So in the end, how was Cannes? As I’m writing this, at 36,000 ft. somewhere above Greenland, I realize I’ll need a response for that question by the time I get back. The short answer: the weather sucked, and it wasn’t a banner year for films, but there were some good ones. They still need time to settle. As much as critics grumble about the quality of the films when we’re racing around the festival, by the end of the year, they’re usually starting to look pretty good. Some final reflections:
MY FAVORITE FILMS
• Che Running four-and-a-half hours with an intermission, this chaste epic seems bent on denying us the bourgeois luxury of emotional insight. Yet even though it leaves out the most controversial interlude of Che Guevara’s life, and any sense of personal motivation or inner turmoil, it chronicles his rise and fall in riveting historical detail. Of everything I saw in Cannes, this is still the one I’m eager to see again.
• Entre les Murs (The Class) There’s a reason Sean Penn’s jury voted unanimously to give it the Palme d’Or. Unlike Che, this is a modest drama about a war the size of classroom. And it’s fought in candid close-ups. Employing a non-professional cast of students, led by an former teacher playing himself, director Laurent Cantet takes vérité intimacy to a new level.
• Three Monkeys Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan may have the best eye of any filmmaker alive today. No one has shot characters in a landscape with such forbidding existential beauty since Antonioni.
• Linha de Passe Shooting guerilla-style in the asphalt jungle of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s Walter Salles (nCentral Station, Motorcycle Diaries) mixes non-actors and professionals in a stirring portrait of working class kids trying to eke a future out of soccer, religion, crime and gridlock. Location, location, location.
• The Silence of Lorna Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, who have already won the Palme d’Or twice, don’t make it a hat trick. But their film, which won best screenplay, is up to their usual standard, and it deals with their favorite theme: immigrant desperation. As an Albanian woman who marries to get Belgian citizenship—in order to divorce and remarry a Russian mobster—Arta Dobroshi deserved the best actress prize as much as the woman who won it—Linha de Passe’s Sandra Corveloni
• Adoration Atom Egoyan’s best film since The Sweet Hereafter. It’s not for everyone—Egoyan is an acquired taste. But here his knack for perverse wit and elliptical narrative pay off as he reanimates his signature obsession with false identity, family secrets and recovered memory. It’s also gratifying to see Egoyan reclaim the notion of confessional home video, which he was toying with years before YouTube or Facebook.
• Hunger British artist Steve McQueen deserved and won the Camera d’Or for best debut feature. It opened the sidebar program Un Certain Regard, but deserved to be in the main competition. Empathizing with both guards and inmates, McQueen dramatizes the IRA’s lethal hunger strike at Maze Prison—and somehow salvages grace and human dignity from a harrowing spectacle of filth, torture and starvation.
• Tyson Director James Toback plays therapist to the most notorious thug who ever stepped into a ring. And in this brazenly unbalanced act of documentary fellatio, he proves that villains are more interesting than heroes.
• Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona Woody Allen is the first to admit his movies fail more often than not. This sunny confection, which played out of competition, is his best work since Match Point. Amid the serious Cannes curriculum, it felt like recess as we stepped into a Barcelona postcard to watch Javier Bardem and and Penelope Cruz breathe fire into Woody’s deadpan clichés of Latin romance
WORST STAR BEHAVIOR
I saw the Maradona documentary, but somehow missed Madonna documentary, which played outside the official selection. All I know is that it’s about the need to rescue African children afflicted by AIDS and poverty, and that Madonna showed up with a few dire needs of her own. Staff at the Carlton Hotel reported that she flew into a rage when her room did not meet her specifications—that it be stocked with fresh flowers, equipped with a hook in the ceiling and climate-controlled at precisely 20 degrees.
THE CURSE OF OPENING AND CLOSING NIGHT
Canadians were proud to learn that Blindness, a Canadian co-production would open Cannes, the first to do so in 28 years ago. This turned out to be a mixed blessing, as the film was slaughtered by enough critics to do serious damage, and unfairly in my view. What happened?
Be careful what you wish for. Opening Cannes is as much an onus as an honour. And it comes with a catch: if you want that spotlight you have to pay for the opening night party. Originally, Cannes programmers didn’t like Blindness enough to offer it a spot in competition. When the program was first announced, and Blindness wasn’t part of it.
But as a veteran programmer from another festival explained to me, wrangling an opening night gala is tricky. The film has to have stars for the red carpet, it can’t be overly long, and it should be accessible to a black-tie audience, who are not the most astute cinephiles on the planet. Cannes was probably courting a number of prospects. “You like to keep something in your back pocket in case everything falls through,” said my programmer friend. Maybe that was the case with Blindness. Maybe not. But it’s likely that when the festival offered the film’s producers opening night, they accepted only on the condition it also be in competition, which is often not the case for opening galas.
Whether or not it was by strategy or serendipity thatBlindness kicked off the competition, in hindsight it’s clear that it wasn’t a good move. Cannes is a high-risk casino, and exposing a film to the pressure of competition and opening night only heightens the stakes.
What about the closing night film? That “honour” tends to be the festival booby prize. No one interested in generating festival buzz wants the final slot, which lands too late to be part of the competition. Two of Denys Arcand’s biggest failures, Stardom and Days of Darkness premiered as closing night galas in Cannes. This year’s closer was What Just Happened? It’s a rather lame satire of Hollywood starring Robert De Niro as the hapless producer of a messed-up movie starring Sean Penn that ends up opening the Cannes festival. So at least it seemed appropriate. And with Penn chairing the jury, it allowed Hollywood’s chosen few to have a chuckle at their own expense.