Friends: For the first time in five tries this year standing in the last minute line for a Competition screening in the Palais I was turned away. Not a one of us was allowed in. When the "Complet" announcement was made there was a mad rush towards the three-year old 60th Anniversary Theater right around the corner. I didn't realize that the Competition film was being shown there half an hour after its start in the Palais, as it wasn't listed in the program. That is good news, even though it delayed the start of my movie-going by half an hour and forced me to alter my second film for the day. The 60th Anniversary Theater is almost a more pleasant film-going experience than sitting in the far reaches of the balcony of the Palais.
So I was able to see "A Prophet" unmarred by reviews and experience its power and grandeur without any hype or expectation. This French film is the first great film of the festival. Directed by Jacques Audiard, who also did the art house hit "Read My Lips" a few years ago, this is an unflinching look at prison life and the gangs that run them, focusing primarily on a Corsican gang. The prophet is a 19-year old Arab new to the prison who is recruited by the Corsicans to carry out a hit on an Arab informer. He resists, but has no choice. He can neither read nor write, but he is bright and ambitious and tough and quickly matures. He learns Corsican without letting the Corsicans know until he is fluent enough to reveal it to the Corsican godfather who essentially runs the prison. The Corsican lackeys are extremely racist, despising all Arabs, but tolerate him as their boy. He makes them coffee and does their bidding. The Godfather recognizes him as someone to groom. The film is a near epic. No complaints on its two-and-a-half hour running time.
The greatness of this film carried me through the day despite less than five hours of sleep. It had me so invigorated I didn't feel overly disappointed by the idiocy of the day's bicycling film "On Your Bike." It was a bicycling film in name only with only a couple of token, inconsequential actual bicycling scenes. The film is not so much about bicycling but rather about a Belgian bicycle factory that has been bought by a conglomerate and the corporate mentality that it imposes turning life into hell for the company's 45 employees.
A young woman is brought in to run the company. She hires a couple of consultants with stop watches and cameras and personality tests. The company produces between 100 and 150 bicycles a week on two assembly lines. She announces that one of the assembly lines will be shut down and to determine which one, they will have a competition for a month to see who can manufacture the most bicycles. The two lines became hated rivals, sabotaging each other, putting ex-lax in the coffee of one of the lines, paying off the parts dispenser to give defective derailleurs to the other line, stealing each other's tools and on and on. There was little of bicycling authenticity in this film. The featured bicycling poster in the office of the boss is of Coppi, the Italian, rather than Merckx, the Belgian great.
"Yuki and Nina" was a pleasant diversion, a slight, but sometimes poignant, tale of the friendship of two ten-year old girls in Paris that is disrupted when Yuki's parents decide to separate. Yuki's mother is Japanese and she decides to move back to Japan taking Yuki with her. The girls try to get the parents to reconcile. They send Yuki's mother a letter from a marriage fairy that brings her into convulsive tears. It almost works, but her French husband is too much of a bastard to give the marriage another try. At one point the two girls run away to the forest.
For a while the South Korean "Mother" seemed to be an irrelevant story of a somewhat daft older mother looking after her goofball, semi-mentally deranged 27-year old son. When he is arrested for the murder of a young woman, his mother goes into overdrive trying to prove his innocence, at last making this more than superficial entertainment.
"Dare" was just filler for me, an American teen comedy-drama that I ordinarily avoid, but with Sandra Bernhardt in the cast, it was the most appealing of films in its time slot glutted with horror films. If I weren't eating my meals in the theater, it would have been a perfect time slot to have skipped a movie and gone to a restaurant. Bernhardt has just one scene as a therapist for one of the three featured teens. She isn't reason enough to see the movie, but the unconventional, serious story line that develops did make it an interesting film. Two of the three teens, all in their senior year, are aspiring thespians. A professional actor of some renown attends one of their rehearsals. A girl afterward asks him for advice. He recognizes that she is a sheltered suburbanite who has little life experience and berates her unmercifully, reducing her to tears, for thinking she can be an actor without any inner turmoil or failures. That inspires her to switch from being a "good" girl to being a "bad" girl.
My documentary for the day was "Plastic Planet" by a Belgian whose grandfather was one of the pioneers of plastic. The film opens with an idyllic natural scene with the pronouncement "Once there was no plastic on earth." It was in 1907 that plastic was invented and the planet hasn't been the same since. The director can't get a single company that manufactures plastic to allow him to film the process, as none want to reveal their secret ingredients. Not only is plastic a plague upon the planet taking centuries to decompose, but it is also full of carcinogens. Nearly everyone has plastic in their blood.
The movie starts as a straightforward examination of the topic, but as the rather reserved, tepid director gets more and more frustrated and infuriated but what he learns, he turns into a Michael Moore, stalking the president of a leading European plastic manufacturing company and going into supermarkets with a megaphone blasting, "Plastic causes cancer" and "Plastic causes infertility." He puts stickers on food in the supermarket with similar warnings. He makes the valid point that packaged food must reveal its ingredients, but not the type of packaging, which can be as unhealthy as what goes into the food. I will limit my plastic use after seeing this alarming and worthwhile film.
Besides "A Prophet" my other highlight of the day was running into two of the directors of Telluride's film festival, Julie and Gary, and learning who this year's guest director will be. It won't be announced for a couple of weeks, but it is another inspired, exciting choice who will enliven that Labor Day weekend in the mountains. Julie also said there is a chance Slavoy Zizek, last year's guest director, will be back, also good news.