Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cannes, Day Seven

Friends: Thanks to the no-show of "Moon," an English sci-fi production with Kevin Spacey and Sam Rockwell, I made the great discovery of "Polytechnique" playing in the same time slot in one of the six festival theaters at the Olympia. I knew nothing of this last second fill-in for me other than it had a running time of 76 minutes and there was a "QR" besides its title, meaning it was part of the Director's Fortnight sidebar.

I had just enough time before the lights went out to page through the program and read its one sentence description--"A dramatization of the Montreal Massacre of 1989 where several female engineering students were murdered by an unstable misogynist." This small gem of a film, shot in black and white, opens with the killer writing his suicide note. He is quite perturbed by feminists demanding equal rights even though women are not equal to men. If the Olympics didn't have separate categories, he writes, women would win no medals except in the grace events. Women becoming engineers makes no sense to him.

The film interweaves the stories of two of the survivors of the massacre, one male and one female, between virtual documentary footage of the killing spree. The massacre starts in a classroom of engineering students. The killer evicts the men, then guns down the women, huddled in a corner holding hands. Then he wanders the halls of the school killing women, 14 in all. The film closes with the woman survivor writing a letter to the mother of the killer telling her she is about to be a mother and her hopes for her child. This chilling and very moving film is among the best of the nearly 50 films I've seen so far along with "A Prophet," "Fish Tank," "End Game," and "Phantom Pain." I'll be hoping to see it again Labor Day weekend in Telluride.

Another Telluride possibility is the Romanian "Tales from a Golden Age," five short films by five directors, all written and one directed by Palm d'Or winner Cristian Mungiu ("Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days"). He shows with this that his prize winner from two years ago was no fluke. They are all somewhat humorous, but very telling, looks at the trials of living under a communist dictatorship and what people are reduced to trying to get by. In one segment a young man and woman concoct a scam make a fortune collecting glass bottles to redeem for their deposit. The young woman is desperate to buy a car. In another a couple in a large apartment building has the dilemma of how to kill and butcher a huge pig they have been given by a friend in their cramped apartment.

One film that won't be making it to Telluride is the Albania bicycling movie "East West East--The Final Sprint." It is barely worthy of a bicycle film fest. As in three of the four bicycling movies I've seen here, this wasn't a tribute to the bicycle, but rather the use of a bicycling element to dwell on other issues. The issue here is the isolation of Albania. It is so rare for Albanians to travel outside their country, one member of the five man team is celebrated by his village with a ribbon-cutting ceremony as the first person from the town to ever leave the country.

A former champion racer, twenty years retired, is hired to put together a team. His four prospects can't even keep up with the local postman on his bike when they're out training. So the postman is recruited. His girl friend is thrilled that he will be going to France. She demands that he bring her back a real bra and red knickers. There is little evidence that the director knows much about bicycling other than naming one of his riders Gimondi, an Italian great. But he is replaced on the team by the friend of a big wig, even though the guy is even less of a cyclist than everyone else on the team. When they go out training they complain that the coach pushes them too hard, saying, "Why, this isn't a race." Their equipment is so old and shoddy that their helmets aren't even ventilated. When they are forced to bicycle back to Albania from Italy when their funding falls through one of the riders uses two of their helmets as buckets for milk from a cow in a field at night while they are camping. When two of the riders momentarily disappear, the coach's first reaction is that they've defected.

My day began with the Competition screening of the latest Almodovar/Penelope Cruz collaboration, "Broken Embraces," which has already opened in Spain. There was no need whatsoever for it to be here other than to have Penelope promenade up the red carpet. Its intricate plot with a series of surprise revelations towards the end hardly made it worthy of Competition if the criteria for such a film is boldness and originality, advancing the art form.

"Tomorrow at Dawn" dove into the fascinating world of those obsessed with reliving and recreating old military battles. In this U.S. they would have been Civil War buffs. But this was a French film, so the Napoleonic era was their prime interest. An older brother tries to rescue his younger brother who has become overly obsessed by his passion, but he gets sucked into this world as well, and it takes over his life. He is a pianist who has been stagnating, but is rejuvenated by the the intensity of his brother's passion. Director Denis Dercourt keeps the tension simmering as he did in "The Page Turner," another movie featuring a pianist. The title refers to a duel between two of the film's protagonists--a showdown with pistols from the 1800s. These guys take their passion way too seriously. Too bad the story line wasn't a little better conceived. The subject matter was A material, its execution barely a B.

I had to rely on French subtitles to follow the Romanian film "The Happiest Girl in the World," as this was a rare instance when a film was not also accompanied by English subtitles to go with the French. The story was simple enough that I was able to. It could have been a film from the golden age of Iranian cinema about a seeming trivial incident that is greatly magnified. A 16-year old girl wins a car. She goes with her parents to take possession of it. Part of the deal is that she film a commercial. It takes her multiple takes to get it right. In between her parents are trying to convince her to sell the car and give them the money to invest. They say she can't afford to keep it. She is adamant about not wanting to give up the car, as it has made her a hero back in school. She has promised friends to drive them to the sea. But the father in particular is insistent, finally saying he will never speak to her again if she doesn't sell the car. And in between all this haranguing she has to film another take with a smile and guzzling a bottle of a soft drink.

No Von Trier for me today. When I arrived for the screening the theater was already filled 45 minutes before it was to start. But that allowed me to see "Polytechnique." Hopefully I'll get to see Von Trier's highly controversial film on Sunday. Of the ten critics on Screen magazine's panel published daily to determine an average score for each film in Competition, seven gave it one star. If the Danish critic among them hadn't given it the highest rating of four stars, it would have come out with the lowest average of the 12 films screened so far in Competition. That distinction goes to "Kinatay" from the Philippines by the director of last year's "Serbis," which was the lowest rated film then. I missed "Kinatay," but will try to see it tomorrow after Charles from Facets said he liked it much more than "Serbis" and that it had merit. And tomorrow will be the battle to get into Tarantino's film.

"A Prophet" stands atop the poll with a 3.4 average. "Bright Star" is next at 3.3. "Broken Embraces" 3.2.

Later, George

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks for the great reviews George. You are covering the films that no else seems to be covering.

Wesley Morris a critic from Boston liked Antichrist. He said he only saw one person leave during the screening so that tells you viewers are at least interested enough to stay to the end. Morris also noted that Ebert squeezed his hand in affirmation - meaning [he thinks] Ebert liked it as well.