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Critical Consensus: Robert Koehler and Michael Phillips Let Loose on the Best and Worst of Cannes 2012

Critical Consensus: Robert Koehler and Michael Phillips Let Loose on the Best and Worst of Cannes 2012

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics listed in Indiewire’s Criticwire Network discuss a recent topic from the film world with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips and Variety contributor Robert Koehler discuss this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Forget, for a moment, whether or not this year’s Cannes program was good or bad. What surprised you?
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: Well, I want to land on a positive note, but let me start on a note of discouragement: Early in the festival we saw the Jacques Audiard film “Rust and Bone.” His last film in competition at Cannes, “A Prophet,” was really masterly pulp. And it only took him, one more movie, to make a big hunk of mediocre Hollywood cheese that just happened to be in the French language, I think that was the first film I saw this year that made me think, “Please don’t give this any awards, this is not the right sort of work to recognize.”
The Michael Haneke film, “Amour” — of all the major international auteurs that come back year after year at Cannes, I believe Haneke was the only director who was here this year with a film that was more interesting than his previous competition titles, but it did seem like a notable shift in tone. It has a more surface compassion for the characters that you tend to get in Haneke.

I was looking at Bob’s review and he gave it pretty faint praise, saying that it wasn’t bad and certainly an improvement on the “White Ribbon.”

MP: I liked it more than that, but Bob, you were cold to it.

ROBERT KOEHLER: Well, I was. I don’t see this as Haneke delivering the best of the bunch. I think Ulrich Seidl delivered one of his very best films this time with “Paradise: Love,” and as I think more and more about it, I think it may be Seidl’s best film. I think it’s extremely daring, it deals with a paradox with what they call colonial feminism. Trying to wrap your head around that paradox and seeing it play out was very brave, and politically incorrect. It’s a naughty film, and precisely the type of film I want to see more of in the competition. Also, with “The Hunt,” I think Thomas Vinterberg delivered a better film than “A Celebration.”

MP: Really? No…

BK: Oh yeah, it’s a much better film than “Celebration.”

The jury seemed to imply it felt Mads Mikkelsen’s performance was the film’s strongest suit by giving him an acting prize but otherwise ignoring the film.
BK: Well yeah, maybe, I’m a little surprised that film was divisive as it was. I think it very much was a solid, down the middle, or maybe a double for Vinterburg.

MP: Well, yeah I agree with that characterization, but what I really missed, Bob, was that I don’t think the audience experiences for a single moment any kind of moral discomfort. There isn’t a single moment of moral discomfort for that protagonist. It’s more the lesser plays of Ibsen, where the guy is just clearly a victim of this societal process.

BK: Without going into a lot of details about the film, I think the morally disturbing moment for me was near the end, when he dares to actually, once again, touch the little girl. I was astounded he had the chutzpah or, the, nerve, or courage, or balls, or absolute blindsidedness to go there. I was just astonished by that, and it immediately made his character far more complex than I had taken it to be.

MP: But when you think back to “Celebration,” it more expansively illustrates one idea: What if the hypocrisies came leaking out of this family’s celebration?

BK: You can say they’re both high concept, psychodramas.

MP: But look, it was far from the most interesting stuff in the competition.

BK: No question, I think Abbas Kiarostami’s film, “Like Someone in Love,” was a whole lot better than his “Certified Copy.”

MP: Really? I don’t agree.

BK: It really surprised me. The initial wave of response, on the first day it screened, was very negative. What was fascinating, to me, as each day went by, I was hearing more and more counter to that. And by the time I saw it, on the final day, I went in saying, “Wow, I am really in for a treat here, I am getting such different responses from this film now.” I really was quite surprised, and struck by how adept he was at switching gears into totally different social contexts — completely different sets of manners, cultures, styles, while maintaing the same types of themes that he’s explored consistently throughout his career: specifically ones of mistaken identity, ones of ironic reversal, ones of surfaces shattered — literally, in the final moment of the film, so it was very much in line with his cinema.

The way you talk about it calls to mind a similarly divided reaction to Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux.”

MP: Well, that’s one of my very favorites of the year.

BK: I agree. I think this was a better film than his “Silent Light.” Actually Hong Sang-Soo delivered as strong as a film this time [with his competition entry “In Another Country”] as he had previously in his entries for Un Certain Regard, where he was previously placed at the festival. So I would say that some of Thierry’s favorite filmmakers underperformed this time, but there were also some who delivered more.

MP: Reygadas is a good example of that. I don’t know if I prefer it to a “Silent Light,” but it’s different enough, in every way, and in terms of how the narrative is very freeform and essayistic. When I look at something like “The Hunt,” I can be really shaken up by it, and it’s a real gut-grinder, but I really love Reygadas’ constant moral flux about what’s going on. I was amused at the end of the festival when [jury president] Nanni Moretti essentially acknowledged in the final press conference that there were three provocative and difficult movies, and they really felt like they only needed to recognize one of them. That’s why they gave the director card to Reygadas and said to hell with “Holy Motors.” And that’s an interesting case, because for a lot of people this year in attendance at Cannes, the only film they made sure to see a second time was “Holy Motors.”

BK: That was my case, that was the only film I saw a second time. I went out of my way to see it a second time.

MP: Me too. That and the Reygadas.

BK: When you look back a year from now or five years from now, those are going to be the two films that are really remembered from this competition, the ones that point to the future of cinema. They have a forward-looking view of what cinema’s capacities are, what the potential is.
That raises another question: If it’s going take a couple of years to make those kind of judgement calls, how valuable is the coverage coming out of this festival?

MP: Bob, we were talking about this earlier. When you’re there, trying to give an impression of where the festival’s going in a given year, while you’re also doing your best to address the specific film you’re dealing with that day, or the specific three or four films you’re dealing with that day, it’s like you’re standing in front of the Seurat painting from three inches away, and all you can see is the dots.

I liked Kiarostami’s film less than you did, but the visual density of the first 15 minutes of that film, in the club sequence where you meet all the characters and get the simple narrative established, there are so many kind of elliptical riddles going on, just in terms of who’s talking and who we’re supposed to focus on, what is the spatial relationship between people. Even though I had issues with that picture, it was the kind of thing where five days later, I thought, I can’t wait to see the first 10 minutes of that film again.

BK: I think the test of a good critic is when you’re in the crossfire of Cannes, which is as close to a battleground situation as film critics are likely to get into, where there is so much stuff going on all at once, and you’re trying to find a clarified picture of it. For me, it was clear by the end of the competition that “Holy Motors” and “Post Tenebras Lux” were the two films that were really advancing the art form.

MP: Bob, we have different tastes, but we tend to have a similar yearning for that kind of test of what a narrative really means, and what you can do with it, and how a film’s visual rhythm kind of replaces a conventional narrative, and god knows that’s a different achievement than what Haneke came up with for “Amour.” While I think “Amour” is terrific, it’s a different achievement. Can we talk about how lousy some of the English-language pictures were?

BK: Some of my colleagues were highly anticipating the American entries. I wasn’t so sure myself. I came in with a bit of skepticism over that — why Lee Daniels was in there and John Hillcoat, knowing full well that Harvey Weinstein had recut “Lawless.” That was already well known. It seemed curious on paper. There was a lot of anticipation around Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” which actually I found extremely satisfying.

MP: Yeah, that one you don’t have to apologize for.

BK: But the others were disasters.

MP: It’s an issue of carpet. If you’re really going to make a deal with the devil and say, “All right, we’ll show ‘Lawless,’ at least you get Jessica Chastain, Tom Hardy or Shia LaBeouf out of it.” It’s not even the fact that Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” turned out to be seriously berserk. I mean in a festival that included “Post Tenebras Lux” and “Holy Motors,” Daniels’ film was still the nuttiest thing at the festival. At least it was that. But it was the thudding banality of Hillcoat’s “Lawless” where I thought, “You’re kidding me!” We haven’t even had a good bootlegging movie in a while. This thing doesn’t even have any energy.

BK: I assumed it was in there as a quid pro quo for getting “Django Unchained” into competition next year.

MP: Who knows? There’s a lot of that speculation.

BK: It’s a measure of how bad “Lawless” is that one would even ponder what kind of strategies were afoot behind the scenes that led to this being even considered for competition. That was the problem overall with this competition. I studiously avoided Ken Loach’s “The Angel’s Share” and Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy.” I used those as excuses to sleep in. There were other films that had no business being in competition, starting with the first day, with Yousry Nasrallah’s “After the Battle.” And why was “Killing Them Softly” in competition?

MP: Well, with that one, I don’t know if it works, but I found it interesting because of Andrew Dominik’s previous film, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.” He’s as fine a filmmaker as Hillcoat, so at least you have pedigree there. I will say that two of the films that made the most noise this year were very conventional but satisfying narrative features: Haneke’s “Amour” and the Chilean film “No” from Directors’ Fortnight. It’s certainly one of the best movies about advertising and politics I’ve seen in a long time. Sometimes, the word of mouth at Cannes really is legitimate.

BK: It was very encouraging for those of us who had a lot of issues with Pablo Larraín’s previous films “Post-Mortem” and “Tony Manero.” Based on those films, I had no idea what this filmmaker was like. Even though they were two parts of a trilogy on Pinochet’s dictatorship, this one is completely different stylistically and this time he really hits it out of the park. It looks at what politics and media really do to people.
You haven’t mentioned Un Certain Regard much at all. Was that whole section a misfire this year?

MP: I only saw a small handful of pictures in that section, so I hardly got a sense of the breadth or quality of the work there. However, I’m in the minority about “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It’s flashy and imaginative; the filmmaker’s got real skill, but I found that movie’s technique awfully pushy.

BK: I would double down on that view. I think it’s even maybe something of a fraud. We’re going to look back, again five years from now, and think “What were we thinking?” I think the critical consensus on that film is astonishing. Every year there’s a film like this, usually that comes out of Sundance.

MP: I did not feel that way about “Precious,” though, which also came out of Sundance and then played Cannes. I think that film is an extremely effective melodrama. But it’s too early to make the call on the director of “Beasts.”

BK: It’s worth noting that it won the Camera d’Or.

MP: Right. For best first film.

BK: That’s very significant because it’s the only prize that cuts across all categories.

I didn’t see much of Un Certain Regard. I thought it was overall an off year, but the one that got away from me but many seemed to think was the best film at Cannes was Joaquim Lafosse’s film “A perdre la raison” (“Our Children”). He’s made a wonderful string of films. The best of the bunch that I saw was “Student” by Darezhan Omirbayev. That was a kind of tribute to Bresson. Occasionally it was too studiously imitating Bressonian technique, but it had a lot of integrity to it. And it really stood out in terms of filmmaking from almost anything else you’d see.

MP: Speaking of Bresson, do you find that there’s a certain quality or aura to the ushers at Cannes, that they’re reformed pickpockets who might fall off the wagon at any moment? I like a lot of them and you sort of get to know them year after year. You have to appreciate a festival of this complexity that really manages to start a 7:30 screening at 7:30. I find these guys fabulously enigmatic. You know there’s a good story, probably a criminal story, behind them.

BK: That’s quite a detour, Michael. (laughs)

On the other hand, it brings this conversation full circle. A lot of discussion about Cannes involves not the movies but the environment of the festival. A lot of the tweets and daily reports reflect journalists who are tired, on deadline, frustrated and so on. That can overwhelm actual focus on the quality of the movies. Given that risk, do you think there’s still a value in going to Cannes rather than seeing the movies later?

MP: Absolutely. It’s crucial for an American critic to be reminded on the front line, at the first look at so many amazing — and less amazing — pictures, that this world doesn’t revolve around what a handful of U.S. studios would have you believe. It’s a fantastic, immersive experience, and really a wonderful test of your own critical abilities.

BK: In a perverse way, it could be Fremaux’s way of saying, “Well, this is the state of American films.” So you really get a crossection by seeing these films inside the competition, the highest possible profile. He has a reason for putting those in there, as he always states, and I think there’s a perversity to doing that. It’s a deliberate choice.

MP: Also, most people realize that film criticism is an aggressively subjective pursuit and festival programming should be no less fiercely subjective. It’s all about finding out the merits or lack of merits in the reasons for certain decisions.

BK: That’s actually a misnomer critics have about programming. Having been a programmer, I can tell you that programming is made fairly complex by the fact that there’s a balance of one’s subjective loves and objects of adoration that you must have in your programs. And there are many films you are obligated to have.

MP: Oh, yeah. Some films are about the art and some films are about the carpet. That, to me, is Cannes in a nutshell. I love the two-headed nature of it. The only image that so many people have of this festival is Brad and Angelina on the red carpet. To see that same stretch of carpet at 8:30am the next morning for the next press screening, to see it instantly deglamorized by all these pasty, sweaty journalists… it’s like some kind of reverse Midas touch. You’ve never seen a red carpet so instantly deglamorized.

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