2010 Cannes Film Festival
by Richard Porton

Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the 2010 Palme d'or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the 2010 Palme d'or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

2010 was the year that many of the old assumptions concerning Cannes imploded and moldy stereotypes were reassessed. The much-derided Competition, while showcasing a number of mediocre films, also produced a Palme d’or winner—Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—embraced by the same hard-core cinephiles who usually spurn Cannes’ official slate and celebrate the more adventurous offerings of the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs or Directors’ Fortnight. Yet 2010 proved an unusually lackluster year for the Fortnight: with the exception of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro voltea charming documentary on a small Calabrian town that does for goats what Sweetgrass did for sheepthe pickings were slim indeed.

On the other hand, Un Certain Regard, a sidebar that in previous years often resembled an eclectic grab-bag, was unusually strong this year and offered a partial respite from festival tedium. It was perhaps less surprising that two of the most notable entries were Romanian films.

Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, a serial killer film whose languid pace makes David Fincher’s meditative Zodiac seem positively frenetic, was one of Cannes’ most rewarding long slogs. Although some admirers of Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (which won Un Certain Regard’s top prize in 2005) were clearly disappointed by the new film’s narrower scope and tenuous relationship to genre cinema, Aurora, despite its claustrophobic, maniacally controlled narrative, is equally determined to deploy a rigorous naturalism as a means of critiquing Romanian society.

Puiu himself plays Viorel, the protagonist on a deadly mission. This is no doubt part of a canny plan to make audiences uneasy—and the director impersonates this glassy-eyed dullard with a sardonic gusto. A laconic man full of barely suppressed rage, Viorel, a metallurgical engineer, finds himself adrift in a Bucharest depicted as a gray wasteland. Puiu’s success in draining a sensationalistic premise of practically any whiff of suspense is linked to his belief that most commercial films on this subject “glamorize” killers who are in fact pitifully ordinary. The director also intimates that Viorel’s abrasiveness, as well as the banality of his regimen, reflects some of the less savory aspects of post-Communist Romanian culture. Aurora’s chunks of real time suggest a fictional appropriation of the documentary techniques of Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon for polemical purposes: in Puiu’s words, a moral stance that “denounces how inefficiently the Western model has been applied to a country that had just emerged from the darkness of communism.”

An incrementally cheerier Romanian entry, Rudu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas was noteworthy for demonstrating that a film dealing with marital infidelity could seem fresh and even innovative. Paul (Mimi Branescu), a rather colorless banker, is ostensibly a happily married man. Yet he clearly prefers the company of Raluca (Maria Popistasu), his mistress—and daughter’s dentist—to Adrianna (Mirela Oprisor), his dutiful, but increasingly exasperated, wife. Although the film doesn’t avoid a final confrontation between the sheepish adulterer and the scorned wife, the film’s unhurried pace converts this hoariest of plot twists into a deadpan anticlimax. Bizarrely enough, Paul seems to expect that his wife will find his infidelity eminently reasonable. Both slightly absurdist and melodramatic, Tuesday, After Christmas is like a shotgun marriage between Ionesco and Bergman.

The low-key stylistic flair of Romanian cinema proved far preferable to the self-consciously “cinematic” excesses of Xavier Dolan’s Les Amours Imaginaires (English title:Heartbeats). Already proclaimed a wunderkind at least year’s festival with How I Killed My Mother (which won just about every major prize offered by the Director’s Fortnight and which started production when he was still a teenager), the Quebecois director continues to be a master of what might be termed “brat cinema.” Dolan himself plays the lead role of Francis, a young gay man who is inseparable from Marie (Mona Chakri), a whip-smart young fashion plate obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. They both vie for the affections of suave Nicolas (Niels Schneider) and their competition threatens their Platonic friendship.

If on paper this sounds like a beguiling, gender-bending riff on Jules and Jim, Dolan’s film is marred by a cutesy deployment of New Wavish flourishes such as characters addressing the camera and a plethora of literary and cinematic allusions. Heartbeats reminds us that abundant talent is not enough—a self-indulgent use of talent can be merely wearying.

Even though Cannes continues to feature relatively few documentaries, two nonfiction films—Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu and Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job—merited special attention. Ujica’s astonishing documentary made most of the fiction films on display seem trite and boring. The concept of Ujica’s film is as simple as the execution is brilliant. Without resorting to voice-over or interviews, the film assembles a wealth of archival footage chronicling the rise and fall of Ceausescu, Romania’s dictatorial President from 1974-1989. With an occasionally sardonic use of music and sound effects, the images, most of which Ujica informs us were commissioned by Ceausescu’s “own propaganda machine” (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/20/a-dictator-in-his-own-words-and-images/#more-99847) demystify his regime’s curious meld of banality and cruelty by the sheer weight of their cumulative power.

Inside Job, on the other hand, demonstrates that there is still considerable life left in the traditional “talking heads” documentary subgenre. Ferguson’s film is the most ambitious yet on the ongoing financial crisis; unlike previous documentaries on the subject that tackled individual facets of the financial morass such as the decline of the housing market or the national debt, the film is international in scope and comprehensive in its indictment of multileveled bureaucratic ineptitude and malfeasance.

A precredits sequence chronicles the neoliberal policies that brought Iceland from being a prosperous Scandinavian country with high environmental standards to a nation riddled with mountains of debt. We eventually learn that Iceland’s neoliberal economic imperatives were encouraged by a herd of “free market” economists with a skewed ideological agenda. In accordance to the old Marxist adage that ideology is often perceived as straightforward “common sense” by those that perpetuate it, the conservative (if in fact quite reckless) economists interviewed by Ferguson don’t admit to having any sort of political agenda. Frederick Mishkin, for example, a professor of economics at Columbia Business School and a former member of the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve, sees nothing peculiar about being paid $124,000 in 2006 to endorse Iceland’s disastrous financial choices.

Indeed, one of Ferguson’s signal achievements is to suggest that an interlocking network of banks, brokerage houses, ratings agencies, government bureaucrats, and academics precipitated the crash of 2008. Greed became indistinguishable from ideological precepts. As was the case with Ferguson’s film on the Bush administration’s incompetent handling of the invasion of Iraq, No End in Sight, the most cogent criticism of government policy comes not from leftists but from moderate members of the Establishment who refused to be snookered by neoliberal orthodoxy. Clearheaded financial journalists such as Gillian Tett of The Financial Times are refreshingly skeptical of what are usually termed the “exotic” derivatives responsible for the crash. Unfortunately, the most depressing aspect of Inside Job is the realization that the problems it outlines seem intractable and it’s quite unlikely that policies nurtured under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush will change substantially in the age of Obama.

If several of Cannes’ best entries were shown out of competition (Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, which would have certainly been featured in the Competition if it hadn’t been made for French television, was given a special status as an out of competition marathon event and was enthusiastically embraced by French, as well as a considerable number of American, critics), the Competition featured several films that never should have been showcased at the festival among a handful of highlights. It was truly baffling why a misfire on the order of Doug Liman’s Fair Game, a lame thriller based on the Valerie Plame affair, was given a place of pride. Other Competition entries like Daniele Luchetti’s La Nostra Vita and Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chongqing Blues were eminently forgettable.

Despite the lukewarm critical reception accorded Abbas Kiarostami’s Cannes Competition entry, Certified Copy, I found it one of the more compelling films screened at the festival. Some critics appeared taken aback by Kiarostami’s recasting of some of the themes featured in sober, melancholy films such as Close-Up (1990) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) in what doubtless appeared to be a more frivolous context. Other critics, such as Variety’s Rob Nelson, took little joy in noting that the film was “deliberately derivative,” and diligently provided what became the requisite list of ostensible influences: Voyage to Italy (1954), Before Sunrise (1995) and In the Mood for Love (2000). And some Kiarostami devotees seemed mildly annoyed by the abandonment of his recent experimental forays for what superficially came off as a talky, and rather conventional, romantic comedy.

Invocations of Rossellini, Linklater, and Wong notwithstanding, I prefer to view Certified Copy as a leisurely screwball comedy—Kiarostami’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), so to speak. As in Hawks’s film, a free-spirited woman ensnares an uptight male intellectual. After an erudite lecture that considers the philosophical resonance of the “reproduction”—a genre usually treated with disdain by respectable art historians—James Miller (William Shimell), a British academic enjoying a sojourn in Tuscany, meets cute with a woman, at first saddled with a mischievous son, only credited as “She” (Juliette Binoche). What ensues is a hesitant romance in which the odd duo end up roaming the countryside and gradually find themselves impersonating a married couple: their union resembles a “certified copy”—also the name of the book that James is pontificating about at the film’s outset. A deceptively simple film, Kiarostami’s narrative sleight of hand results in uncertainty as to whether this “marriage” is a simulation or bogus—or perhaps one of the characters’ private fantasies.

Kiarostami will probably be faulted for straying out of his native terrain and seeming ill at ease in a foreign milieu. But even if his evocation of Tuscany is a bit touristic, this late career summing-up is much more than a frivolous jeu d’esprit. In many respects, Certified Copy is every bit as elliptical and provocative as more transparently “experimental” Kiarostami films such as Five (2003) and Shirin (2008).

And, after a string of recent undistinguished Palme d’or winners such as The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and The Class (2008), Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee represents the sort of groundbreaking film that Cannes should honor. A multifaceted allegory, Uncle Boonmee is Apichatpong’s most elegiac film, an audacious, and occasionally very funny exploration of androgyny, a piece of meta-cinema (the director mentions influences as disparate as Antonioni and Chris Marker) and a subtle critique of Thai authoritarianism. What is also clear is that Uncle Boonmee is a film that will repay many repeat viewings, and there’s no doubt that a host of new interpretations will sprout when the film is finally released (it’s recently been picked up by Strand Releasing) in the United States.

Richard Porton is one of Cineaste's editors, as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema ScopeThe Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.