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Les Palmares Infertiles

Les Palmares Infertiles

One can only hope that Thierry Fremaux’s pre-festival promise of a splendid lineup for Cannes 2011 holds true, as 2010 has been a year when much of the best fruit fell far from the tree of the competition.

Moving into Sunday, the festival’s final day, when the awards will be decided and announced, the rumor from inside the jury was that, while the mood has been most congenial and a number of films have impressed the judges, no single film has provided the knockout punch to consolidate any kind of concensus, meaning we should expect some compromises and a spreading of the wealth. This feeling is shared by most observers who have seen the competition entries and, looking at my own list of grades I supplied for the critics’ rankings, I scored no competition entry higher than a B. I have it on good authority that at least one jury member was wild about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and, based on Hong Sangsoo’s “Ha Ha Ha” having won the prize for best feature in an unusually strong Un Certain Regard lineup Saturday night, South Korea could be in for a very big year if Lee Chang-dong’s highly regarded “Poetry” does well with the main jury.

Other than for “Uncle Boonmee,” which I found to have less beauty and distinctiveness than the last Cannes award winner by “Joe” (as Weerasethakul is known to everyone), “Tropical Malady,” the last three days haven’t delivered much to enthuse about. Best, I suppose, is Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” the lone American entry in the competition this year, a film charged with righteous fury and a spot-on performance by Naomi Watts (few actresses are so reliable these days). But I have major reservations: The Valerie Plame story heavily feels like old news, I would have preferred a more psychological story from her point-of-view (expanding upon the striking scene where she finally cracks while brushing her teeth), and it became tiresomely clear in the latter-going that the main reason Sean Penn took the role of her husband was that so he could rant, rant and rant some more about Bush Administration the way he did in real life for eight years. Not much acting there.

Nikita Mikhalkov’s widely dismissed “Exodus–Burnt by the Sun 2” was something of a guilty pleasure for me, simply because it’s an old-fashioned, large-scaled World War II epic the likes of which one seldom sees anymore. Designed to expose Russia’s youth to some of what that country’s “greatest generation” went through to beat the Nazis (a job it didn’t do because it has already flopped domestically), the picture has a vast scale, lots of big action scenes, a wonderfully Morricone-esque score by Edward Artemiev and flavorsome reverberations that bounce off “Saving Private Ryan,” such official Soviet classics as “Ballad of a Soldier” and “The Cranes Are Flying,” and Mikhalkov’s own Oscar-winning “Burnt By the Sun.” But don’t look for it on the art film circuit.

Along with debuting Russian director Sergei Loznitsa’s startling, oddly titled “My Joy” (which was shot in the Ukraine and would get my vote for the best director prize) and the worthy Romanian films included in Un Certain Regard, Cristi Puiu’s arduous but cumulatively rewarding three-hour “Aurora” and Radu Muntean’s “Tuesday, After Christmas,” Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s “Tender Son–The Frankenstein Project” will be shunned by the local tourism boards, so bleak, off-putting and downright scary are all these portraits of life, and especially death, in Eastern Europe. “Tender” shows some of the talent the director displayed in “Delta,” but it goes seriously off the rails and ends confoundingly.

But, worst for last, you can only wonder what the selection committee was smoking when they invited Daniele Luchetti’s “Our Life” into the competition. You used to hear that the Italians would throw a fit if one of their films didn’t win a prize or, heaven forbid, if no Italian film made the competition cut. But surely the days are over when that sort of nationalistic huffing and puffing matter, so there’s no excuse for something of such a pandering commercial nature being foisted upon serious film watchers. But even more insupportable to me was Rachid Bouchareb’s paen to Algerian freedom fighters, “Outside the Law.” Some French observers apparently feel it’s good for their countrymen to have their noses rubbed in how awful France was to their longtime colonial subjects toward the end, but the script to this sprawling harrangue is worse than one to a mediocre 1930s B gangster movie, with similarly predictable plotting but without the tangy dialogue. This is the one competition film I simply couldn’t sit through, so ham-fisted, obvious and simplistic is it.

Throw in Takeshi Kitano’s empty “Outrage” and you had at least four films that in no way merited competition berths. In Un Certain Regard, on the other hand, there were perhaps as many as five pictures that could have stood up in the competition with little problem: the two Romanian films, Portuguese centenarian Manoel De Oliveira’s “The Strange Case of Angelica,” German director Christoph Hochhausler’s “The City Below” and Oliver Schmitz’s emotionally affecting, beautifully acted “Life, Above All,” in which a 12-year-old South African girl rises to the occasion in the face of unimaginable family adversities. Perhaps some of these films are “smaller” than what is normally expected in the competition, but this year, anyway, smaller would have been better.

And then there were two of the genuine successes of Cannes 2010, Olivier Assayas’s sensationally fine “Carlos” and Charles Ferguson’s laser-sharp, manifestly instructive “Inside Job.” A documentary about the financial crisis, the latter could have used the extra profile a competition berth would have afforded it. As for “Carlos,” we’ve heard that it was the objections of French cinema producers that kept the five-and-a-half-hour mini-series (currently showing on French TV) out of the competition, as they didn’t want to be embarrassed by a television production beating their features for the Palme d’Or. But there is some inconsistency, a double-standard that has not satisfactorily been addressed, in that some television films–or, at least, films with heavy TV finance elements–from other countries have turned up in the competition in years past. Does the prohibition apply only to French television films? Are there written rules about this matter? Initially intending, or at least hoping, to have the film in competition, Fremaux and Gilles Jacob reportedly had the squeeze put on them at the last minute, literally right before the press conference to announce the lineup, which is why “Carlos” wasn’t mentioned at all at the time.

If “Carlos” had been in competition, there wouldn’t be much doubt as to what Sunday night’s big winner would be.

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