Friends: With complaints rampant about the quality of the Competition slate so far along came a pair of films today stemming the tide of negativity and rescuing the festival from its malaise.
Enthusiasm for the Competition offerings is so low I had no problem getting into the Palais for both the morning's screenings without an "Invitation." First up at 8:30 was "Of Gods and Men" by the French director Xavier Beauvois. Its not immediately evident that this true story of French monks in Algeria in 1996 is going to break the tide of lackluster fare. But once the movie establishes its story of eight French monks debating whether to maintain their mission dispensing medical care in an isolated mountain village or flee under the threat of terrorists, this becomes a movie of note.
Terrorists have recently murdered a crew of Europeans building a road. The monks are torn between leaving or staying. Their chief is very calm and wise. He puts the decision to a vote, though wishing to defer the decision. The majority aren't quite ready to abandon their mission just yet. Their fears are realized when the terrorists raid their quarters on Christmas eve. They are seeking medical assistance. The chief monk deals with the terrorists with aplomb, winning their favor.
Still the monks are worried. The government advises them to leave. But the villagers are very dependent on them. When the chief next puts the decision to a vote again, this time it is unanimous to stay. The film continues the kidnapping theme of the festival when six of the eight are taken hostage and held for exchange with terrorists being held.
Though this didn't have the power of the two great French films of the past two festivals, "The Class" and "The Prophet," it has all the French excited over another possible Palm d'Or. The announcer on the festival cable station commented during the evening broadcast of the cast walking up the red carpet for its gala formal screening that they will undoubtedly be back on Sunday for the awards ceremony.
Immediately after this screening I was back in line for Abbas Kiarastomi's
"Certified Copy" starring Juliette Binoche, who adorns this year's festival poster waving a wand of light spelling out Cannes. Despite the star power of Binoche and the artistic power of Kiarastami, a former Palm d'Or winner, there was so little interest in this film I didn't have to sit in the balcony.
Binoche owns an art gallery in Tuscany. She attends the lecture of an English author who has just written a book on art. She invites him over to her gallery and then takes him on a drive out into the country to see some more art. Conversations in cars is a Kiarastami trademark. This one goes on and on without lagging a bit. Their less than amiable talk continues in restaurants and plazas and while seeing the sites. The verbal sparring is a refreshingly engaging dose of serious, adult conversation.
When they adjourn for a cup of coffee the writer's cell phone goes off. He apologizes that he must take the call and goes out on the street for a prolonged conversation. Binoche and the waitress, an older woman, have a delightful conversation of their own about men and marriage. She takes them as a married couple, and Binoche goes along with it.
An older man later also thinks they are married. He takes the writer aside and offers him some fatherly advice. He says there appears to be some friction between the two of them. He suggests he simply put his arm around her shoulder and everything will be well. He later hesitantly does and she is immediately transformed. She goes into the toilet and puts on makeup and earrings and is aglow. Kiarastami masterly develops their relationship. The end fizzles a tad, reportedly causing a few boos at the press screening, but I'll be rooting for this film to make it to Telluride for a second viewing.
The day also included a couple of films with name talent that didn't quite fulfill expectations, but were still enjoyable. The first was "Heartbeats," the French Canadian film that I fell twenty people short of getting into a few nights ago that I was so eager to see. This time I was among the first twenty people in to the eventually packed theater.
Xavier Dolan, the latest enfant terrible of cinema, stars and directs once again, but with astonishing restraint compared to his no-holds-barred incendiary first film, "I Killed My Mother," that was so subversive hardly a film festival or art house has been brave enough to show it. There are just a few, barely satisfying dollops of his satire in this gay-tinged tale of a love triangle. The film still smartly showcases his talents as a writer, director and actor. Fans should not be concerned that he will disappear. This largely inoffensive film assures his fans of more to come, hopefully with less restraint.
Harvey Weinstein made a rare on-stage appearance with the cast and director of "Blue Valentine," though only the director, first-timer Derek Cianfrance was handed the microphone by festival director Theirry Fremaux. He thanked Weinstein and said it took him twelve years to finally get this made.
Despite a cast of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, also in attendance, Weinstein must be sweating, as there is no guarantee he will recoup his investment in this well-done tale of a disintegrating marriage. The couple's agonizing arguments are interspersed with flashbacks to the happier days of their courtship. Both have musical talents. When Gosling asks Williams if she has any hidden talents she responds by breaking into a song reciting the presidents from Washington to Bush. Gosling then sings to her strumming a ukulele. But these few charming moments are drowned out by Gosling's drinking and harangues of his wife.
As I was sitting in a theater awaiting the start of the Australian surfing documentary "Going Vertical," the director greeted an Aussie friend, thanking him for coming. The guy said, "This is the first movie I've seen. I don't come here to see movies. I can do that on the plane over." Many of the 35,000 industry insiders attending the festival have a similar attitude, making it easy for me to go wild seeing as many movies as I wish.
"Going Vertical" is a surfing term for cutting back on a wave and climbing its face. This wasn't possible until the l960s when shorter, lighter, more maneuverable surf boards made their appearance. Until then everyone surfed on sixteen-foot boards weighing over thirty pounds. This film sets out to resolve the argument over who instigated this revolution, the Americans or the Australians. It offered a good history of surfing with loads of old footage and interviews with those pioneers, now in their 60s.
I had to fight through a mob clogging the lobby and stairways of the Palais complex of screening rooms in line for a repeat screening of "Biutiful," playing in the 300- seat Bunuel Theater, to see "Siren" a British thriller that bordered on being a horror film. This was the first piece of schlock that I had stumbled into, a genuine waste of time.
The siren is a mostly mute, wispy, blond-haired woman on a deserted island in the Mediterranean. A guy and his girl friend and her ex-boyfriend run aground on her island when they respond to someone flashing a mirror at them. It is a guy down to his last gasps. They see the woman on a rise in the distance and go in pursuit of her. They find more dead bodies and can't figure out how to escape the island. It was a mystery to me what kept the fifteen or so men in the theater in their seats watching this drivel. They must have known someone in the film or involved with its making and felt a responsibility to watch it to the end. I stuck it out simply as a study of market fare.
From the very start of the festival the Russian Competition film "Exodus: Burnt by the Sun 2," the most expensive Russian film of all time, has been in the news over its three-hour running time and controversial version of WWII. It has opened in Russia to a very tepid box office. It screens here Saturday. It seems as if we will see an edited version. There was a report yesterday that a topless scene had been cut. Its French distributor, Wild Bunch, responded to that in today's papers, saying, "We've never cut a topless scene in any film. At Wild Bunch we love nudity and blood."