CRITICS NOTEBOOK: "Battle in Heaven" Buzzes, Un Certain Regard Bores as Cannes Showcases A Mindboggling Variety
by Erica Abeel
Perhaps every Cannes Film Festival -- or every second one -- must have its Chloe Sevigny moment of the "Brown Bunny" sort. In this year's 58th edition, her name is Anapola Mushkadiz, and her opening fellatio scene rivets viewers at the outset in Carlos Reygadas' "Battalla en Cielo" ("Battle in Heaven"), a stylized account of a kidnapping gone awry in Mexico City. Unlike the loudly reviled "Bunny," though, "Batalla" is the one film, at fest's midpoint, that has delivered a much-needed jolt, both electrifying and dividing critics.
Most of the other competition films range from skillful to flawed, (Dominik Moll's opener "Lemming"; Atom Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies"), to well-intentioned misfires (Marco Tullio Giordana's "Une Fois ue Tu Es Ne"), have failed to generate much traction. The returning auteurs dominating the lineup, such as Lars Von Trier and the Dardenne brothers, have spun out elaborations on familiar motifs that for all their excellence feel, well, familiar. (Given Cannes' commendable reverence for even the lesser efforts for auteurs, that's perhaps to be expected.)
Other auteurs have staked out fresh terrain. In "Match Point," Woody Allen, in a late-career renaissance, has created a deft London-based tale of social climbing that marks a tonic departure from his duds of the recent past. (An irony that has not gone unnoted is that if Woody didn't disdain the notion of prizes for artistic endeavors, this film might have won in any number of categories.) With "Hidden," Atom Egoyan and Michael Haneke have also spun out in new directions to embrace elements of the suspense/thriller genre.
From "Un Certain Regard" comes the sound of snoring over hardcore arthouse fare, unlikely to see life beyond the fest circuit. A number of these glacially slow films appear to believe that long stretches of repeated banal activities are worthy of the viewer's attention. While lacking the gut-punch of last year's Michael Moore, this being Cannes, many films are directly or elliptically political, reflecting First World malaise over Third World misery.
Men who can't keep it in their pants - or keep themselves from sowing babies all over the lot -- is another prevalent theme. Both "Don't Come Knocking" from Wim Wenders and "Broken Flowers" from Jim Jarmusch send gone-to-seed guys on the road to locate the children they may or may not have. Adolescent angst and anomie abounded in "Un Certain Regard," which also included a feel good commercial cousin to "Les Choristes," WWI tear fest "Joyeux Noel." Mind-boggling variety from all over the planet remains a Cannes trademark.
In the spirit of confounding expectations, the fest kicked off in a disorienting manner with Moll's competition "Lemming," violated a Cannes tradition of opening with a non-competition film. Unlike last year's Latin baroque "Bad Education," "Lemming" is a smallish, cool, fantasy-horror film about an upwardly mobile young couple (Laurent Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who come unstuck when a rodent-like creature gums up the kitchen waste pipe. With the arrival of Charlotte Rampling, ideally cast as the vengeful vampiric wife of the philandering boss, events take on a hallucinatory tone that cleverly rides the edge between fantasy and reality (though not as well as Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool.")
"Lemming" could be read as a pipes [sic] dream that conflates anxiety over the body's inner workings with a host of fears about the loss of control and tipping into madness. Under all the Grand Guignol horror (Rampling sets up house in the young wife's soul; an invasion of furry critters), Moll has given us yet another male guilt trip about women who go apeshit over male philandering. At the press conference, it should be noted, Rampling stole the show in her answers to questions about roles for older women. "A few wrinkles and looking different is no reason to be put away," she said, adding that Hollywood thinking is "barbaric."
Political and social issues reigned in a host of films, including Marco Tullio Giordana's misfire, "Depuis que tu es ne" During a sailing trip through the Mediterranean, the son of a wealthy Italian entrepreneur, tumbles overboard, and -- improbably; metaphorically? -- gets rescued by a boat carrying illegal immigrants to Italy. Clumsy and sentimental, a hybrid of TV movie of the week and political tract, the film attempts to explore one boy's burgeoning awareness of the plight of illegal immigrants -- perhaps a subject more urgent for Europeans than Americans.
Also in competition are "Kilometre Zero" by Hiner Saleem. This disappointment from the director of "Lemon Vodka" is a road movie about the Kurds fleeing Iraqi persecution. But despite some antic moments - a soldier tries to get his leg shot off so he can quit the army - the meager plot sank this one; and what was deemed pro-American sentiment didn't go down well with this audience.
Un Certain Regard also offers "Nordeste" from Juan Solanas, which charts the efforts of an A-type professional women to adopt a child in a remote section of Argentina (and echos Betrand Tavernier's "Holy Lola.") Despite the pores-and-all closeups of gorgeous Carole Bouquet, this expose of the region's pervasive misery smacks of didacticism and lacks strong story values. Siri-Lanka devastated by civil war is the theme of "The Forsaken Land" by Vimukthi Jayasundara, and requires a mineral patience to sit through.
Lars Von Trier and the Dardenne brothers tackle social issues in starkly contrasting ways. With his usual mischief and aplomb, Von Trier, pursuing his American trilogy, has taken on slavery in "Manderlay" (with Bryce Dallas Howard stepping into the role intended for Nicole Kidman.) It continues the adventures of Grace as she discovers a group of people living as if slavery had not been abolished seventy ears earlier, with white masters and black slaves.
At times the poor lighting on Von Trier's familiar minimalist warehouse set makes the film almost literally unwatchable; missing, too, is the magnetism of both Kidman and Paul Bettany (Bryce is suitably naïve, if a tad Valley Girl.) But Von Trier's critique is provocative - a virtue, according to this filmmaker out to savage political correctness - tightly reasoned, and probably accurate. Even with its cerebral, anti-cinematic stance, it becomes an emotional ride that engenders anger. When the photomontage of America's racist atrocities, including lynchings, flashed on to David Bowie's song "Young Americans," the audience burst into applause, maybe more for the issues treated than the actual film. (That Von Trier, who is plane-phobic, traveled to the fest in his camper, would make a movie in itself.)
In "The Child," brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne bring their microscopic gaze and counter-dramatic manner to bear on alienated youth in Belgium. There's not much plot. A pimply hood named Bruno has fathered his girlfriend Sonia's child, but seems barely cognizant of the baby boy, focused instead on his life of petty theft and drug dealing. "Only fuckers work," he says. But as in "La Promesse" (with Jeremie Renier grown up covered with acne pits), he illumines a horrifying lack of humanity in people like Bruno, spawned by the indifferent, exploitative society in which they thrive like a creature in its habitat. When his girlfriend asks him where their baby is, Bruno casually replies, in perhaps the fest's most chilling line: "I sold him."
Fest standout "Batalla en El Cielo" also indicts a corrupt, decadent society, divvied up between a few haves and everyone else groveling beneath - but it's carried out in elliptical ways hard to articulate, perhaps because Reynadas is more concerned with stylistic fireworks than legible content. Marcos, a portly general's driver, is haunted by the disastrous outcome of a child kidnapping he perpetrated with his even more ungainly wife. After sleeping with Ana, his boss's daughter, he feels mysteriously compelled to confess his deed to her, and ends up in a mass pilgrimage on his knees, with the cops closing in.
The naysayers call it high art bullshit, a lot of showoff camera work and graphic sex that teases the viewer, without ever linking the parts to form a larger design. On the plus side, later reflection reveals a more coherent picture, however fragmented. And in the style of the Italian neo-realists, Reygadas shoots naked human bodies that have never met a treadmaster in all their imperfection; the initial gross-out takes on a sacred aura. His use of Bach blasting from the grimy milieu of a gas station is unaccountable and thrilling; while his camera rising grandly over the sprawled naked bodies of Ana and Marcos - a bit like Mel Gibson shooting the cross being erected - becomes an imponderable homage.
The fest's genre films are less inscrutable, but also less satisfying. Atom Egoyan ventures into genre thriller terrain with "Where The Truth Lies," adapted from a novel by Rupert Holmes. It revisits a famous comedy team vaguely suggestive of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, who have long retired, but can't escape a sordid past crime that a plucky reporter (played by the miscast Alison Lohman) is determined to unearth. Film sports a lush noir ambience and vintage, 40's inflected score. But the narrative voices of reporter and comedian, cutting back and forth in time, make for murkiness. And will the homophobia lodged in story's secret heart have the same impact as it did in the 50's? (Apparently an orgy containing the fatal three thrusts may give the film an NC-17 rating.)
David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" also marks a departure for the filmmaker by exploring in naturalistic fashion intimate family dynamics. Tom Stall, a bland Midwestern Everyman lives contentedly with his lawyer wife and kids when a stranger blows into town claiming Tom is someone else entirely. While the mystery of identity is intriguingly explored, the preposterous plot developments elicited hoots and boos at the screening. The truth of a mysterious stranger's identity is also unveiled in David Jacobson's psychological drama "Down in the Valley," a showcase for a topnotch turn from Edward Norton as a charismatic sociopath, ably supported by a glowing Rachel Evan Wood. The film fumbled around interminably, though, in search of its ending.
And what would a festival be these days without a generous dollop of Asian violence? "A Bittersweet Life" by Kim Jee-won ups the ante for bloodletting, without any of the panache of "Old Boy." It raises another question: might the world be a better place without such brutalizing images passing for entertainment? Doling out adolescent anomie and angst is the German "Low Profile" by Cristoph Hochhausler from Un Certain Regard. Though suffused with menace, this account of a recent college grad's anonymous claims for causing accidents he witnesses fails to make sense of its character. "Dark Horse" from "Noi Albinoi"'s Dagur Kari struck a note with viewers, whimsically recording in black and white the coming of age of a clueless young graffiti artist and his band of oddballs.
The king of the angst-ers, though, had to be the suicidal Kurt Cobain-based figure in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," played by a muttering, feral Michael Pitt in need of a shampoo. Extending the techniques and tone of "Gerry" and "Elephant," Van Sant has fashioned an intermittently gripping poem about running on empty. It includes hilarious moments: a phone book salesman arrives to sell the Cobain character ad space, nattering on as if unaware that the near-comatose man sitting before him is wearing construction boots and a formal black dress. The film also features a layered sound design, including tolling London bells and amped natural noises, that gives voice to Cobain's inner unraveling. Still, many viewers hoped that Van Sant might now move on to something new.
Meanwhile, many touted films still hang in the wings. Stay tuned.