By Matt Singer
It wasn’t just the weather that was gloomy at the 61st Cannes Film Festival. By the time the skies above southern France briefly cleared for a few days during the second week of the festival, the international press corps had been infected by a mass plague, not unlike the one portrayed in this opening night selection “Blindness,” done in reverse instead of losing their sight, hundreds of journalists stumbled around in a fog, obliged to do nothing but look, and after 12-plus days of looking at a selection of tasteful, well-made and entirely bleak movies, society’s rules were breaking down into sweaty anarchy. Those waiting in line for press screenings, always ready to devolve into contentious, multilingual shoving matches, were especially cranky. The traditional applause during a film’s closing credits was muted at best, nonexistent or drowned out by boos at the worst. Walking out of a screening on the second Friday morning of Cannes 2008, a colleague turned to me and sighed, “I’m tired, I’m sick of movies, and I’m trapped here.” That sense of imprisonment was no doubt fostered by a Cannes slate that included plenty of people wasting away behind bars, including the opening night selections, Fernando Meirelles’s “Blindness” and Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” respectively from the competition roster and the Un Certain Regard sidebar.
Of course, no movie held audiences captive longer than “Che,” Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half hour epic about the Latin American revolutionary. Technically two different films, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” (though since neither screened with any opening or closing titles, no one’s quite sure which is which), they played together at Cannes with a brief intermission. Each half informs the other in the first, Che Guevara (played by Benicio Del Toro beneath an assortment of grotty beards) helps lead Cuba’s revolution; in the second, he dies at the helm of a failed one in Bolivia but even in concert, neither seems to give a full portrait of the man.
There’s an urge to call any movie, particularly one about an important historical figure, an “epic,” but Soderbergh’s approach is micro in every way except its length. No attempt is made to explore Cuba or Bolivia or their political realities beyond the parts of it that Guevara sees trudging through their jungles; nor is any attention paid to Guevara’s personal life or those of the thinly fleshed out supporting characters who make up his armies. Though Soderbergh originally intended to depict just the Bolivian segment of the film, before deciding later that the Cuban portion was needed to add the proper context, it’s the first half, with its complex blend of time periods and visual styles, that feels the most fully formed. Though the second film opens with a particularly dramatic flourish of Guevara sneaking into Bolivia through the use of forged papers and an amazing disguise, the rest of it is almost stridently undramatic, a series of sad things happening without warning or context to a bunch of people we don’t know very much about, with Guevara himself largely absent from several longer sequences. The film’s running time is in gross excess of the insight it gives into its subject or his doomed campaign or the questions it raises or the emotions it stirs.
A more favorable ratio in a similarly themed film could be found in the “animated documentary” “Waltz With Bashir,” in which the director, Ari Folman, investigates his loss of memory about his time serving in the Israeli army by interviewing the people who knew him then and who shared similar experiences during the Lebanon War of the early 1980s. A little bit “Apocalypse Now” with a dash of “Citizen Kane” (if Kane himself had visited Mr. Bernstein and Jed Leland), told with a visual style somewhere between the psychedelia of “A Scanner Darkly” and the heightened realism of “Chicago 10,” the film manages to explore dark material without getting weighted down by it, and is enriched with a human component that felt missing from many of the competition films I saw. Its haunting ending proved a far better meditation on the sin of inaction than Meirelles’s “Blindness”
Equally cartoonish but without the requisite animation was Jennifer Lynch’s “Surveillance.” Screening as a midnight movie out of competition, Lynch’s first film since 1993’s “Boxing Helena” went directly to cult status without ever passing through mainstream channels. Its midnight movie flavor is enhanced by its blend of dissonant genre notes and oddball casting (Cheri Oteri as an obnoxious mom? French Stewart as a douchebag cop? Michael Ironside as an obnoxious douchebag?). Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond play FBI agents who piece together a couple of serial killers’ latest escapades through the varying testimonies of the crime’s three survivors (viewed, simultaneously, by Pullman on a high-tech video rig). If “Surveillance” appears superficially interested in exploring “Rashomon”-ish themes and, yes, the effect of invasive video recordings, it quickly abandons it to become an increasingly trashy thriller with a twist ending both so ludicrously obvious and so endearingly silly as to seem like something from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman’s tasteless screenwriting brother Donald in “Adaptation.”
The real Charlie Kaufman had his own screenplay at Cannes in fact, his first stab at directing his own script with “Synecdoche, New York.” Once again, he picks an artist as his subject, this time, a floundering regional theater director named Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is left by his wife (Catherine Keener) and given a “genius” grant with an unlimited budget, which he uses to create a play about truth in his own life and the rest of the inhabitants of New York City as the focus, all performed on an enormous 1:1 mockup of Manhattan inside a giant derelict warehouse.
“Synecdoche,” whose title was derived from a figure of speech used when a part of something is used to describe a whole, bursts with all the cleverness we’ve come to expect from a Kaufman creation from Keener’s art shows (paintings so miniaturized they must be viewed with magnifying glasses) to the box office girl Hazel’s house, which is always on fire but never burns down. But the film is terribly messy, and while that may be a way of emulating the play-within-the-film (or the play-within-the-play-within-the-play-within-the-film, since Caden’s project quickly begins to fold in on itself), it also forces the audience to view it at an emotional remove. Tellingly, perhaps even ominously, the Cotard theater piece never has an audience, even after its cast has been working on it for more than a decade. As “Synecdoche” left Cannes, it still hadn’t found a U.S. distributor.
It wasn’t the only one. Like “Synecdoche” and “Che,” James Gray’s “Two Lovers” came to Cannes courtesy of independent financing and without a clear path to American theaters. Like Gray’s “We Own the Night,” which premiered in competition at Cannes last year, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a young man living in Brooklyn trapped between his own confused desires and his familial responsibilities. In “Night,” he played the lone drug-running fuck-up in a family full of cops; here he’s Leonard, the suicidal son of a successful pair of Jewish immigrant dry cleaners (underplayed with quiet humanity by Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini). Moving back in with his patient parents hasn’t done much for Leonard’s self-esteem, but it reaps immediately dividends for his love life. His father’s new partner introduces him to his available daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), yet Leonard becomes much more interested in his sexy-flighty neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Audiences were decidedly mixed on “Two Lovers” and many, particularly those in the con camp, compared the film dismissively to “Marty.” We’ll have to save the discussion on when it became fashionable to hate on Paddy Chayefsky for another time; instead, let me just note that the film, my favorite from Cannes, is small in scope, but perfectly executed within its means, with some superb touches in the areas of camera work and sound. Above all, the film is one of the single finest examples of the eternal dilemma best voiced by Chris Rock: “It’s always the same [with] two women: the one you love, and the one who loves you.” And as Rock points out, and Leonard ultimately learns, “nothing will bring you down harder.” Except maybe spending two weeks in the south of France in the rain.
[Photos: “Hunger,” IFC Films, 2008; “Waltz With Bashir,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; “Two Lovers,” 2929 Productions, 2008]