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Looking for Transcendence at Cannes 2011

Looking for Transcendence at Cannes 2011

I left the 64th Cannes Film Festival with no film to passionately defend, nor any movie that I felt compelled to trash either. While my brief 5-day sprint wasn’t long enough in order for me to make any grand claims about the Cannes 2011 selection (I leave that to my long-distance-running colleagues), it was a far better year than 2010, when film after film was a major disappointment. I found nothing transcendent—not even the transcendent “Tree of Life”—but I found myself pleasantly fulfilled by my Cannes diet, not overly stuffed, and with plenty to digest.

In past years, I have offered a quasi-hierarchical list of my Cannes preferences, which is also a helpful way for me to remember my initial impressions. (Another note to self: Next year, arrive later, stay later. More and more, it seems the films get better as the week goes on.) So once again, since I’ve got time on the plane back home, here goes:

Very Good

The Dardennes’ “The Boy on the Bike” is such a soft, subtle film – so small that some critics called it slight – that it feels weird for me to place it atop my Cannes viewing list. But it’s just so meticulously crafted, with every scene and every beat of every scene, so perfectly handled. I can’t say “The Boy on the Bike” is going to rock anyone’s world, but there are so many lovely moments and cliché-busting characters that make the film more than meets the eye. The Dardennes have never written an awful human being they didn’t like, with even derelict dads and drug-dealing street punks coming across as profoundly realized sympathetic people. And there’s one scene of, yes, the boy on the bike, endlessly cycling and searching for direction, that grabbed my gut in the same way as the end of Truffaut’s “400 Blows.”

Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala” may feel too long, with what seems like about two endings too many, but when all is finished, it’s entirely clear that Naranjo has been in total control of the film all along. For the first 30 minutes or so, I was in serious doubt, but I think it’s because I thought it was a genre film. But it’s not. It’s Naranjo’s subversion of a genre film. It’s not some crazy beauty-queen crime thriller; it’s Mexican melodrama meets Godard’s “Weekend,” with long tracking shots of highly orchestrated gunfights and blood-strewn bodies showing an utterly unglamorous view of the violence and action its portraying. And when Ms. Baja California jumps off the gritty battlefield streets and gets ushered onto the pristine overexposed stage of the pageant, it’s a masterfully cinematic moment of cruel irony—in addition to that boy on his bicycle, it was my other favorite Cannes moment.

I’m not sure entirely sure where Chilean film “Bonsai” fits into my overall Cannes experience, but this honest, melancholy college-age first love has stuck with me. Far more complex and intelligent than my summary conveys, I’d probably have to go back and read some Proust to fully understand what the film is doing. But “Bonsai” manages to convey the thrall of sweet first love, the romance of great books, and subvert it all, too, with a quiet unhappy ending that is as smart as it is unexpected. There’s a deliberate deadpan delivery from the young actors, which I think helps steer the film away from being twee. Fresh, authentic, heartfelt, but never saccharine, it’s what low-budget independent cinema should aspire to be.

Mixed Feelings

If Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” were a different film – without the celestial explosions, choral music, dinosaurs and explicitly supernatural currents – I would have loved it. But here’s a criticism that just occurred to me this very moment (there’s really something about writing down one’s thoughts that helps concretize your opinion): What’s so wonderful about Malick’s past films is that he expresses a kind of profound, cosmic and transcendental experience through entirely earthly means: Grounded in a keen and close exploration of light, leaves and nature, Malick’s films subtly express what is obvious and simplistic in “Tree of Life”: the sanctity, beauty and impermanence of human existence. He doesn’t need shots of the universe, the stars or talk of God; it simply overstates his case. When I think of Malick, I think of the microscopic, which still exists in wonderful detail at points in this film, between Brad Pitt’s autocratic father and his three boys, pulling roots from the ground; between two young brothers, playing threatening games of trust with an open light socket and an air gun. There’s no doubt there’s undeniable power in the film’s images, but please, I can do without the floating mother and all those whispering, “Lord, where are yous?”

Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” certainly appeals more to my cynical side, and I love the film’s first highly impressionist 30 minutes, in which Tilda Swinton’s mom is reeling in a kind of hellish state, between past and present, after her son has committed a high-school massacre. In this hallucinatory beginning, Ramsay does what she does best, creating a sensory cinematic experience through disjunctive editing, ironic musical juxtapositions and what I might call an absurdist menace. But when the film’s past storyline takes over, guiding us somewhat predictably forward towards the inevitably tragic conclusion, it loses this hallucinatory edge. Ultimately, I think I should like the movie a lot more than I do, and I’m not entirely sure why.

The Austrian film “Michael” is a finely crafted and controlled look at the banality of evil: a bespectacled pedophile works in insurance by day, while keeping a young boy locked in his basement, taking him out occasionally for meals, TV and rape. The filmmaker stands back, observing Michael’s quotidian routine and one particularly elucidating ski-trip getaway that reveals the poor, awkward, developmentally stunted soul that is Michael. Not as cruel as Haneke, as it’s been compared to, but it’s still an unpleasant little film that gets under the skin.

Some others worth noting:

The French film “Declaration of War” got me by the throat, at times, with its tale of young parents mobilizing forces, family and willpower to defeat a brain tumor in their infant son, but I found certain moments of melodrama overbearing (like when dad falls to his knees, yelling “no!”) But then there’s a great scene of subtle suffering at a party, the need to go on, despite the unbearable nature of being.

In “RETURN,” Linda Cardellini delivers a similar devastated performance as a woman racked by war; it’s a small character portrait, with another outstanding turn from Michael Shannon), and gives the actress a platform to convey her considerable depth.

Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” is also not to be discounted. I wasn’t crazy about the film, but I’m not sure why: the actors are strong and the incisive, well-constructed script is destined to win a prize for writing in Cannes.

There were only two films that I saw that I actively disliked, though that’s not to say they didn’t have their curious fascinations: “Sleeping Beauty” and “House of Tolerance.” Interesting that both films feature nude women who are paid to satisfy male desire. I found both movies to be totally muddled in what they were trying to say. And frankly, when filmmakers put young actresses up on the screen, strip them naked and place them in perverse circumstances, I think they should have a greater responsibility to know what they’re doing. And that just wasn’t the case in these two miscalculated experiments.

Oh, and I almost forgot “The Artist”; but I guess that’s about right.

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