Cannes 2010 – The final word

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Our critic Dave Calhoun returns from the 63rd Cannes Film Festival with tales of French monks, Thai ghosts and Algerian terrorists buzzing in his mind. We also report on the festival’s winners – and should-have-been winners

Each year the Cannes Film Festival performs a crafty sleight of hand. Night after night, it beams images to the world of red carpets, flowing gowns and shiny yachts. While, day after day, it beams images to those in its cinemas of blood, horror, loss, sadness, political travesty and social iniquity. Outside is the fantasy. Inside, the reality. Give or take the odd crowd-pleaser, the Cannes selection rarely takes the sunshine as its cue.

This year, even the big, out-of-competition Hollywood films were a downer: the men of Ridley Scott’s ‘Robin Hood’ were distinctly unmerry, Woody Allen’s ‘You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger’ felt like watching a once-sharp relative slip into senility and Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ was a muddled pantomime about bankers.

Last year’s Cannes was a place where the great directors of Europe – Haneke, Almodóvar, Loach, Resnais, von Trier – strutted their stuff. Where reputations were confirmed, not made. This year was different. It was more global. More varied. More challenging. There were fewer thrills. No outrages. No masterpieces even. It wasn’t a Cannes for the impatient. More than once I left a film and overheard someone wondering what the hell juror Kate Beckinsale would make of that? The ‘Underworld’ actress was one of eight jurors, alongside actor Benicio del Toro and Spanish director Victor Erice, working with president Tim Burton to decide which of 19 films would walk away with the Palme d’Or. They had their work cut out.

Before Cannes there was a minor storm in the French press over ‘Days of Glory’ director Rachid Bouchareb’s stirring ‘Outside the Law’, so in the spirit of Cannes hysteria there were police at its screening and guards to confiscate critics’ bananas. This epic, sweeping film about Algeria’s movement for independence in the 1950s looks for inspiration to Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Army of the Shadows’ for its noir-ish scenes of steely resolve and Ken Loach’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ for its interest in the fallout of revolution among brothers. Some historians had complained that Bouchareb’s script exaggerates the violence of the French authorities in Algeria in 1945, and specifically during a clash at Sétif in May 1945 which killed thousands of Algerians.

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Bouchareb’s perspective is unquestionably Algerian, but it doesn’t feel too partisan. The Sétif massacre offers Bouchareb a pivotal moment in the lives of three fictional siblings, all of whom end up in Paris in the 1950s, two as members of the National Liberation Front or FLN (Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila) and one as a cabaret and boxing impresario (Jamel Debbouze). The film offers the same broad sweeps as ‘Days of Glory’, which had a similar energy and desire to retell recent French history from a less black-and-white point of view.

I reviewed Mike Leigh’s tender ‘Another Year’ last week, but it was pleasing to see Leigh’s contemplative film riding high in critics’ lists throughout the festival. It was a shock then when Burton’s jury awarded it nothing. Many at least expected a prize for the terrific Lesley Manville. Having failed to win anything for ‘All or Nothing’ in 2002 and experienced the rejection of ‘Vera Drake’ in 2004, Leigh will surely think twice about bringing his next film to Cannes.

Another favourite for the Palme d’Or was ‘Of Gods and Men’, which landed the Grand Prix, the festival’s second prize. It’s the fifth film from 43-year-old French director and actor Xavier Beauvois. This thoughtful ensemble piece, set within the walls of a monastery in the mid-1990s, tells the story of eight French monks in Algeria who face a threat from Islamic fundamentalists and must decide whether or not to return to France. What’s most interesting about this superb, thoughtful film is that it’s less a story of peril and more a study in acknowledging death and finding a communal purpose. The cast, led by Lambert Wilson, is excellent.

Ken Loach’s ‘Route Irish’ was a late addition to the competition line-up, announced only days before the event. Mostly set in Liverpool, this is an angry film about the fallout of war both in the UK and Iraq, where Loach sets a few scenes filmed in Jordan. Like Paul Haggis’s ‘In the Valley of Elah’ it relies on mobile-phone footage and video link-ups to give a sense of life on the ground in Iraq, while its domestic story, a low-key thriller, rams home the madness and violence of war. Mark Womack plays Fergus, a former para who switches to the lucrative private sector in Iraq. Back in Liverpool, disturbed and lonely, he’s convinced that the death of an old pal who he persuaded to board the same gravy train was no accident. ‘Route Irish’ is strident but cluttered, and not one of Loach’s best. Writer Paul Laverty could have distilled his research into a clearer tale.

You wonder whether the kids hanging around outside the cinemas of Cannes each morning, begging for a ticket, know they might end up sitting through a film like ‘My Joy’, a two-hour vision of the darkest, post-Soviet hell and the first feature by Sergei Loznitsa, a young director from Ukraine. A near-silent film which follows a truck driver on a Dantean journey, it moves disconcertingly between past and present and piles outrage on outrage. It was a tough film that unexpectedly stuck with me for days.

Juliette Binoche was a worthy winner of the festival’s Best Actress award for her role in Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Certified Copy’, a walking, talking romantic puzzle set in Tuscany. It’s a cunning, teasing film about a gallery owner (Binoche) and a novelist on a publicity tour (opera singer William Shimell in his first film) who spend a few hours strolling and driving together. As time passes, we find we know less, not more, about who this couple are, and their conversations about the real and the fake – the subject of the male character’s book – take on a new significance. The film manages to be both light and inquiring, and leaves you with many questions about what you’ve seen.

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Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Film Socialisme’ also leaves you confused – but in a much less satisfying way. Reportedly the 79 year old’s last film, its screening caused a stir: was he coming, was he not; was he serious, was he not? It’s a docu-essay built on rapid-fire ideas and images relating to global politics, Hollywood, Palestine, cinema and much else. It’s hard to identify more than emotions – anger and loathing are top of the list – from a first screening of this dense work of anti-narrative. Its fabric is designed to provoke: crisp HD images mix with mobile-phone footage, sound cuts in and out and the English subtitles offer only keywords – Godard calls it ‘Navajo English’.

There was only one American film in competition, Doug Liman’s ‘Fair Game’, written by British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and based on the true story of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), a CIA operative whose identity was revealed and career ruined when her ex-diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), decided to speak out against the White House’s suggestion that uranium was being channelled to Iraq from West Africa. Liman offers a basic telling of the story for a mainstream audience – but anyone with a simple knowledge of the facts will choke at its suggestion that the CIA is whiter than white.

The jury’s decision to split the Best Actor prize between Javier Bardem and Italian actor Elio Germano threw light on their respective characters, neither of which made much sense. A dark-eyed, messed-up Bardem gives it his all in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Biutiful’, which I reviewed last week, but it’s impossible to buy the idea that Uxbal, a drug dealer and people trafficker, is a sensitive soul. Germano also fights implausibilty in ‘La Nostra Vita’, a creaky tale of Claudio, a young widower in Italy struggling to keep his life together. Both spin social reality into something unpalatable: in ‘Biutiful’, it’s sanctimonious melodrama; in ‘La Nostra Vita’, it’s sentimental soap opera.



In the end, the Palme d’Or went to Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s blissfully titled fourth feature, ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’, one of the boldest films in competition and definitely the strangest. Part of me thinks it’s a good thing that Tim Burton’s jury honoured a younger, upcoming talent working with a very original vision. But I also can’t help but feel that the mysteries of Weerasethakul’s attempt to carve a visual fantasy out of ideas of reincarnation are shallower than they appear. That said, it’s a mesmerising and unsettling work and one which I can’t wait to see again and judge afresh in the cold light of London.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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