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OVER THEIR DEAD BODIES Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe copulate on a pile of corpses in Antichrist.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe copulate on a pile of corpses in Antichrist.

Report from Cannes

The French fest tones down the glitz but still delivers the cinematic gems.

By Stephen Garrett

Zut alors! Could the Cannes Film Festival actually be a kinder, gentler version of itself in 2009? Any event where tens of thousands of media professionals, movie moguls and celebrity gawkers convene could hardly be considered demure. But there’s a distinctly less carnivalesque atmosphere at this 62nd installment, in a year when the browbeaten global economy and a lacerated press industry have taken a noticeable toll. (By one publicist’s estimation, as many as a third of the U.S. journalists who would otherwise be here have stayed at home.) The tout-crazy billboards announcing film productions are also uncharacteristically modest: One eight-foot-tall Transformers model and a balloon-lofted dollhouse (for the festival’s opening-night film, Pixar’s animated parable Up) planted on the Croisette come off as halfhearted announcements of the summer’s blockbusters. Even the star power is diminished. When Mariah Carey (here tub-thumping for her minor role in the Sundance prizewinner Precious, formerly known as Push) is the paparazzi’s biggest prize, something has seriously gone off the rails.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Cannes Film Festival

But we’re all here to watch movies, aren’t we? And from that perspective, it’s been a happily gratifying year. Whether it’s an old lion like Francis Ford Coppola flexing his muscles with the tortured-artist family psychodrama Tetro or South Korean genre disciple Park Chan-wook sprouting fangs for the vampire-priest thriller Thirst, many films still offer beguiling insight and images, even the less triumphant ones. Case in point: Bright Star, a return to form for Piano darling Jane Campion that, despite being an emotionally featherweight treatment of an end-of-days romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the poet’s strong-willed neighbor (Abbie Cornish), is still an impeccably pretty love reverie, sumptuously told. Best of the fest so far is Jacques Audiard’s electrifying prison drama, A Prophet, a grand, harrowing discourse on the Arab soul of modern-day France as told through the rise of a young punk using any morally dubious opportunity to survive. Bold, ambitious and self-assured in every frame, A Prophet is exactly the kind of art-house feast that represents Cannes at its most relevant.

And then there is Antichrist. Lars von Trier’s wickedly frisky, surrealistic portrait of a husband and wife (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who cope with the death of their child by retreating to an isolated cottage in a very spooky forest. The human despair set against pastoral chaos mixes gender politics with horror tropes, creating a peerless stew of deranged symbolism and visceral mutilation. Requisite boos and huzzahs filled the Theatre Debussy after its maiden voyage, dividing critics with alacrity and sending many off in a state of shock. “Festival centerpiece!” one wag mischievously joked to New York Film Festival head honcho Richard Pea, who smiled diplomatically and kept walking.


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