Cannes Film Fest: Avant-garde, garbage, and a Philly frenzy

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis by Cronenberg
Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis by Cronenberg
Posted: May 28, 2012

CANNES — At the 65th running of the annual Cannes Film Festival, offerings ranged from avant-garde to avant-garbage.

The annual fest ended Sunday night, in a shower of Palmes D’Or (the top prize) by a jury presided over by Italian filmmaker and raging artistic bull Nanni Moretti. Among the better (if more conventional) films:

The Palme D’Or (top prize) went to Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which an elderly Parisian couple, played by acting titans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, tries to die on its own terms without interference from a pest of a daughter (Isabelle Huppert) or a pesky pigeon.

A French female whale trainer, Marion Cotillard, loses her legs to a seaquarium orca having a bad day and her heart to a foo fighter in Jacques Audiard’s melodrama Rust and Bone.

A Japanese student navigates two worlds — those of university student and call girl — bewitching an academic translator four times her age in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love. Like past Kiarostami works, the movie spends a lot of time in the front seat of a car, but it seems like a modern-day reimagining of the housewife-call-girl classic Belle de Jour.

At a remote Orthodox nunnery in Romania, the question is whether to shelter the troubled friend of a novitiate in Beyond the Hills, by Cristian Mungiu. Winning Palmes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress, which was shared by the two leads, Cosmina Stratan and Christina Flutor.

A pugnacious Glaswegian loser concocts a wee caper to steal four bottles of rare Scotch in an even more rarefied tour of barley and malt distillery auctions in Ken Loach’s comedy The Angels’ Share, which won a runner-up prize.

But there were unconventional moments:

Two completely separate existential freakouts took place in white stretch limos crisscrossing different cities. The white limo in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors serves as a rolling changing room for Denis Lavant, who gives a monkeylike performance as a banker donning an ever more bizarre series of malevolent masks while trolling Paris over the course of a full 24-hour day. In David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Twilight’s Robert Pattinson is a flat-affect, shoot-him-now babyface billionaire given to Pinteresque meditations on the rights of capital while rolling through artfully staged, fire-breathing riots by Occupy-style extras in Toronto and New York.

After Darkness, Light, by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, who won Best Director, is a visually cracked narrative during which audiences might think there’s something wrong with the digital projector ­— until realizing it’s on purpose, to suggest a hallucinatory drift across a primeval landscape. A whiny businessman loses his head, literally, in existential confusion between two colliding Mexicos: the rain forest teeming with peasant tree-poachers and the steam bath orgy of the rotting classes.

Perhaps the largest disappointment at this Cannes was On the Road, based on Jack Kerouac’s Western-culture-changing novel of the Beat Generation. The rights were first purchased by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979, but this production was overseen by son Roman Coppola. It has been nearly impossible to undertake for the sheer weight of cultural baggage. Director Walter Salles bottles some Beat energy but omits context — something Kerouac, of course, didn’t need, but the result is a film that plays like a Gap ad in amber.

A real surprise is Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who gives the film’s only strong performance as Marylou, girlfriend to the legendary Dean Moriarty. Garrett Hedlund misplays Moriarty, a disaffected rebel on the right tide of history, playing him more as a high school quarterback on a bender. So too with Sam Riley’s Sal Paradise, the Kerouac alter ego, who seems more like a former editor of the Mousketeer Gazette than a working-class kid like Kerouac, who lived above the store in Lowell, Mass.

All five Hollywood films at the festival went home prizeless.

Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is about hysteria, as lifelong friends turn on solid citizen Mads Mikkelsen, who won Best Actor, after he’s suspected of child abuse.

Sundance winner Beasts of the southern Wild won Best First Feature at Cannes for its portrayal of bayou life, but at this point, please insert Radnor High grad Lee Daniels into the lineup.

Saying he was a "non-auteur just grateful to be here at all," Daniels came to the Riviera with The Paperboy, which set off among critics and viewers a love/hate debate to match his outsize steamroller personality. The media screening was like a hand grenade into a chicken coop, with critics running with singed eyeballs for the doors of the elegant Palais du Cinema at the base of Cannes old port.

"In a fest that includes such berserk movies as Holy Motors and After Darkness, Light," said Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, "The Paperboy is still the nuttiest film here."

Based on the novel by Pete Dexter, The Paperboy is a ’70s-style exploitation film featuring trashy whites sitting atop the race pyramid of Louisiana. First comes the good old boy locked up in prison — that would be John Cusack, an alligator hunter accused of the murder of a pathological sheriff. Then comes Barbie doll prison bride Nicole Kidman, a hot blond in hotter pink who pantomimes a sex act the first time she meets Cusack in the prison visiting room.

Then comes crusading journalist Matthew McConaughey, who believes swamp-rat Cusack was wrongly convicted. Which he sets about proving, taking time off only for a sadomasochistic motel-sex tryst with a pair of brothers who bring the chains, while he supplies the plastic floor cover to prevent room-damage charges. (Actual closeup here on McConaughey’s derriere, according to Daniels.) Zac Efron, who plays the younger brother of the journalist, spends half the film wearing nothing but underpants he displays from all angles.

Not to be overlooked is the gutted alligator hanging out front of Cusack’s swamp shack.

Finally, at the bottom of this pop-racism picture, is David Oyelowo, McConaughey’s journo-partner, changed from a white character in the book to a black writer faking a London pedigree and suggesting Sydney Poitier’s Harvard lawyer in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Macy Gray plays the black maid who sees all and tells all as story narrator.

Efron’s rich puppy-boy is from the town’s elite family, and he’s desperate to throw it all away on Kidman. Why? The Paperboy has an answer for you: When Kidman sees Efron, stung by a jellyfish and writhing on the beach in his Speedos, gasping for air, she flies like a bowling ball looking for a spare, knocks aside three bikini-clad beach bunnies, and graphically applies an already notorious remedy.

"Nicole and I have decided to be quiet about that shot," Daniels said.

The blog site The Wrap framed The Paperboy as something between an instant "camp classic and a ludicrous hunk of oversize claptrap that will be hooted off every screen it ever dares appear on."

"I don’t understand why they brought it here — to get attention? It’s being mocked mercilessly by journalists, it’s an embarrassment," said blogger Jeff Wells of Hollywood-elsewhere.com.

In a meeting at the neo-art deco Martinez Hotel, Daniels shrugged it all off, saying he’s seen only good reviews, save one, and besides, he received a 16-minute standing ovation at the public show eight hours after the media screening. That validated him, he said repeatedly, not as an auteur but as a great storyteller. Festival artistic director "Thierry Fremaux [festival artistic director] said it was the longest ovation this year. What does that say?" Daniels asked.

A great public screening, a mixed-to-bad press screening: That’s the way it was just about across the board in Cannes this year, only more extreme in Daniels’ case.

In any event, it’s unlikely that anything at Cannes 2012 will equal the amazing launch of last year’s The Artist, the silent black-and-white homage to cinema that Harvey Weinstein snuck into Cannes without his name on it, as part of a marketing strategy aimed at winning a fistful of Oscars, including Best Picture.

The Paperboy isn’t a likely candidate to match that run, and any films once thought to have a shot either disappointed critics here, or may simply lack the muscle to get any but a few nominations.

Mom Daniels, we know you’re reading this. Your son pulled out all the stops and practically threw us to the ground everywhere he saw us, from the elegant Martinez hotel to the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport. He’d have chased us down the Croissette at midnight on a pogo stick to tell us two things:

"I’m doing this for the kids of West Philly, so that when they see Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman up there on-screen in a film by Lee Daniels, they will know that they can do this."

And, "My Momma will be reading this story. This is Philly. You hear what I’m saying?"

Harlan Jacobson (harlan@talkcinema.com) is film critic at WBGO-FM in Newark, programs the Talk Cinema series at The Ritz 5, is a contributing editor at Film Comment, and is the former artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

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