Friends: There were shouts of "Bravo" and sustained applause after the morning screening in the Palais of "The Class," a most moving and impeccably realistic depiction of a classroom of 14- and 15-year old students in a Paris school. If there weren't an unwritten tradition of limiting films in Competition to just one award this could sweep best picture, actor, director and script honors.
First-time actor, Francois Begaudeau, who is the author of the book the movie is based on, can't be denied the best acting award for his extraordinary performance playing himself, a teacher who is part master-of-ceremonies, part stand-up comic, part lion-timer and above all a committed educator. He fully engages his classroom of semi-rebellious students, mostly children of immigrants. He challenges them and treats them with respect, while maintaining his authority and his distance. There wasn't a speck of phoniness or cheap dramatic devices that most such films are prone too in this film by Laurent Cantet, whose previous film, "Heading South," starring Charlotte Rampling, made the Top Ten list of Robert Kennedy of cranesareflying.com.
One of the highlights of this year's festival had to be the promenade up the red carpet later in the evening of the 25 students, amateur actors all, for its formal gala presentation. This was a 130 minute movie that wasn't too long by any shot. The French system of education is astonishingly farsighted. One of the teacher's points is that the students must behave in a manner to "make society run smoothly." A few days ago a young French woman tried to butt in line ahead of me, pretending she was friends of a couple of young women. An older French woman behind me immediately reprimanded her. They exchanged a few words, the young woman holding her ground, but when the older woman used the word "morality," she shamed her into going to the back of the line. "The Class" gives a glimpse of the training that the French receive in schools in such matters. I have seen countless examples of the French concern for the greater good in my travels here the past four years. It is one reason that I have returned year after year. It takes extreme talent and commitment for a teacher to be as good as the one in this movie, but the glimpses of the other teachers in the school show that they have a similar regard, though not necessarily possessing the talent of the featured teacher.
Philip Seymour Hoffman might have been a candidate for best acting honors in "Synecdoche, New York" if it weren't for Begaudeau's performance or the disaster of a movie he ended up. Hoffman plays a theater director suffering from one outrageous physical malady after another and one huge mental disability in a hallucination of a movie that doesn't amount to much more than a heap of masturbatory drivel. Charlie Kaufman, writer of "Being John Malkovich" and other such wildly original and imaginative films, fails miserably in his first directorial effort.
Hoffman's life is disintegrating as his wife, played by Catherine Keener, runs off to Germany with Jennifer Jason Leigh and his young daughter. He wins a MacArthur grant which allows him to put on a grandiose production. He wants to do something of brutal honesty. He can think of nothing better than his very own miserable life. He's still working on it 20 years later with his life and the movie unraveling in parallel universes. Hoffman remains curiously watchable, but as one character comments about the play they are working on, "This is tedious, this is nothing."
The star of "My Magic" by Eric Khoo of Singpore also had people calling for best actor considerations. He too was a first time actor, a magician discovered by Khoo. He plays a drunk single father who is incapable of supporting his young son. He works in a bar cleaning up, and quickly downing any left over drinks. His one talent is the ability to endure pain. He eats glass and razor blades, swallows and spits fire, and penetrates his skin and tongue with nails. He resumes his career on small-time basis at the bar he works at, finally bringing home a few dollars. It wasn't always easy to watch his self-mutilation. The movie was a polished enough effort to be included in the Competition category, but not much more than showcasing this guy's freak talent.
There were only two choices of movies at eight p.m. this night and both were shots in the dark--the unveiling of the best film in The Director's Fortnight and in the Un Certain Regard categories. Since it was easier to get into the Un Certain Regard that is the theater I opted for. I had seen eight of the 20 films in its category compared to three of the 22 in the Director's Fortnight, so it was a greater risk, but since I had liked all of them, if I had to see one again, that would have been okay.
Fatih Akin, who won best screen play here last year with "The Edge of Heaven" was the president of the jury. He said there were so many good films this year they made a special request to award five rather than the usual three films. Their first four awarded were "Johnny Mad Dog," "Tyson," "Cloud Nine" and "Tokyo Sonata," all of which I had seen. And the winner was "Tulpan," which I hadn't. A good many people left the theater after the award. Four of the five directors were still on hand to accept their awards. James Tobeck said he had forewarned Tyson that their film was to receive an award. Tyson was in London announcing a fight and was going to mention the award on the telecast.
"Tulpan" took place on the steppes of Kazathstan. Tulpan is a young woman we never see who is the object of affection of a shepherd. The shepherd's father has tried to arrange their marriage but Tulpan refuses, saying she doesn't like the shepherd's big ears. They try again, bringing a photo of Prince Charles with Diana comparing their ears. That doesn't matter. This German production may not have been as good a movie as "Tokyo Sonata," which was given the runner-up prize, but it received extra credit for its submersion into this gritty isolated world. There is a graphic scene of the birth of a lamb, two young children straddling the naked back of their father squeezing blackheads and showing each off to him.
Tomorrow I'll start off my day with the four hours of Soderbergh's "Che," which seems to be the favorite for the Palm d'Or based as much on its ambitions and subject matter as its quality. It may be my only chance to see it in its entirety as there are calls all round to condense it. I have seen 17 of the 22 films in Competition. Unfortunately three of the five I haven't seen are replaying at the nine o'clock time slot tomorrow and a fourth, Eastwood's, overlaps with the second half of "Che," so I won't be able to see them all, as I have managed in year's past.