and sexual brutality. By Sunday afternoon, word spread that jury president Isabelle Huppert had badly antagonized her peers with her hammer touch and imperial, haughty manner.

At Berlin and Venice, few get worked up over the results. At Cannes, the awards constitute the final act of showboating political theater. The jury format is closer to a dictatorship, given the amount of power and authority the president yields. Huppert summoned memories of Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose 1999 jury bypassed the more accessible titles in favor of the more extreme and unyielding pieces. Most famously they awarded the second prize to Bruno Dumont's L'humanite and two of the three acting prizes (the best actress was shared) to that film's two nonprofessional leads.

The selection process is further complicated by the near certainty of the personal or professional conflicts of the jurors and the filmmakers whose work is being judged. When Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon screened in an optimal spot that vaulted it to the top of the Palme d'Or conversation, the matter of Huppert's predisposition toward Haneke was tangible since Huppert had won the best actress prize for Haneke's The Piano Teacher in 2001.

For the press, who watch the proceedings on a live feed in the Debussy Theatre, the final announcement is always something of an anticlimax, because cameras always roam the theater and reveal booming close-ups of the directors or actors in the orchestra seats. It's not like the Academy Awards — the festival only invites those who are informed ahead of time they have won something.

After French director Jacques Audiard took the stage to accept the second-place Grand Prize for A Prophet, Haneke proved the last man standing. Despite the Huppert connection, Haneke's Palme d'Or felt like a compromise. Word circulated the following day that Huppert pushed for Lars von Trier's Antichrist, but two of the jurors, already at their boiling point, threatened to boycott the ceremonies. American director James Gray, whose previous two films We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2008) premiered in the competition, reportedly screamed an epithet at Huppert.

The White Ribbon would not have been my choice, but it is a far less objectionable work by Haneke, the German-born Austrian whose cinema of cruelty (Benny's Video, Funny Games) is steeped in a joyless sanctimony. This is the director's first German-language film since the original Funny Games in 1997, and it's a chilling, visually impressive study of nascent fascism in a northern German Protestant village on the eve of World War I.

Haneke will never be a spontaneous director, but here he finally holds back the narrative determinism that typically cancels any form of surprise or discovery. The White Ribbon is actually more subtle and ambiguous than the majority of his work, and the violence often unfolds offscreen. Christian Berger's immaculate black and white cinematography is suitably severe but not oppressive, and at times achieves lyrical moments.

The great French director Alain Resnais, who's approaching 87, earned a career achievement award ("prize exceptional") for Wild Grass. Resnais' first film, the groundbreaking Hiroshima, Mon Amour bracketed the debuts of The 400 Blows and Breathless 50 years ago, though Resnais is not technically a French New Wave director (he did not come to filmmaking through criticism like the New Wave directors).

Wild Grass plays like a comic variation of the director's 1986 masterpiece Melo (both works starring frequent members of his ensemble, Sabine Azema and Andre Dussolier). A married man (Dussolier) with two grown children discovers the discarded purse of a robbery victim in a parking garage lot. Elated to discover the woman (Azema) is a pilot, he contrives a way to meet her. Initially resistant, she finally succumbs to his advances. Working through his trademark themes of time and memory, Resnais reveals an alternately playful and sardonic side. The best passages are imbued with a weary romanticism abetted by the glorious stylization of the sets and Eric Gautier's swooning, elegant and precise camerawork.


At times, the press was not amused. They booed lustily when the director's prize was awarded to the prolific young Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza for Kinatay, an art-porn snuff film in which the signature scene is a prolonged sexual assault, stabbing, mutilation and decapitation of a prostitute. The other jaw-dropping award selection was the Chinese writer Mei Feng for Lou Ye's Spring Fever, a film that was highly anticipated because it was slotted in the same screening spot Waltz with Bashir and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days occupied the previous two years. As a result, the film was probably unfairly maligned, though the reason it developed any interest at all was due to its visual grace and the performances, not because of the writing.

It's the filmmakers who were shut out who have a right to be angry. Italian director Marco Bellocchio's Vincere is his strongest work since Good Morning, Night. The film follows the remarkable story of a young woman who was Mussolini's first wife and bore him his first son. Il Duce's political rise foreshadowed the woman's opposite fall, cruelly engineered by the Church and state authorities. The opening hour was probably the most riveting of any film in the festival, particularly because it featured the director's formidable and brilliant interpolation of archival material with his original staging. The bravura opening is not quite matched in the second half, if only because it is difficult to dramatize a woman's forced institutionalization. Giovanna Mezzogiorno is entrancing as the wronged woman; the moment where she scales an wrought-iron fence against a blinding snowstorm is one of the enduring images of the festival.

Timing is everything at Cannes. Films shown early or late are sometimes lost amid the frenzy. The Time That Remains is the third piece of Elia Suleiman's loose trilogy on identity, history and the internecine politics of the Middle East. (The first two parts were Chronicle of a Disappearance and Divine Intervention). The title suggests Proust, but the movie's dominant reference is the great French director Jacques Tati. The story is told in four movements, or chapters, spanning from 1948 to the present. Suleiman personalizes the conflict by framing his own family's history in Nazarene against the larger political and cultural events. The chapters are individuated by a series of elaborate gags, both visual and verbal that infuse the quotidian and everyday with a dark wit and slapstick energy that underscores the anarchy and utter strangeness. In one of the funniest, pitch black moments, an Israeli has to stand on a rock in order to properly blindfold his Palestinian captive.

Suleiman’s episodic structure gives the impression of being light, but the humor is almost exclusively the province of defeat, or some brand of humility. The imagery is felicitous and pungent, like the shot of a car moving up the steep incline of a hill as an airplane circles above. Like the first two films, Suleiman is a living witness, but he's also mute who observes more than participates. His equipoise gives him a gravity achieved through a stubborn silence and emotional withholding one wishes more of the competition films had emulated.






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