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CANNES ’07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Complicated Lovers and Genders in Cannes Sidebars

CANNES '07 CRITICS NOTEBOOK | Complicated Lovers and Genders in Cannes Sidebars

On the 60th anniversary poster for the Cannes Film Festival, familiar movie faces effortlessly bound through the air. The gravity-defying spectacle-designed by Christophe Renard from photographs of Wong Kar Wai, Bruce Willis, and several others spotlights a strikingly broad selection of craftsmen and performers from contemporary cinema. In addition to addressing the range of artistic contributors, such an astute proclamation of diversity is also applicable to the festival’s organization. While nearly two dozen features compete for attention in the main competition and slightly fewer entries screen in Un Certain Regard track, the handful of movies shown in the Directors Fortnight and International Critics Week sidebars practically exist in separate festivals.

The buzz swirling around various titles functions in a fashion similar to the rest of the festival, as certain movies spotlight fresh talent and obscure material while others gain momentum on the basis of their star power. One of the prominently discussed titles in Directors Fortnight, “Savage Grace” falls into the latter category, a factor that works against its favor. Directed by Tom Kalin, who made ripples in the independent film community with his 1992 debut feature “Swoon” before entering a lengthy period of inactivity, “Savage Grace” stars Julianne Moore as psychotically crestfallen socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland who forms a bizarre relationship with her son, Brooks (Eddie Redmayne), during the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Adapted from the book by Natalie Robins and based on actual events that culminated in a 1972 murder that received worldwide infamy, the story begins in the late Forties, shortly after Brooks’ birth. The early scenes capture the decline of Barbara’s marriage to fast-talker Tony (Stephen Dillane), unfolding with rapid fire dialogue and stylized elements from the era, but the incessantly bleak aura that hangs over the events dampens its attempts at lively nostalgia.

As an exaggerated period piece, the movie recalls Joel and Ethan Coen‘s “The Hudsucker Proxy,” although the playful aura doesn’t synch up with its increasingly dour plot. (One imagines what the Coen brothers, whose “No Country for Old Men” is a definite contender for this year’s Palm D’Or, could have made out of this project.) The best aspect that “Savage Grace” has on its side is Moore’s performance; careening from despondent midlife whiner to cunning seductress, her creepy demeanor recalls Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes‘ “A Woman Under the Influence.” However, discussions that will inevitably encircle the movie whenever it hits theaters are sure to center on a particularly nasty incest scene. Despite being a far better staging of ludicrous copulation than the infamous Dakota Fanning rape scene in the Sundance failure “Hounddog,” Kalin’s decision to inject the unsettling moment with dark humor confuses the nature of his intentions.

A superior dissection of parent-child relationships develops in “Tout Est Pardonne” (“All is Forgiven“), first time feature director Mia Hansen-Love‘s French language entry in Directors Fortnight. Beginning in 1995 Vienna and concluding in Paris a decade later, “Tout East Pardonne” focuses on a young couple whose marriage decays when the husband can’t shake his drug habit; meanwhile, their young daughter absorbs the surrounding tension and evaluates it as she grows older. The movie runs a little long for such a basic, predictable plot, and the third act overstay its welcome. Nevertheless, the actors demonstrate tremendous nuance in their portrayals of familial grief, and Hansen-Love’s particular use of understatement in small exchanges makes it worthwhile to follow her future endeavors.

Call it the festival of dysfunctional families: “Nos Retrouvailles” (“In Your Wake“), a French selection in Critics Week, explores the relationship between a father and his grown-up estranged son. Hardly a conventional reunion tale, “Nos Retrouvailles” adopts conventions of the thriller genre as a means of exploring personal anguish. But the incongruity of these disparate ingredients makes “Nos Retrouvailles” a wildly uneven affair, expecting audiences to invest in the father-son conflict and a developing heist plan that the father hopes his son will help him accomplish. It’s a lot to consider in one breath, and director David Oelhoffen seems more interested in the scheme at the end of the movie, creating top-heavy affair. Still, the climactic sequence, during which both the heist plan and the son’s true feelings bubble to the surface, allows for a satisfying release and accomplishes the intensity promised in earlier scenes. Oelhoffen might be better suited with less ambitious projects, but “Nos Retrouvailles” is a solid calling card for them.

When it comes to discovering newcomers, Critics Week has a strong track record, boasting the early appraisal of successful auteurs like Bernardo Bertolucci and Ken Loach. Directors Fortnight programs a comparatively broader combination of emerging and experienced filmmakers. These range from Ramin Bahrani, who follows up his 2005 directorial debut and festival hit “Man Push Cart” this year with “Chop Shop,” to queer cinema pioneer Gregg Araki, whose hilarious stoner comedy “Smiley Face” premiered earlier this year at Sundance. The deplorable quasi-documentary “Zoo,” which explores the mindset of people who engage in sex with horses but never seriously interrogates the phenomena, also screens in Directors Fortnight, several weeks after its United States theatrical release. “XXY” provides an alternative to “Zoo,” doing a finer job delving beneath the surface of rare sexual curiosities, writer-director Luca Puenzo‘s Argentinian narrative about a teenage hermaphrodite.

Rather than exploiting or sensationalizing the story, Puenzo crafts a convincing narrative about young Alex (Ines Efron), whose biologist father prevents plastic surgeons from tampering with his offspring’s gender. Meanwhile, Alex, who comes across as dominantly feminine with disparate masculine traits, seduces her friend Alvaro, coercing him into engaging in sexual behavior in spite of the unfamiliar conditions. Unlike the cringe-worthy scenes in “Zoo” that misleadingly present the subjects’ sexual fantasies as though they exist within a larger realm of normalcy, “XXY” acknowledges Alex’s condition as unique, and proceeds by allowing us to become comfortable with her to the point where her condition no longer precedes our understanding of her personality.

In fact, Alex’s personality seems downright normal compared to the nervous characters in “A Via Lactea” (“The Milky Way“), an intriguing Brazilian narrative screening in Critics Week. In a series of tightly edited sequences, exasperated writer Heitor (Marco Ricca) bolts through the streets of San Paulo to mend the damage done after a quarrel with his lover Julia (Alice Braga, the talented young co-star of “Lower City” and the upcoming Will Smith vehicle “I Am Legend“). The main characters repeatedly combat one another and invariably reconcile their differences, but the dialogue, best described as Latin American Woody Allen, is full of silly neurotic asides but very little forward motion.

Fortunately, director Lina Chamie, a former composer, constructs transitions between scenes with extensive visually-driven shots combined with a stunning orchestral score. These marvelous dream-like sections alone make “A Via Lactea” a delightful, if uneven, viewing experience, serving as the movie’s highlights-which is to say, it works best when the characters keep their mouths shut.

The latest from the 2007 Festival de Cannes is available anytime in indieWIRE’s special section.

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