Good, but not great. Accomplished, but not amazing. A consistent thread is emerging within this year's Cannes selection: Name directors are showing up with solid work that displays their talents, but doesn't transcend them or spin them into new, novel directions. A familiar refrain has been heard over the last few days: "I liked it, but it wasn't as good as their last film." Are auteurs spinning their wheels? With several new movies to go, from Steven Soderbergh's "Che" epic to Laurent Cantet's high-school study "The Class" to Atom Egoyan's latest "Adoration" (which has been rumored to be a come-back film, of sorts), it's too early to make a judgment call about Cannes' 61st, but no film is blowing audiences out of the water.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the sibling directors of deserved Cannes winners "Rosetta" and "L'Enfant," for example, have turned in another well-executed study of a woman in crisis, "Lorna's Silence," about an Albanian emigre in Belgium caught in an underground crime ring aimed at getting citizenships for illegal immigrants. But while the film sensitively portrays its characters and their relationships, particularly Lorna's complex dealings with her arranged husband, a vulnerable junky played tenderly by Dardennes regular Jeremie Renier, the film doesn't have the raw, relentless energy of "Rosetta" or the powerfully redemptive climax of "L'Enfant." To be sure, the film remains urgent and affecting, Lorna's growing sense of guilt and grief beautifully crescendos after some surprising turns of plot, and Dardennes newbies would certainly find in "Lorna's Silence" a bracing, delicate and profound human drama. But the prevailing sentiment among critics here is that "Lorna's Silence" doesn't have the same gut-wrenching kick as their previous work.
The same might also be said of other recently screened competition pics, such as Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's roundly panned "Serbis" and James Gray's "Two Lovers," which fortunately isn't really a love story, but an alternatively intriguing and problematic portrait of a bipolar Jewish Brooklynite (Joaquin Phoenix, mannered, but likeable) who falls head over heals for his new unstable, blonde Shikseh neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow, unstable, blonde).
One unsuspected competition surprise, however, is "Gomorra," one of the competition's two Italian films. Directed by 39-year-old filmmaker Matteo Garrone ("The Embalmer") and based on a scandalous Italian bestseller, "Gomorra" (as in Sodom and Gomorrah) is a pun on the name of the Naples-centered mafia, the Camorra. After an alluringly lurid tanning-salon massacre in its opening moments, "Gomorra" interweaves several different stories related to the violent criminal gangs that continue to operate in the region: There's the graying accountant; the young innocent who wants to join the gangs; the mob tailor who moonlights for the Chinese; a Mafioso businessman's apprentice working in toxic waste removal; and most notably, two aspiring Tony Montanas, who provide the film its most indelible image when they sample a stolen cache of machine guns and grenade launchers in their underpants.
Because of so many disparate stories, "Gomorra" doesn't have an emotional center. There's a feeling of distance to the proceedings, almost as if you were examining this strange otherworld like ants through a magnifying class. Indeed, what's even more distinct about the film (besides the underwear machine-gun scene) are the locations and the authentic sense of life that Garrone injects into them. Much of the film is set in dilapidated multi-level housing projects, where a wedding could be going on along one outdoor corridor, while drug deals might be happening simultaneously on another, just as armed henchmen patrol the rooftops at all times. "Gomorra" may be better than your standard variety mob picture, but the plot strands themselves aren't remarkable. Ultimately, the film stands out because of its meticulous attention to detail.
In searching for other Cannes discoveries, there were two intriguing, idiosyncratic visions of wayward youths from first-time directors, Mexican-born helmer Antonio Campos' U.S. production "Aftershool," playing in the Un Certain Regard section, and British director Duane Hopkins' Critics Week selection "Better Things." Nothing says disaffected young men like the glazed-over eyes of videogame-playing, whether in Campos' elite American private school or Hopkins' middle-class rural English town. Both films also center on drug use, with the overdoses of pretty young girls propelling their plots. The two debuts may test the patience of viewers, but they also signal the arrival of talented directors to watch.
In "Afterschool," Campos focuses on one confused, socially awkward student, Robert (a deliberately ice cold Ezra Miller), and his obsession with video - both the sort of violent, sexual, or funny YouTube clips that open the picture provocatively (from laughing babies to Saddam Hussein's hanging) to his extracurricular video class. If the film deals with the standard strife of high school (budding love, jealousy and bitterness), it's far more disturbing and enigmatic than similarly set portraits. Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" and Atom Egoyan's voyeuristic visions come to mind, but Campos's style remains unique: he frequently employs dislocating, fragmentary, or off-center frames - even a major kiss is barely seen, shoved to the bottom corner of the frame in favor of bobbing foreheads. And his thematic concerns are also his own: coming-of-age becomes a pathological condition and strange disconnected state, where the virtual worlds of violence and sex intermingle with the real.
"Better Things," filled with beautifully composed still images and a stark poetic sensibility, addresses the confusion of youth via several characters, a lot of drug-addled and suffering young kids, set apart by the film's initially confusing inclusion of a trio of elderly characters. Perhaps overly obtuse and glacially paced, the film shows a keen photographic eye and cinematic riskiness: In one scene, Hopkins abruptly cuts all ambient sound, allowing the stark dialogue to come powerfully to the fore. There's even less narrative here than "Afterschool," as it's more concerned with imbuing a feeling, of pain, loss, and hopelessness. As the voice-over repeats, "Why does she think falling in love would make it any easier?"
Many attendees have suggested such bleak tones exist aplenty in this year's selection. But hey, considering the state of the world, isn't that to be expected?
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