Competition Shows Promise, Not Perfection: “Nobody Knows” and “Consequences of Love”
by Peter Brunette
The first two films to be shown in competition at Cannes 2004 were each promising in their own way, but neither lit any fires within the hearts of the thousands of professional film critics here to pass judgment. The first, a Japanese film called “Nobody Knows,” by art-house favorite Kore-eda Hirokazu (“Maborosi,” “Afterlife,” and the completely impenetrable “Distance,” which was in competition in 2001), scored more than a few striking images, but at 160 minutes needs to be brutally pared by at least an hour to become commercially — or even artistically — viable. The second was “The Consequences of Love,” a stylish Italian thriller by the relatively unknown director Paolo Sorrentino, which borrows the suavely crisp tone of “The Usual Suspects” to good effect but which could use a powerful injection of content to make it more palatable.
Kore-eda’s film starts promisingly. A young, attractive single mother is moving into a new apartment with her well-behaved 12-year-old son, Akira. Once ensconced inside, however, three younger kids appear from their hiding places in suitcases, allowing the unconventional family to skirt the building’s rules against small children. At first, the fivesome seems happy and carefree, the mother just a slightly more grownup version than the kids. All this fun is captured using a hand-held camera, which, along with Kore-eda’s instructions to the children to ad-lib their lines, provides the refreshing feel of a real family’s innermost life. Eventually, however, cracks in this happy surface appear when the mother comes home drunk, and the idyll ends completely when she decides to disappear with a new boyfriend after leaving Akira with some money and instructions to take care of his siblings.
The first thing that comes along to do serious damage to this film which could have been quite good is a happy-faced banjo-like theme on the soundtrack that clashes annoyingly with the tough neo-realist approach taken in nearly every other aspect of the movie. Kore-eda is also very fond of literary symbols, and while they work initially, after a while the nail polish (which recalls blood when spilt) and the airplanes (which represent the impossible dream of freedom and escape) and the endless stairs that Akira has to climb each day to fend for the family (pretty clear what they mean), become over-obvious and tiresome. The director is also quick with the extreme long-shot to underline especially dire emotional moments, and while this technique is preferable to the thoughtless overuse of the emotional close-up in Hollywood films, it too becomes predictable. The film’s biggest problem, however, is that it attempts to document, in that sometimes patience-challenging indirect art-film way, virtually every single step in the family’s collapse, and the audience’s interest collapses along with it.
A couple of scenes are immensely powerful, especially the one at the fast-food restaurant in which the mother justifies her departure to Akira (played by Yagira Yuya, who has an amazing screen presence) on the grounds that she has a right to happiness too. (At the same meeting she tries to convince him how silly it is for him to want to go to school like other children.) And a provocative comparison between mother and son arises when Akira, near the end of the film, allows himself just a glimmer of personal happiness by playing baseball instead of watching the kids, and his sister suffers a serious fall. All in all, it’s a provocative view onto a painful situation, but after a while, you get tired of looking.
“The Consequences of Love,” in contrast, which is shot in an ultra-controlled, brilliantly photographed manner, tells the story of a refined gentleman man who has lived alone in a hotel room for eight years. We don’t learn why until 75 minutes in, and this deliberate playing with the tempo of revelation is part of the film’s modest charm (so steer clear of any review that threatens to reveal all, as several have here at the festival). Both sound and visuals are crisply edited, and a witty and the ironic voiceover proffered by the 50-year-old protagonist Titta Di Girolamo (underplayed brilliantly by stage actor Toni Servillo) goes a long way toward keeping the viewer amused and involved. The camera too becomes a fascinating character in the pro-active Hitchcock manner, now seeking out the truth, now tantalizing us by keeping it hidden. Style, however, is finally never enough. Even “Miami Vice,” after all, had a plot every week, and director Sorrentino seems to have had a gun held to his head to tack one on at the last minute. His real cinematic interests, for better or worse, obviously lie elsewhere.