By Dennis Lim
There is without fail an onslaught of entries at any major international film festival that falls under the ever-expanding rubric of feel-bad cinema. In that department, the bar has been set dauntingly high at Cannes this year by Austria’s king of pain Ulrich Seidl. “Import/Export,” his first Cannes entry and his fiction feature since 2001’s “Dog Days,” incorporates two of the most distinct characteristics of contemporary Austrian cinema. It emphasizes geographic, if not economic, mobility and it mixes fiction and nonfiction (using non-pros and real locations, including a porn studio and a geriatric ward, in a fictional scenario).
In the “Import” segment, a nurse and single mother journeys from her frigid, dead-end Ukrainian existence to scarcely more hospitable Vienna, where she finds work tending to spoiled brats and cleaning up after the senile and infirm. In “Export” (the stories never dovetail but are evocatively intercut), an Austrian lunkhead and his piggish stepfather venture into the former Soviet bloc, delivering gumball machines and participating in gruesome tableaux of abjection. Unblinkingly photographed by Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler, the film isn’t much of an advance for Seidl’s bludgeoning, depressive sensibility, but the leavening measures of compassion and absurdist humor are more pronounced than in the past.
Within the context of this festival, the impeccably made “Import/Export” seems a tough-minded rebuke to Fatih Akin’s humane but visually flat and overly neat transnational drama “The Edge of Heaven,” which hinges on a similar crisscrossing premise one that it pads out with more pseudo-cosmic coincidences that even Kieslowski would have tolerated. Spiraling out from a pair of mirrored tragedies the death of a German woman in Turkey and the death of a Turkish woman in Germany the movie forces its largely believable and sympathetic characters into an increasingly ludicrous web of contrivances.
One of the most intriguing sub-themes of Cannes ’07 has been the reformed miserablist. In Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light,” to cite the most grandiose example, the Mexican abjection specialist tempers his confrontational aesthetic with an infusion of Dreyer. Set amid an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico, “Silent Light” is a typically bold and even nutty experiment, with many bravura cinematographic feats and tricks (rhymed sunrise/sunset shots, a camera mounted to a corn thrasher, conspicuous lens flares), but I must confess a preference for Reygadas the bad boy there was more substance in the bile and misanthropy of “Battle in Heaven” than in the new film’s ostentatious spirituality.
Like the Reygadas, Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely” could be considered the first self-consciously mature work by a onetime enfant terrible. It’s also Korine’s first post-rehab effort (after what the press book terms “the dark years”) and his first since “Julien Donkey-Boy.” “Mister Lonely” has what you might call a mellowed sweetness. The freak show this time is more melancholy than garish: A Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) and joins a colony of outcast doppelgangers (including Denis Lavant as Charlie Chaplin and reunited “Performance” stars James Fox and Anita Pallenberg as the Pope and the Queen of England). The film is something of a mess, overlong and unfocused (even by Korine’s standards), but it’s also vivid, even enchanting, and it contains some of the loveliest images I’ve seen all week (most of them involving skydiving nuns).
Eagerly anticipated and hugely disappointing, Béla Tarr’s “The Man From London” might well be the Hungarian master’s attempt to lighten up. There’s the relatively compact running time (two and a quarter hours) and a missing-loot premise, adapted from Georges Simenon, that could just as well have worked for the Coen brothers. But the movie, at least after its staggering opening minutes, suggests nothing so much as deep stagnation. Almost every shot calls attention to its own virtuosity (the cinematography is by German director and Tarr acolyte Fred Kelemen). For all the dazzling fluidity of the camerawork, the film itself lumbers along wearily and with a surprising lack of grace.
[Photo: Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely,” MK2 Productions, 2007]