Bryn Mawr Film Institute Reports from Cannes

Juliet Goodfriend, the Executive Director of our affliliated venue in Bryn Mawr PA, and her companion Marc R. Moreau, PhD Chairman Philosophy Department, LaSalle University wrote this excellent summary of the films they saw in Cannes this year…

Quick impressions from the 62nd Cannes Film Festival
Juliet J. Goodfriend and Marc Moreau, May 16-21, 2009

The blue sea, white yachts, black-tied men with spike-heeled arm candy make this the festival of festivals. Yes, there are also the grunge-clothed industry professionals, and the bizarre groupies who stake out a square foot of territory on the median strip of La Croisette so they can oogle their favorite stars from padded step ladders (seriously). All of this and the parties and crowded sidewalks make the environment bubble like champagne. The sun soaked long lines for admittance can be deadly, but we escaped that punishment being in a wheelchair and with industry badges that put us at the head of the line. So we are thrilled to have been to Cannes, would recommend it to others, but may not bother to go again, since Toronto has the films and it’s a whole lot easier to get to, albeit not nearly as glamorous!

We avoided about-to-be released films and failed to see many that won prizes but managed to keep our date book filled with enough interesting movies that we were watching from 11 am to 1 am! The last 2 years at Toronto, the emerging themes were “Blood” and “Blood on the Floor” respectively. This year at Cannes we would say that “Parental Violence” was one thread among many films we viewed and another was “Homage to Movie-Makers”! And there was certainly enough porno-gore and explicit sex to satisfy the lustiest ghoul in the town.

I rate the following films as:

A = Try to get for BMFI if the Distributor cooperates
B = Interesting but probably not for BMFI
C = Neither interesting nor for BMFI

There were three terrific and appealing films, Definitely A plus material: Precious, Looking for Eric, and Broken Embraces. These may also have the best commercial promise.

A-minus material were: A Brand New Life, Jaffa, Empty Chair, Father of my Children, Bright Star, Mother, Here and There, and Thirst (though Thirst may be a B).

The B films were Dogtooth (which won Un Certain Regard prize over Precious, for reasons not clear to us), Spring Fever; and Vincere.

C ratings go to Clara, Mustafa,The Wolberg Family, and Freedom.

The write ups below, from Marc Moreau, include “spoilers” so read at your own risk.

Precious (Lee Daniels, director): A fat & illiterate 16-year-old girl, Clareece aka “Precious,” is sent to an alternative school in Harlem, where it is discovered that she is pregnant with her second child. The film shows Precious being physically abused by her mother and sexually abused by her father, her mother’s boyfriend and the father of Precious’s two children. Dependent on Precious for welfare checks, the mother also hates Precious for accepting the advances of the boyfriend. – Imaginative fantasy sequences of Precious’s unrealistic reveries, along with abrupt transitions to her real life, are both comic and heartbreaking. – Though the film faults the school system for advancing students who do no work, the film more directly targets parental neglect and abuse. The mother’s raw anger and physical violence towards Precious are vividly and powerfully depicted. While inviting us to sympathize with Precious, she and her mother arguably represent an earlier and a later stage of the same life course. The mother’s resentment of precious is linked to sexual rivalry, and there is some suggestion that the rivalry helps explain why the mother encourages Precious to obesity. This is a masterful movie which, on second viewing is every bit a wonderful as it was when first seen at Sundance.

Thirst (Chan-Wook Park, director): A pious, disciplined, and well-intentioned Catholic priest volunteers to accept blood transfusions as part of an effort to develop a vaccine against a virulent virus, called “Emmanuelle.” Unbeknownst to him, the transfusion contains vampire blood, and as a consequence, he must drink human blood to survive, blood that he steals from the hospital he visits. Becoming erotically attracted to a friend’s wife, who reciprocates, the two descend deeper into evil – she being the leader in killing innocent victims. By slow degrees, the priest’s initially holy desire for God’s rod and lash is transformed into a sado-masochistic perversion. In the end, the priest brings the mayhem to an end by insuring that he and the adulterous wife will be exposed to, and dissolved into ashes by, the sun.

Of the film’s 3 acts – (1) the life of the holy man; (2) temptation and seduction of the holy man; (3) descent into the Inferno – the first two acts are powerful. The priest’s initial piety (in act 1) and his erotically charged seduction (in act 2) are both convincingly portrayed. In act 3, the film descends into an hour or so of black humor gore. Notwithstanding the priest’s final act of repentant self-destruction and notwithstanding the effort made to link the sado-masochism in act 3 to his initial desire for mortification of the flesh, the shift to black humor is bathetic: The black humor and the over-the-top blood and guts undermine the gravity of the early scenes depicting the priest as a holy human being. By the film’s end we can no long believe in those earlier scenes. – Of some cultural interest is the treatment of the wife’s husband as a coddled mama’s boy.

Jaffa (Israel/France): Two lovers, a young Israeli Palestinian, Tawfik, and the Jewish daughter of his Israeli boss, secretly plan to elope after discovering that she is pregnant; but their plan is derailed when Tawfik unintentionally kills the boss’s son in a fateful fist fight. The Israeli boss owns a car repair shop where his son and daughter work and where Tawfik and his father also work as hired mechanics. The boss’s son resents the confidence his father places in Tawfik. Envious of Tawfik and alienated from his family, the Jewish son quarrels with his mother and eventually picks a fight with Tawfik and is killed. – The film focusses on the daughter’s responses to these events – her joy as she anticipates her wedding; her horror at her brother’s death; her grief on learning that Tawfik will spend time in prison for manslaughter; her anxieties over the future of the child she carries. After some wavering, she decides against abortion, and she tells her parents that she became pregnant with a Jewish man she will not identify; and to protect the child, she writes Tawfik to say she has aborted her pregnancy. Nine years later, Tawfik is released from prison, and when he tries to contact her, she finally decides to reunite with him, and in so doing she alienates her parents. – All the characters are closely observed, and the acting is superb. Tawfik, his father, the daughter, and her agonized father are sympathetically portrayed. Her father, the car repair shop owner, is a decent man who tries to play fair, but he is also under the influence of an impetuous and seductive wife whose passions (towards her son and towards her daughter) vacillate wildly. – The film is biblical in its exploration of tribal and filial loyalties. Politically, the film arguably favors intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Palestinians – perhaps as the only sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mother (Korea): A mother tries to clear the name of her feeble-minded son who has been accused of murder. The teenaged son seems harmless, but he can punch people when offended – a fact that gets him into trouble with the police twice. On the second occasion, when he is accused of murdering a girl, his mother decides to investigate the case herself; and when she finds a junk dealer who saw how her son did in fact kill the girl (by throwing a large rock down a dark alley – hence accidentally), the mother brutally kills the junk dealer and burns down his shack. – A caricature of maternal protective care gone awry. – Excessively protective maternal care of infantilized adult sons is a theme both of this film (the central theme here) and (as a secondary theme) in Thirst.

Empty Chair (Iran, 2008): Actor/Directors make films that explore the role of fate in life and in connection with the Koran’s teachings. In the first film-within-the-film, a rural couple rent a room in a city hotel so as to be close to a hospital where the pregnant wife is to give birth. The couple’s newborn is blind, deaf, and likely to be retarded. The question is whether to remove the premature neonate from life-support in the NCIU. The couple consult a seer, who tells them that according to Sharia law one cannot play with fate and that every child is born for a reason. After the final cut of this first film-within-the-film, the female director and the lead male actor briefly discuss his performance. In the second film-within-the-film, whose lead role is performed by the female director of the first film-within-the-film, a woman accidently hits and kills a man with her car; and though she stops her car, she drives away without reporting the incident. (Movement into this second-film-within-the-film is seamless: I initially thought that we were following the female director on her commute home after filming; but as we eventually discover, she is in reality playing a role in the second film-within-the-film.) In this second film-within-the-film, the question of destiny again arises – regarding the accident victim and the driver’s course. She finally goes to the victim’s wife to confess; but instead of responding with anger, the wife is delighted to have been freed of a brutal husband. – Questions are raised about directors’ roles as creators and their all-powerful “cut,” and the accidents that take place after the final cut. – Reminds me of Kieslowski’s Decalogue – in its playful dialogue with sacred scripture.

Father of My Children (France/Germany; Mia Hansen-Løve, director): After having across 20 years produced many films and given opportunities to many talents, a French film producer finds that his company, Moon Films, is 4 million euros in debt and must enter receivership. As this financial collapse unfolds but before its inevitability fully sinks in on him, his weekdays at work and weekends with his family at home are sympathetically depicted. At work, he seems competent and decisive as he makes arrangements with suppliers, seeks additional investment dollars from bankers, appeases a finicky director, or shows interest in the work of a young script-writer. At home, he is a warm, attentive, and fun-loving father of three charming daughters – two under 10 years old; the third, a young adult. As he takes delight in their achievements, their little garden or their miniature theatricals, he also helps them appreciate the history and beauty around them. E.g., at St. Apollinaire, he helps them identify what they see, including the Hand of God the Father reaching down from heaven in the ceiling painting of the church’s apse. When his funds are cut, however, the human father commits suicide. The final third of the film shows us how his family and his co-workers deal with the man’s legacy and with his flaws. It becomes clear, for instance, that he had overextended his production company and that his financial hopes for the films under production were unrealistic. On discovering that he had been married before and that he had had a son by the earlier marriage, his eldest daughter is mystified by his secrecy. In its portrayal of a good but flawed human being, the film is remarkably well balanced and leaves us with a sense of life’s moral complexity.

Spring Fever (China, Lou Ye, director): The story of a young gay man who has disruptive affairs with men already partnered to women. As the film opens, his lover is a bookstore owner married to a teacher, who has her husband followed by a paid snoop. The teacher, who values propriety, is disgusted by her husband’s behavior and by his willingness to risk the good will of her family. In a violent confrontation with the gay protagonist at the travel agency where he works, she tells him never to see her husband again, and her command is obeyed. The gay protagonist returns to his former nightlife haunts, where he sometimes performs an act as a transvestite chanteuse. Forlorn, her husband commits suicide, and his wife attacks the gay protagonist, cutting him across in the neck. Meanwhile, the snoop, who has a girlfriend, has become attracted to the gay protagonist. The three of them try to make a go of it as a ménage-a-trois, but she leaves. (In a sub-plot, she works for an unappealing boss who runs a sweatshop making counterfeit designer clothes; his male appetites – he leers at her and eats like a pig – are in their crudity a foil to the tenderness of the gay lovers.) In the film’s final scene, the gay protagonist tries to become sexually aroused by a female dancer, but he seems to be failing. – The film favorably compares the transgression of homoerotic love to other transgressions, e.g., the wife’s violence, the sweatshop boss’s illegal activity.

Clara (Germany): A German dramatization of the triangular relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Treatment of the dramatic possibilities is flat and unimaginative. All three characters are hollow and the music-making is amateurish and anachronistic. Why make a historic film if you can’t represent the period with a certain degree of verisimilitude?

Freedom (Colpa di Giude, “Let’s Blame Judas”): An Italian musical (performed by real prisoners and guards at the Turin prison) about producing a musical play in a prison, a play about the Passion of Christ. No one will play Judas, and no one believes in sacrifice. So the theme of the play becomes La Liberta. The film is lightweight and sentimental, but the film’s theme is intriguing: To recognize the need for sacrifice. The fictional female director of the play is merely a pretty face. A reference to Pasolini only puts viewers in mind of what he could have done with the theme.

Looking for Eric (UK, Ken Loach, director): A light comedy about Eric, a postman whose life is in a state of disorder – with two out-of-control stepsons and regrets about abandoning his first wife and daughter. With the help of an angel (in the person of Eric Cantona played by Cantona himself) and with the help of his co-workers, Eric the postman takes control of his life and is reunited with his first wife. Humorous treatment of the comradeship between Eric and his fellow postmen is fun to watch. Possibly the biggest potential hit we saw.

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos, Spain, Pedro Almodovar): A mystery that slowly reveals the betrayal by his female assistant, Judit, of a film writer/director, Mateo Blanco aka Harry Caine. As Broken Embraces opens, Mateo, who is blind and calls himself Harry Caine, is working on a story with the help of Judit’s son. Mateo says that his next project will tell the story of a son who forgives his father. We are shown a TV news bulletin about the death of a corrupt magnate; and the mystery opens when the magnate’s gay son visits Mateo with an idea of getting his help writing a film script in which a son takes revenge on his father. Mateo refuses, and after this visit, Mateo tells Judit’s son about how Mateo Blanco, the film director, died: Fourteen years ago, Mateo had made a film with Magdalena (Penelope Cruz), who was then the unhappy mistress of the corrupt magnate. (She had entered the relationship in exchange for expensive medical care her father needed.) Rendered jealous by her newfound independence, the magnate pushes her down a staircase, causing her to break a leg. After finishing the film, Mateo takes her away to a secret place, where they learn that the film has been released and given bad reviews. As Mateo and Lena are driving back from their retreat, a car runs into them, killing Lena and rendering Mateo blind. Blind since that day, Mateo never saw the released version of the film he made with Lena. After Mateo has told Judit’s son what he knows of the story, Judit then confesses what she knows, and the rest of the story unfolds. Angry with Lena’s flight, the magnate decided to take revenge by releasing Mateo’s film in a crippled form that used discarded cuts; and to produce this distorted version of Mateo’s work, the magnate solicited Judit’s help, which she gave out of jealousy. We now learn that her son is Mateo’s son. Judit also informs Mateo that she had secretly saved the good cuts. So Mateo re-edits the film, using the good cuts, and the resulting film – excerpts of which are shown – is wonderfully comedic. – Broken Embraces is not Almodovar at his best. The unfolding of its plot is awkwardly managed: After Mateo narrates what he knows, Judit narrates what she knows; and her revelatory confession is insufficiently motivated. The love between Lena and Mateo is flat and lacks the incandescence that would help us feel Mateo’s loss. Nonetheless, Mateo’s talk engagingly expresses Almodovar’s love of his art. What we learn is that the worst betrayal an artist can suffer is distortion of his work.

Mustafa (Turkey): A documentary (with historical film footage and tastefully done reenactments – from a distance) of Ataturk’s life. The documentary is not particularly interesting either in its form or in its insights about the man, though it is informative for Americans who know nothing of the man or of his reputation among Turks.

The Wolberg Family (France, Axelle Ropert, director): A tear-jerker that is unpleasantly bitter. A Jewish family suffers under an overbearing father, Simon, who resents the “blond type,” who corrects “Bohemian” traits in others, and who creates a suffocating atmosphere for his wife, Marianne, and their daughter, Delphine. Marianne has had an affair with a blond man, and Simon confronts the man as well as Marianne’s vagabond brother. The discovery that Simon has a fatal case of lung cancer, together with his pathetic attempts to reconcile himself with his wife and daughter, is supposed to draw our sympathy. But his transformation and theirs are none of them credible. So unlikeably sanctimonious and intrusive is Simon that I experienced only relief at the prospect of his death.

Dogtooth (Kynodontas; Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos, director): A disturbing satire of a violently “protective” father who, with the complicity of his servile wife, keeps his teenaged children imprisoned at home – a boy and two girls. All the action (with one exception) takes place at only two locations: the home and the factory where the father works. The children play competitive games of endurance, often for small rewards from the father. All communication with the outside world is forbidden to the children.

There is much dark comedy in the parents’ protective efforts: For example, words for instruments of communication are given domestic meanings – e.g., the children are taught that “telephone” denotes the salt shaker, and they so apply the word. A real telephone is kept hidden in the parents’ bedroom, and when the spying children see her talking on it, they say she is talking to herself. The parents domesticate the jet planes that occasionally fly overhead by presenting them as toys; and to make their story stick, the parents surreptitiously throw a toy plane into the backyard after a real plane has flown overhead. The children are told that wild cats beyond the fence surrounding their home will tear them apart if they leave home before their dogtooth falls out (as happened to an older brother). To support this story, the father tears his clothes on his way home from work one day and splatters red paint on his torn shirt. During a commemorative celebration of their history, the family listens to the voice of an ancestor – a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Sexuality in the home is perversely mechanical. Sex between the father and mother is highly ritualized: While a pornographic video plays on their TV set, they listen to popular American tunes of the 1950s through headsets, and the wife is passive. To satisfy the son’s sexual needs, the father hires a female security guard (who is driven blindfolded between their workplace and his home). After this guard lends one daughter a video of the movie Rocky (in exchange for licking of what the daughter calls the “keyboard”) the father discovers the treachery and beats his offending daughter on the head with the video tape casette taped to his hand, and then he goes to the guard’s home and viciously beats her on the head with her VCR player.

The parents then decide to have the eldest daughter service their son, and her distaste for the act is obvious. Parental possessiveness gets translated into gloomy incest. The scenes of copulation are all anti-erotic. The film ends as the eldest daughter knocks out her dogtooth with bloody blows to her mouth and hides herself in the trunk of her father’s car with the intention of making her escape. Next morning, the father drives to work as usual, and the final shot shows his car parked at work, its trunk lid closed.

What the social target of this satire is is a nice question. At one level, the film is a transparent critique of domineering fathers, and it can be read as a Kafkaeque allegory. But why this theme should engage a contemporary filmmaker puzzles me: At least from my American perspective, paternal neglect seems today a more pressing social problem than paternal tyranny. My ignorance of contemporary Greek culture can perhaps explain why I am at a loss to locate the moral outrage that motivates the film. I searched for a classical Greek myth to which the film might be attached, but my best guess – the story of Jason and Medea – does not work. The father’s industrial workplace suggests another angle of approach: Could the father represent the brutality modern industry exercises over modern family life?

A Brand New Life (Korea, Ounie Lecomte, director): A little girl is abandoned to an orphanage by a father who has remarried and her sadness over the loss of her father makes her rebellious during he stay at the orphanage. She is treated with kindness by the nuns and by an older girl. The movie ends she is adopted. The lead child actress is charming, but the film has little to offer except to draw our sympathy for the suffering of a cute little girl.

Vincere (Italy, Marco Bellachio, director): A biopic about Mussolini’s relationship with a mistress whom he had secretly married, who bore him a son, and whom he had committed to an insane asylum. The treatment is operatic (with music drawn from Verdi operas), and the cinematography (much of it in black and white) is monumental. In the way she is treated by a cad, the wife is treated as another Madame Butterfly.

Here and There (USA/Croatia, Darko Lungulov, director): A languorous (slow?) romantic comedy that is pleasant enough due to its likeable characters. A depressed and unemployed 52-year-old saxophonist, Robert, is being evicted from his basement apartment in NYC. A solo Croatian mover, Branco, who moves Robert’s stuff to his sister’s home, offers to pay Robert $5,000.00 if he will go to Croatia to wed his own (Branco’s) fiancée and bring her to America. Out of desperation, Robert accepts the offer but insists that he must receive the money before he marries the girl. He flies to Belgrade, where he stays with Branco’s mother, from whom the arrangement is kept secret. Towards the warm and hospitable mother, Robert, who thinks his stay will end in a few days, is gruff and close-mouthed. Back in NYC, however, Branco gets into trouble with the law and cannot deliver the money. So Robert’s stay in Belgrade is extended, and he develops a romantic relationship with Branco’s mother. On learning that her son is in trouble and that his trouble is somehow connected with Robert, the mother distrusts Robert, who moves out without explaining the situation. Robert gets a NYC lawyer to help Branco. After the mother learns the truth, she gives Robert the $5,000.00 he wants. He then marries Branco’s fiancée and takes her to America. Robert also returns the money to Branco’s mother, along with a note promising to see her again. – The film is low key both in his humor and in its romance, and the lead actor who plays Robert does a good job playing a depressed and unresponsive man who warms up under the influence of a woman’s love. There are nice quiet moments – as when Robert watches the mother singing to the flowering plants she waters or as when he smells the clean shirt she has washed and pressed for him.

Bright Star (UK, Australia, Jane Campion, director) An austere telling of the poignant and depicted-as-chaste love between John Keats and Fanny Braune, this film is all mis-en-scene and cinematography and not sufficient passion or life. But one could watch the huge fields full of blue or yellow flowers, the careful stitchery art, and be satisfied, all the while wishing his letters and poetry were being recited. While this film will be accepted into most art houses, it has not told the story as well as it could.

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