By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 24, 2009 at 8:37AM
As the Cannes Film Festival draws to a close, a number of memorable images lie in its wake. From the much-ballyhooed close-ups of mutilated genitalia in Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" to the womb-cam perspective of conception in Gasper Noe's "Enter the Void," the sheer power of the moving image persistently reverberated with audiences in the south of France. Some have claimed that the festival's sixty-second year was aesthetically weak, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even the movies that divided audiences stuck with all of them, and that's what good cinema - and good film festivals - are all about.
Early in the week, the Hollywood Reporter noted that a large number of competition titles married "art house sensibilities with pulp fiction." However, many entries rose above both designations on the basis of their highly unique visual foundations. Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" might have devolved into an overwrought family drama if it failed to allow room for its hardened teenage protagonist to gradually reveal her sexual fragility. Michael Haneke creates his eerie vision of an insulated Protestant community in "The White Ribbon" by letting the shades of grey become a character in the plot. Alan Resnais's "The Wild Reeds" - the French New Wave legend's first movie at Cannes in nearly three decades - contains a magnificent color palette to reflect the emotionally charged environment of his isolated middle-aged subjects. Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains," an experimental reflection on the filmmaker's family history in Palestine, embeds symbolism in nearly every shot. On a different plane of abstraction, Tsai Ming Liang's "Visage" does the same thing.
Beyond the spotlight of the competition, several movies in the festival's sidebars hit on compelling ideas with original cinematic techniques. The list runs long: Josh and Benny Safdie's sophomore feature, "Go Get Some Rosemary," concludes with a wonderful shot of the Roosevelt Island tram to underscore how the urban anti-hero (Ronnie Bronstein) dangles precipitously on the edge of self-destruction. "No One Knows Persian Cats," the opening night title of Un Certain Regard, offers a fascinating glance at talented young underground musicians in Iran, huddled in cramped basements away from the disapproving glares of the outside world.
While these movies comment on our reality, others transcend it. Kore-Eda Hirokazu's "Air Doll," a magical realist fable about an inflatable doll that comes to life, suggests "Pinnochio" meets "Lars and the Real Girl" with its constant emphasis on the newly living creature's inauthentic physicality. The Greek thriller "Dogtooth" suggests an exaggerated form of the ideological boundaries in "The White Ribbon" with its frightening depiction of parents that contain their children in a closed-off environment and force them to engage in aimless games. The horrific sight of an underdeveloped youth slamming her own teeth out of her mouth, operating under the delusion that the violent act will upgrade her maturity, provides a stunning representation of their decaying utopia.
To the larger public, movies that begin their existence at Cannes often sound pretentious or hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream. In the best cases, the festival actually suggests alternatives to predetermined filmic molds, or ways that they can evolve. When a movie doesn't work, it can still provoke valuable discussions about issues that would otherwise stay in the shadows.
To be fair, many festivals accomplish this goal - but the world stage where Cannes comfortably sits means its messages reach an unparalleled number of listeners. At the same time, the filmmakers only answer for themselves, leaving audiences to sort out the good from the bad. In "Like You Know It All," South Korean director Hong Sang-soo's surprisingly amusing feature in Directors Fortnight, his onscreen alter-ego (Kim Tae-woo) justifies himself to a viewer uninterested in his work. "People don't understand your films," she says. "Why go on making them?" His rebuttal: "Conventionality is the worst crime in art." No matter its flaws, Cannes remains key to reinforcing that conviction.