Cannes Film Festival 2008: final round-up

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As the 2008 Cannes Film Festival draws to a close, Dave Calhoun reflects on an eventful 11 days, where there have been silver-screen gems galore – including the superb ’Of Time and the City‘ from Brit filmmaker Terence Davies… and plenty of parties

There were some extraordinary sights on screen at Cannes this year, from Michael Fassbender as the shrinking, hallucinating Bobby Sands in British artist Steve McQueen’s dreamlike experimental film Hunger to Benicio del Toro playing Che Guevara as a righteous soldier in Steven Soderbergh’s mesmerising four-and-a-half hour film, ‘Che’.

Nothing in the cinemas could match the beam on the face of British filmmaker Terence Davies as he bounced over the lawn of the Grand Hotel last Monday afternoon a few hours after the press screening of his new film, ‘Of Time and the City. The 62-year-old director of ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ and ‘The House of Mirth’ told me that he was ‘dizzy’ with excitement after seven years of not being able to find funding. His elation couldn’t have been more justified. His ‘Of Time and the City’ is a startling docu-essay born of his memories of growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s and ’50s. Davies uses archive footage of the city, cut to the music of Peggy Lee, Mahler, John Taverner and others. His imagery and his narration reminds us how much he and our country have changed. It runs to barely more than an hour, yet there was nothing to rival it in Cannes for the pure, emotional response it elicited from most of the small crowd who gathered to watch it in one of the festival’s smaller cinemas.

That pleasure came in the middle of an 11-day event whose official competition for the Palme d’Or offered 20 films, and though many of them were fine, none threatened to blow you away entirely. Critics waited for that elusive prize: a film that staggers you with its brilliance and originality. A few came close, but the buzzword so often overheard on the Croisette this year was ‘solid’. Still, the competition recovered quickly from the early failure of the festival’s opening film, Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness, which found much hysteria in José Saramago’s source novel about citizens in an unnamed city losing their sight, but the film couldn’t locate enough challenging ideas within its busy, febrile narrative.

Of the several impressive films shown during the festival’s early days, there was Ari Folman’s ‘Waltz with Bashir’, a powerful animated documentary about the director’s time serving as a soldier in the Israeli army in Lebanon in 1982. This kinetic film shows how Folman witnessed massacres at Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – massacres, he argues, that his army superiors tolerated. There was also Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, an isolated family drama that’s a move for this Turkish director into more layered, gothic territory than his earlier, sparser ‘Uzak’ and ‘Climates’. Atypically for Ceylan, this is a film full of events – the manslaughter of an unknown pedestrian by a politician whose driver he persuades to take the rap, followed by murder and adultery. Typically, he shows none of them. And there was Pablo Trapero’s ‘Leonera’, a compassionate and superbly acted social realist tale about a middle-class student who finds herself jailed and pregnant in the family wing of an Argentinian jail. It’s like ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’ directed by a South American Ken Loach.

Brazilian filmmakers Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas didn’t make a strong enough impression with theirLinha de Passe, a well-meaning, anti-glamorous tale of four poor brothers and their mum who rub up against religion, crime and football in São Paulo. It’s a liberal-minded, intelligent film that more recalls Salles’s ‘Central Station’ than ‘City of God’, which he produced. Also prompting a well-meaning shrug of
the shoulders was Clint Eastwood’s The Exchange, a period tale about a resilient single mother, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), in late 1920s Los Angeles who comes home one day from her job at a local telephone exchange to find that her nine-year-old son has disappeared. Collins fights police corruption and the games of a serial killer to discover what happened to her son. Its feminist credentials are as impressive as Jolie’s period costumes. It’ll probably win Oscars.

After Terence Davies’s film, the most purely pleasurable movie of the festival was Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra, a composite portrait of corruption and crime set against the backdrop of an impoverished Naples. In front of a bleak suburban landscape by the sea, two young hotheads run about with guns quoting ‘Scarface’, but this is as far away from mafia clichés as you can get. There’s a convincing journalistic feel to the film that underpins its sweep between four stories, and as drama it’s compelling, credible, shocking and sly. It was my tip for the Palme d’Or.

One always felt only one film away from politics or prisons at this year’s Cannes, and Steven Soderbergh’s two-part ‘Che’, presented at the festival as one four-and-a-half- hour film with an intermission (and sandwiches and a KitKat), offered a massive dose of the first. Soderbergh delivers an intimate, fascinating insight into a revolution that will infuriate anyone expecting a biopic or multi-faceted portrait of Guevara. We follow the lead-up to the invasion of Havana in 1957 (cut to earlier scenes in Mexico in 1954 and Che speaking at the UN in 1964) and then the failure of his late ’60s mission to lead an uprising in Bolivia. This is not Che the family man (we glimpse his wife and kids for a few minutes).

This is nothing but Che the soldier. Most of the film takes place outdoors in the midst of guerrilla warfare, and there are long, sometimes repetitive sequences as Che and his comrades hide out in the Cuban or Bolivian countryside. Its graceful, handheld look and focus on Che’s concern for ordinary people recall ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, but it’s a more challenging watch.The second film is more of a meditative art movie, as its longeurs and darker palette reflect the slow death of Che’s dream in the Bolivian jungle. But full marks to Soderbergh for ambition; it’s a reflective, searing, experimental work that will never be seen again in its Cannes form.

I loved 24 City, a new documentary from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (‘Still Life’) which mixes real footage and scripted interviews with actors and choreographed set-pieces to tell the story of modern China via the history of Factory 420, an aeronautical factory in Chengdu that stood there from 1958 until very recently and whose conversion from the industrial heart of a city to a complex of luxury flats speaks volumes about a country’s troubled transformation. Another favourite in the competition was ‘Il Divo’, the latest from Italian Paulo Sorrentino, director of ‘The Consequences of Love’ and ‘The Family Friend’. Sorrentino turns the career of seven-time Italian PM Giulio Andreotti into a grotesque political carnival, all prosthetic ears, deathly make-up, incongruous music, striking tableaux, creepy caricatures and an ever-travelling camera. It creates a powerful atmosphere of corruption and illness in the Italian body politic.

For me, the unknown quantities in the competition were Serbis from Filipino Brillante Mendoza and ‘Delta’ from Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó. The first was a loud, rough, out-of-control portrait of a Manilla sex cinema and gay pick-up joint run by a crazy family. It caught the eye for an hour and then became tiresome, making the dirtiest of Soho’s basement screens look like a nunnery. ‘Delta’ was an allegorical portrait puzzle of incest and community alienation rendered indecipherable by a cocktail of a vague story and festival fatigue.

The final film I caught was Charlie Kaufman’s Synedoche, New York, the first film as both a writer and director from the writer of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Adaptation’. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dejected theatre director in upstate New York who finds the only way to deal with his increasing lack of a grip on life’s twists, turns and mysteries is to recreate, over many decades, an ever-evolving, never finished theatre piece that mirrors his existence. At its best, it’s funny and invigorating, reminiscent of early 1970s Woody Allen; as it develops, it becomes less funny and more confusing and too much like the worst of Kaufman’s own writing. But you have to admire the guy’s wild ambition. ‘When are we going to get an audience in here?’ asks one of Hoffman’s cast members. ‘It’s been 17 years.’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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