Cannes Film Fest 2009: Year 62–Highlights, Controversies and Disappointments

When the lineup for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival was announced by director Thierry Fremaux, it seemed like one of the best ever. Just look at the competition, which consists of 20 major auteurs. Four of the them are Palme d’Or winners, including Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”), and Lasr von Trier (“Dancing in the Dark”).
To many critics, the lineup spoke well for the state of world cinema, while others regarded the the list of Cannes regulars as too predictable, with little propsects for major discoveries. More than other events, Cannes, still the world’s most prestigious film festival walks a fine line between displayinmg proven quality and promoting novelty. As always, it was a question of balance: Should the competition devote itself to films by established filmmakers based on their track records, or try harder to bring new names into the fold. A more realistic view was that some of the famous directors would deliver and others wouldn’t, which is exactly what happened.
The brilliant French actress Isabelle Huppert was president of the jury, which this year for a change had more women (five) than men (four). It included four actresses: the Italian Asia Argento, Taiwanese Shu Qi, Indian Sharmilla Tagore, and America Robin Wright Penn (wife of Sean Penn, who was last year’s president, U.S. director James Gray, Turkish helmer Nuri Bilge Ceylan, South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, and British writer Hanif Kureishi.
By and large, the jury made good choices, which also reflected the tastes of most critics, beginning with Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” which won the coveted Palme d’Or. Haunting from first frame to last, “White Ribbon,” a chronicle of the banality of evil in pre-WWI Germany, is arguably his masterpiece. Intense, uncompromising, and brilliant, the German-speaking film, shot n austere black-and-white, serves as a realistic portrait of one small German village circa 1913, as well as a socio-political parable of the German national character, sheding light on the rise of Facism in the 1930s.
Haneke has explored the roots and nature of violence in other pictures, notably “Hidden” (“Cache”), “The Piano Teacher,” “Funny Games,”, and “Time of the Wolf,” all of which had played at Cannes.  However, he has never worked on such an ambitious and massive scale, and with such a large number of characters.Meticulously mounted, “White Ribbon” demands the viewers’ attention to the smallest detail.  On one level, the tale unfolds as a   mystery of a series of seemingly unrelated crimes that took place in one “innocent” community. An intellectual director, Haneke uses the format of a suspensful tale to raise broader issues that pertain to power and its abuse and rigid discipline and its price,as they apply to both the domestic-familial and the collective-political arenas. Yet, unlike “Funny Games” and “Cache,” which were thematically simpler and more accessible, “White Ribbon” refuses to offer easy answers, or identify the sources of malice.  Deeply thought, ambiguous, multi-nuanced, and sumptuously crafted, the movie shows complete congruency between content and form, subject and style.
The second important prize went to the French film “Prophet,” Jacques Audiard’s powerful, intensely realistic prison drama, which contributes to the crime genre and benefits immensely from the raw freshness of its lead character. Working slowly but methodically, Audiard has made only a few films, but each one of them–“Read My Lips,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”—is deeply intimate and technically impressive. In the new picture, he works on a broader canvas than the usual, with a larger ensemble of actors, and the results are striking. 
The film is deservedly long, taking its time to develop the characters, their conflicts, and some existential ideas about life and crime. First-time actor Tahar Rahim plays Malik El Djebena, an illiterate Arab youth, only 19, who lands in prison. Upon arrival, he is unaware of the place’s formal rules, informal norms, and various dangers, but when he leaves, years later, he’s a smart operator.
There were only two American movies in competition. The first line on screen in Quentin Tarantino’s long-in-the-works WWII film, “Inglourious Basterds,” is “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” which sets the tone for a semi-mythical fable based on the premise of “What if the Jews did fight back, killed Hitler and successfully ended the war?” Call it “A Pulp War Fiction,” for the new movie interweaves deliberately, if not always smoothly, fact and fantasy, realism and surrealism, actual and fictitious characters, famous and infamous incidents, factual and larger-than-life stories of WWII, arguably the most extensively covered war in pop culture.
It’s easier to say what “Inglourious Basterds” is not than what it is, which may explain why the picture (opening in August) received mixed reviews. First and foremost, it’s not a realistic combat film. There are action sequences but the film as is not an action-adventure in the mold of Hollywood’s familiar genre. Though it borrows its title from the Italian film, “Inglorious Bastards,” by Enzo Castellari, Tarantino’s take is definitely not a remake of that 1978 picture. Instead, Tarantino’s reimagined reverie, told in his unmistakably unique style, filters the American and foreign films about WWII that he admires and now wishes to comment upon, including “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape,” Sergio Leone Westerns, and so on. For me, the movie was more enjoyable than Tarantino’s recent pictures (“Kill Bill,” “Death Proof”), harking back in approach, dialogue and characterization to “Pulp Fiction,” though not as accomplished or satisfying as the 1994 Oscar-winning picture.
Met with negative reviews was the second U.S. film, Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” deemed an artistic disappointment. Light, shallow, and diffuse, “Taking Woodstock,” Lee’s take of the seminal 1969 event is arguably his weakest film in years, particularly coming after such highlights as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Lust, Caution.”   The failure of “Taking Woodstock” is largely attributable to James Schamus’s rambling scenario, a loose adaptation of the more interesting book, “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and A Life.”
Lee’s tale is replete of visual clichés (such as the acid trip) and stereotypes, particularly when it comes to the Jewish characters, played so broadly by the actors that they might be appearing in a borscht play in the Catskills. Sporadically amusing but never illuminating, the movie comes across as an updated version of the MGM’s musicals of “Let’s put on a show on our back yard,” with all the background and staple characters associated with that genre, down to the barn, here in the back of a motel, in which a theatrical troupe is rehearsing and later performing in the nude.
Made under the shadow of the terrific Oscar-winning documentary “Woodstock,” the film struggles to achieve distinct identity and point of view almost from the first scene. Underplaying its gay angle and the coming out of the major character, Elliot Teichberg, who later published his memoirs under the name of Elliot Tiber.
On one level, the movie is a farcical comedy about a Jewish family, headed by domineering mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and passive father Jake Teichberg (Henry Goodman), survivors of the Holocaust and loyal son Elliot who tries to help them out in difficult economic times. One another level, it’s a story of how the musical event came into being, despite objections from many sources. Composed of set-pieces that never cohere into a unified whole, the yarn is populated by characters in search of a plot. They include Billy (Emile Hirsch), a troubled Vietnam vet and Vilma (Live Schreiber), a cross-dressing ex-Marine who appears out of nowhere and goes nowhere. Steering clear of any politics, societal or domestic, “Taking Woodstock” is a nostalgic but unmemorable trip into one of the most memorable moments in American history.
Three of the filmmakers were females, which is more than the usual norm. Andrea Arnold , the British helmer of “Red Road,” returned to the Croisette with “Fish Tank,” a realistic coming of age tale of a disaffected teenager, well acted by newcomer Katie Jarvis.    Spaniard Isabel Coixet made her debut at the festival with “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” a weak follow-up to her impressive film last year, “Elegey,” starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz.
The third woman, Jane Campion, made sorts of a comeback with “Bright Stra,” a decent but unexciting rendition of the final years of the legendary poet John Keats, who died at the age of 25. Campion’s intimate period drama centers on the relationship of Keats with his 18-year-old neighbor, the plain looking Fanny Brawne. While the writing, also by Campion, remarkably avoids the usual cliches and melodramatic signposts of most Hollywood literary biopics, “Bright Stars” lacks deep insights into what inspired Keats as a poet, what made him such a unique figure of art and letters. 
“Bright Star” is a peculiar feature in which every element is solid (the direction, the acting, the production design, costumes, and music) and yet the overall impression is that of a movie that could have been much more emotionally touching, much more illuminating about its dramatis persona.   That said, Campion has not made a good (or any) film in years, and so “Bright Stars” represents a comeback of sorts for the director, who reached her height in 1993 with “The Piano,” still her best work by far, but has not been able to match that achievement over the past 16 years.
The second Spanish auetur in competition was the venerable Pedro Almodovar, who this year shockingly tunrsd 60. After experiencing an unparalleled height for about a decade, “Broken Embraces,” Almodovar’s seventeenth work, is a stylistically solid but thematically unspectacular. The movie, which again combines his three favorite genres, amour fou, crime-noir melodrama, and comedy, is better understood when placed against the contexts of classic Hollywood cinema and his own rich oeuvre.
The most expensive movie to date of the Spanish auteur, who shockingly turns 60 this year, “Broken Embraces” revisits old ideas, which had intrigues him for three decades without treading much new grounds. Crammed with (too) many characters and subplots, and structured as a film-within-film, “Broken Embraces” feels like a summation work, in which the director is determined to place everything he knows about cinema in one picture. “Broken Embraces” again demonstrates Almodovar’s control over every aspect of the production, but this time around also shows the deliberate work that went into the narrative construction. 
Like other Almodovar pictures, “Broken Embraces” begins with a steamy sex scene between a blind, middle-aged writer and a much younger blonde journalist. We quickly lean that the man bears a double identity with two names. The first, Harry Caine, is a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works; the other, Mateo Blanco, is his real name and used when he was a famous director, before he lost his vision and the love of his life (Penelope Cruz, mesmerizing). 
Every year, there’s one film in Cannes that’s designed to provoke and to outrage. This year, it was “AntiChrist,” by the Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier, a pretentiously existential psychological horror, which in the last reel shows mutilation of a sex organ in close-up. Von Trier continues to suffer from a reputation of a director who puts his actresses through hell. The agent-provocateur had a falling out with Bjork and Nicole Kidman; in fact, no actress has worked with himr more than once.
Suffering by his own admission from depression for two years, von Trier has described “Antichrist” as a horror film that’s been therapeutic and personal work for him. But to me, it signaled desperation to shock and be talked about. Von Trier’s issues with female sexuality have been evident in previous films, “Breaking the Waves” and “Dogville,” but in “AntiChrist,” which he claims was inspired by Strindberg (“Dance of Death), he goes way beyond dealing with the intense gender war between a husband and wife (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress) who have just lost their child. Does he want to punish women for being sexually instatiable? In “Antichrist,” Gainsbourg takes a pair of scissors to the most intimate o her sexual organs and chops it off. Ther screening was greeted with boos and laughter since the film is dedicated to the late Russian director Tarkovsky!

All in all, the 62nd edition was a good if not great festival, reaffirming the status of Cannes as a must-attend event for cineaste.