Cannes may have kicked off last week, but the race for the Palme d’Or really only began to pick up speed on days five and six of the festival, with screenings of Ulrich Seidl‘s “Import/Export,” Gus Van Sant‘s “Paranoid Park,” Carlos Reygadas‘ “Silent Light,” and Julian Schnabel‘s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” While outside of competition, Michael Winterbottom has proven himself to be, once again, a politically astute and highly nimble filmmaker, even when working with superstar Angelina Jolie.
With “Import/Export,” Ulrich Seidl, Austria’s masterfully misanthropic director (“Dog Days,” “Jesus, You Know,” “Animal Love“), makes what is perhaps his most tender movie. But don’t be mistaken: there’s still profound humiliation, exploitation, a look at the most dire and decaying facets of society, and shocking dialogue (“Put your finger in your asshole!” yells the anonymous user of an interactive porn website.) The words are directed to Olga, a moonlighting Ukrainian nurse who is one of the film’s two central protagonists. The other is Pauli, a macho, bullyish Viennese security guard who loses his job and self-worth after a group of thugs puts him in his place.
Seidl intercuts the two stories: The Ukrainian nurse goes to Vienna, trying to eke out a living as a cleaning lady (she eventually ends up at a hospital geriatric ward), while Pauli travels to the Ukraine with his revolting step-father. Both stories traffic in moments of profound degradation (humans and dogs are linked), but the narratives also show the characters trying to overcome their humility, particularly in Olga’s story.
This being a Seidl film, we also get borderline exploitative scenes of real people: The elderly hospital patients, in particular, provide the movie’s most disturbing and fascinating scenes. On a purely visual level, “Import/Export” enthralls, thanks to the strong, symmetrical compositions of cinematographers Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler and an array of provocative locations (namely a trashed “gypsy” slum of Socialist-style high-rises).
Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park” is also a visual – and aural – feast, with lush cinematography by Christopher Doyle and loopy, evocative sound design from Gus Van Sant regular Leslie Schatz. Van Sant returns to the teenage milieu of “Elephant” with a simple story about a young skateboarder who is involved in a gruesome murder. Despite what it sounds like, Van Sant’s film is significantly different from the work of Larry Clark (“Bully,” “Wassup Rockers“). Instead of hanging out with skater-punks verite-style, we get a highly subjective experience of a young man’s guilty conscience.
While Van Sant’s expressionistic style may, at times, feel unmotivated and a tad indulgent, particularly next to the lack of depth in his pretty-boy protagonist, the mix of rich soundscape with slow-motion and 70s-style grainy skater footage is undeniably beautiful. And it may be a stretch, but the film might just have something larger to say about responsibility in the violent age of the Iraq War where denial and apathy have supplanted accountability.
Another elegant story of guilt, but not as successful, Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light” examines an adulterous relationship in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Opening with a breathtaking shot of the night-sky opening itself up to the emerging sun, the film focuses on a rarefied farming community, steeped in prayer and simple ways of life. Exceedingly languorous, “Silent Light” finally turns a significant corner a full hour and forty-five minutes into the film. (Until then, the movie offered sleepy Cannes attendees much-needed nap-time during long takes of corn harvesting.) But by then, it may be too late. While the last 30 minutes builds to a quietly startling finale, clearly influenced by Carl Theodore Dreyer‘s masterpiece “Ordet,” “Silent Light” lacks that film’s profound humanity and catharsis. And yet, even though the bold young director of “Japon” and “Battle in Heaven” may have stumbled with “Silent Light,” his exquisite sensibility still shines through.
If Reygadas’ rigorous filmmaking divided viewers, artist Julian Schnabel’s affective, poetic and yet surprisingly conventional competition entry “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” should placate most audiences everywhere. A confident follow-up to “Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” recounts the story of former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at the age of 43, suffered a massive stroke, losing control of his entire body with the exception of a single eye.
For extended parts of the film, Schnabel uses a first-person camera to insert the viewer into Bauby’s claustrophobic point of view. As he slowly learns to communicate by blinking, the film offers flashbacks and fantasies, and touches on his relationships with his ex-wife, kids and lover. But Schnabel never gives a complete sense of who Bauby was before the accident. Was he a self-centered bastard, now getting his comeuppance, as is suggested? If so, maybe this elision prevents the film from being overly sentimental or preachy and lets the viewer more easily into Bauby’s predicament. But it also overly simplifies the character and his plight.
In a festival that has felt surprisingly withdrawn from world politics (all of the above films are very inner-directed), Michael Winterbottom’s gripping thriller “A Mighty Heart” feels like a refreshing blast from the real world. (What, no war films this year?) Despite the potential sentimentality of the subject matter – the film is told through the perspective of Mariane Pearl, the five-months pregnant wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl – “A Mighty Heart” tells a complex, suspenseful tale of political intrigue, Pakistani-Indian relations, journalistic ethics, torture and yes, the emotional turmoil of losing a loved one.
While Angelina Jolie’s Mariane Pearl occasionally loses her French accent, she makes up for the misstep with a sturdy, anguished performance that eventually succumbs to a volcanic eruption of grief. If the portrayal is already generating Oscar talk, it’s also better than such fatuous plaudits. As Mariane Pearl emphatically said at the news conference on Monday morning, the film exists above-and-beyond Academy buzz. “It’s not about us,” Pearl said. “It’s not about being famous and making more money or any of that. It’s about a situation in the world that everybody is aware of.”
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