By Dennis Lim
Not surprising given his own directorial sensibility, the defining characteristic of Stephen Frears’ jury turned out to be eclecticism. Whatever your predilections, there was probably not a lot to complain about, given how this year’s awards wealth was distributed between arty young auteurs (Carlos Reygadas, Naomi Kawase) and likely crowd pleasers (“Persepolis,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “The Edge of Heaven”), even between the critically adored (“Secret Sunshine”) and unloved (“The Banishment”). The jury’s most defiant statement, in the end, was its evident indifference (or worse) to studio-backed American genre films. While the Coens, Tarantino and Fincher all left empty-handed, Frears and co. found a way to reward Gus Van Sant, presenting the recent laureate with a 60th anniversary prize for the superb “Paranoid Park.”
As for the Palme d’Or, there could be no less controversial winner at least among the critical contingent than Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days,” an overwhelming favorite literally from day one, to the point where its reputation seems to me now in danger of being inflated. Extremely well directed and acted, “4 Months” is a moral tale as suspense movie and it works on the principle of withheld information those who saw it at its first screening, before it was christened “the Romanian abortion movie,” can attest to the improbable, nail-biting effectiveness of the flatly observed opening minutes. Once its subject is clear, and events turn ever grimmer, the movie becomes less urgent and more methodical in depicting the privations of Ceausescu-era Romania, where black-market economics have polluted human interactions and transactions. With its long-take choreography and low-key naturalism, “4 Months” unavoidably evokes “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (both films were shot by Oleg Mutu), but, lacking the universality and metaphysical ambitions of Cristi Puiu’s film, can’t help suffering in comparison.
Was this, as many commentators have declared, the best Cannes in years? There were relatively few films I whole-heartedly loved (I counted four: “Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Secret Sunshine,” “Go Go Tales,” “Paranoid Park”), but only the crankiest of critics would grumble about the overall quality. It’s worth noting, though, that more than half of my dozen or so favorites screened outside the competition. The Quinzaine enjoyed a reasonably strong edition: Besides Anton Corbijn’s prize-winning “Control,” high points included Serge Bozon’s “La France,” an almost Bressonian WWI movie with a cross-dressing Sylvie Testud and Belle and Sebastian-ish musical interludes; Nicolas Klotz’s “La Question Humaine,” a wry, cerebral drama that recalls Arnaud Desplechin’s “La Sentinelle” in its view of history as a haunting (substituting the Holocaust for the Cold War); and Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s erotic unhappy-marriage mood piece (and decisive return to form), “Ploy.”
Back in the official selection, the (widely dismissed) “midnight movies” by Abel Ferrara and Olivier Assayas were, for me, superior to almost all of the actual title contenders. And three of my festival favorites came from the Un Certain Regard section: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s exquisite “Flight of the Red Balloon”; Diao Yinan’s “Night Train,” the poised tale of a female Chinese executioner that moves from terse character study to terse existential thriller; and Cristian Nemescu’s “California Dreamin’ (Endless),” the other Romanian film.
It’s a shame that more people didn’t get to see Nemescu’s movie, which had minimal pre-screening publicity and was the last film to screen in Un Certain Regard, where it promptly won the top prize. Tragically, Nemescu was only 27 when he died in a car crash last summer. His debut feature is billed as unfinished a producer added the posthumous titular parentheses and at two and a half hours, could clearly have used some additional sculpting, but its verve and expansiveness more than make up for the ragged edges and occasional slack patch.
In 1999, a convoy of U.S. soldiers, en route to Kosovo, is detained in a Romanian village by a despotic stationmaster (they’re missing the necessary paperwork); with most of the locals, from the mayor to the high school’s female population, intent on “seducing” the Americans, culture-clash tragicomedy ensues. It’s not the most subtle allegory for the American habit of forcibly exporting democracy and turning foreign misadventures into messy conflagrations. But it has energy, wit and heart to spare and, as an anti-American smackdown, even maintains an affection for its ostensible targets. Nemescu’s first and last film provided a largely apolitical Cannes edition with its missing Iraq movie and a festival of mostly familiar faces and known quantities with its major discovery.
[Photo: Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” IFC First Take, 2007]