Walking around the marché yesterday one had the sense of an ending, the stalls were ghostly, quiet, particularly if one remembered them earlier in the week buzzing with enthusiasm and hard-sell. The colourful posters advertising world cinema for next year looked forlorn, as if left behind, slightly irrelevant. Some won, some lost, some will not be heard of again.
Word is it hasn’t been a particularly strong year in the Official Selection. Offerings by Akin and Ozon have disappointed, and Haneke has divided audiences, but even those enjoying Happy End recognized it did not contribute anything very new. The best received films (Campillo, Zvyagintsev) came early, and that has given the latter part of the festival a taste of anticlimax.
Who cares, really. I understand some people need masterpieces, like political movements need their “Historic dates” and advertising needs slogans. But I would argue that masterpieces only really become so in time, and that Festivals are not the best place to find them. A film festival is a strange creature, it does certain things very well, in other cases it just adds a sense of confusion or bafflement. It’s not just that the amount of films precludes any careful consideration. The noise is more general and it can muffle art. Being surrounded by the film business for fifteen hours every day, one gets to hear opinions, and gets to feel the need people need to give opinions. I did not want to be unkind, but often I found myself smiling with my mouth but a deadpan glare in my eyes. No, masterpieces is not what Cannes is about. Or gossip. Or the costumes. Or even the deals.
Cannes helps keep alive a certain mystique of cinema. Mystiques are always a lie, but at least this one is my lie, and I have to confess that being a place where movies matter, where people gather to take some risks, to expect some kind of revelation, really do it for me. Even under the sun, waiting in line for hours each day, unable to eat, frustrated at being turned down, I feel I understand what the place is about, and it matters to me. This may all disappear soon. Not moving images, of course, but a certain mystique of cinema; in fact it may have disappeared in most places in the world at large. Yet, here we are. People keep on putting talent, time, money, joy, sweat and tears into this. Yes, it’s a business, but for a business it does things to the heart that very others manage.
Not that today I have a lot to celebrate in terms of the films I saw. The Fatih Akin film Aus dem Nichts is very watchable, but it is sad that this is the best I can summon about it. The plot suggests something topical on the effects of xenophobia which Akin could have developed very well. After all, the roots of xenophobia are in the difficulties for intercultural communication he has articulated so well in the past. There is something complex even in the most hateful behaviour, and he seems to be aware of this.
But the film becomes very much the story of how a woman struggles with her feelings for revenge after her husband and son are killed in a bombing organized by a Nazi group. There is very little background, and although everyday racism is actually mentioned, not much is made of it.
Yes, the grief this character must feel is unimaginable, but in a film, in any kind of narrative, really, this is far from enough. Akin seems to think he is the first to think about the horror of such losses, the despair. But grief and struggling with loss do not in themselves make for great cinema. I won’t even go into the “having it both ways” ending, but suffice to say that Akin seems to make things too easy on itself and, after series like American Crime or The Night Of… have made violence complex and fascinatingly narrative, this seems a bit light.
Ozon’s L’amant double is also a disappointment. The striking visuals (the opening juxtaposition, staircases, mirrors, camera setups) are still there, as in most of his films, calling attention on themselves, and make the shots interesting, but no stylish shot can save a plot that actually seems a re-thread of middle period De Palma, taken a bit too seriously. As in De Palma there is sex, paranoia, psychopaths and lots of turning points. And a lot of nothing.
The key reference seems to be Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a film about twins some people like more than me. I just find the idea of twins only mildly interesting, and when it goes into the biological details it becomes dull. Aus Dem Nichts needed a bit more background, in this film everything seems to be background or sex. The problem with films like this one, or the De Palma ones in the 80s is that they have an idea of sex I don’t share. Of course there’s nothing psycopathic, do I need to point out, about those two gorgeous people wanting to have sex with each other. Why does the film insist they seem to do it for the wrong reasons and on false pretences.
Because the plot keeps on changing tone and direction, one feels one is being entertained. Then the conclusion comes, the mystery is revealed and one is left a bit puzzled. Ozon’s Frantz, beautiful and heartfelt, was one of last year’s very best films, and I am sure he will go back into insightful musings on fantasy and emotional frailty or great meta-textual whodunnits like Dans la maison, and I’ll be eagerly looking forward to those. Maybe next year.
Although I did not quite know what to expect with the Chinese entry Walking Past the Future, directed by Li Ruijun, the description made me think of themes featured in Jia Zhang-Ke’s film about the wounds left in China by a rapidly developing economy. But this is where we separate the lyrical and the prosaic: similar themes get there a treatment which is largely melodramatic, literal. There is a sense of melancholy and urban landscape and the film feels relevant, but somehow it was difficult to understand why the characters enter those situations, really. It’s as if the melodrama was not earned. The film is a textbook on social and economic change, but Jia’s poetry is nowhere to be found.
When the big names disappoint, one turns towards less well known filmmakers. In the same way festivals can make films like L’amant double look worse than they actually are, they have also been known to blow up reputations out of proportion. That’s a side effect of mystique. Having said that, I think Stephan Komandarev’s Posoki/ Directions is a truly wonderful film.
Yes, the message is simple, a bit too topical, a bit too local for some. As summarized by one character: “Bulgaria is a country of optimists because all the realists and the pesismists have left”. I need to add the film doesn’t take this thesis at face value, and develops the way in which Bulgaria is becoming the epitome of a failed state, where, as another character says “nothing is legal”; everything depends on murky interests, people who complain are punished, the law is not there to defend citizens but to defend the lawmakers.
A good man, a taxi driver, gets trapped in a web of corruption, everything is stacked against him and he is humiliated by a hateful bully of a banker who was supposed to help him get a living. Because he is, after all, a product of his culture, he does a desperate act and shoots the banker. The film’s action takes place during that night, in which he might die after attempting suicide. The protagonists are other taxi drivers in Sofia, some of them knew the man, some are in parallel situations, about to break down and do something as violent.
As some kind of inventive version of La ronde, the attention shifts to the different taxis and their costumers. They of course have their radios on, and we hear news bulletins about the murder, but also many callers to other programmes who express their views: some of them are bonkers, some are fascist, some more poised. We get to see the initial event through the eyes of the whole country. And the portrait that emerges is not pretty. The film is shot in a hyper realistic low light, low resolution style, with very long takes, uninterrupted and relentless, with specific attention to the antomy of the city with its casinos, brothels, hotels, dirt, and desperate, suicidal characters.
And of course it’s not just about Bulgaria. The film’s dialogues are so illuminating, so well written, so specific, that they keep on echoing our own experiences elsewhere. In that sense, Komandarev’s Bulgaria can be a warning to us all, who can see the slippery slope into chaos much closer to home.
And masterpieces or not, this is also something film can do: put the mirror in front of us.