Cannes: sizing up the Competition, part two

Posted by · 5:54 am · May 12th, 2009

Charlotte Gainsbourg in AntichristContinuing yesterday’s survey of the runners and riders in the race for the Palme d’Or…

“ANTICHRIST” (Lars Von Trier)

The pitch: You’ve seen the trailer. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star as bereaved parents who retreat to a remote woodland cottage to nurse their grief, only to be terrorised by unnamed forces of evil. (English dialogue)

The history: Over his seven previous Competition appearances, Von Trier has enjoyed a gradual ascent from the Technical Grand Prize for 1984’s “Element of Crime,” to the Jury Prize for 1991’s “Europa,” to the Grand Prix for 1996’s “Breaking the Waves” (1996) to, at last, the Palme d’Or for 2000’s “Dancer in the Dark.” Nothing since then, however, with his masterful “Dogville” coming up surprisingly (and undeservingly) empty-handed.

The outlook: The film may appear to be familiar (albeit bloody terrifying) horror fare in the trailer, but we should know by now never to presume what a maverick like Von Trier has up his sleeve. Cannes is usually averse to the genre, so whether the film made the lineup because it’s something more subversive, or simply because it’s directed by one of their favourite sons, remains to be seen. Either way, the film will need to be something special to get Von Trier back in the winner’s circle – after all, “Dancer in the Dark” proved so polarising, juries have been unwilling to take a chance on him since. He tends to put his actresses through the wringer, so perhaps there’s a chance for Charlotte Gainsbourg here – but who knows?

“SPRING FEVER” (Lou Ye)

The pitch: Erotic drama follows a young man hired to survey a married man’s homosexual affair; tangled relationships ensue as the spy and his girlfriend become sexually drawn to the adulterous couple. (Mandarin dialogue)

The history: Not counting an unfortunate 2006 withdrawal after his “Summer Palace” fell foul of Chinese censors, this is Lou’s second Competition appearance.

The outlook: There is a great deal of goodwill in the world-cinema fraternity for Lou, who has fought a continuous battle with the Chinese censorship board. His last film, the politically charged “Summer Palace,” resulted in the director receiving a five-year ban from filmmaking – a ruling Lou is flagrantly flouting by screening his new film (which was shot in secret on handheld cameras) at this year’s festival. It’s a courageous move, and I think there’s a strong chance the jury might like to demonstrate their support for the embattled auteur with a prize of some variety.

“KINATAY” (Brillante Mendoza)

The pitch: Desperate to raise enough money to marry his girlfriend, a young criminology student takes a job for a murderous crime syndicate. (Flipino and Tagalog dialogue)

The history: The Filipino art-house rebel makes his second consecutive Competition appearance after last year’s “Serbis” raised eyebrows across the Croisette.

The outlook: Mendoza is the only director here making back-to-back festival appearances, and despite coming away empty-handed last year, “Serbis” went on to become a minor arthouse talking-point. So he arrives with a measure of momentum on his side. On paper, the new film sounds more conventionally plotted than last year’s offering, which chronicled the travails of a family-run porn cinema, but the premise allows plenty of room for the director’s sense of the grotesque. I sense, however, that Mendoza has yet to make a film accessible enough for top honors.

“ENTER THE VOID” (Gaspar Noé)

The pitch: The spirit of a murdered drug dealer remains earthbound, watching over his young stripper sister, and surveying the urban nightmare they live in. (English and Japanese dialogue)

The history: A Critics’ Week winner for his breakthrough film “Seul Contre Tous” in 1998, Noé made a splash with his first Competition entry “Irreversible” in 2002: the film won no prizes, but was the undeniable talking point of the festival.

The outlook: Seven years after the hullabaloo over “Irreversible,” Noé returns presumably to prove the point that he’s a credible filmmaker rather than a mere purveyor or shock and awe. As mentioned yesterday, Noé is trying to defuse the media’s sensationalist expectations by describing the film as a “hallucinatory maelstrom” dealing more in surreal imagery than explicit violence; even if he delivers on that promise, however, the film will have to put nary a foot wrong to win over a sizable faction of hostile critics – especially with a premise vulnerable to accsations of pretentiousness. A wild card, which I suspect is how Noé likes it.

“THIRST” (Park Chan-wook)

The pitch: After volunteering for a medical experiment in Africa, a Catholic priest turns into a vampire, before becoming sexually involved with the wife of a childhood friend. (Korean dialogue)

The history: Famously benefitting from a Tarantino-headed jury, Park nabbed the Grand Prix for cult item “Oldboy” in 2004 – his only previous Competition appearance.

The outlook: “Oldboy” may have been a sensation at the fest five years ago, but it was also something of an anomaly – Cannes rarely favors flashy genre-steeped work, much less diversions into fantasy and/or horror. Whether lightning can strike twice, this time without the guiding influence of an obvious cheerleader like Tarantino on the jury, will likely depend on how much the film captures the imagination of a crossover audience with the arthouse vampire stylings of “Let the Right One In” still fresh in their minds. Early critical word is positive, however.

“WILD GRASS” (Alain Resnais)

The pitch: A romance that apparently takes place in “eight phases, corresponding to the rules of flying,” with a lost wallet serving as the inciting factor. Impressive ensemble cast includes the always-excellent Mathieu Amalric. (French dialogue)

The history: Though the octogenarian arthouse doyen has contended for the Palme d’Or on three previous occasions, this is his first appearance since “Mon Oncle d’Amerique” landed the Grand Prix in 1980.

The outlook: At 86 years of age, Resnais is the longest-serving auteur in contention, though we’re a long way from the heady days of “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” His recent work has been in a considerably lighter vein, playing well at home but not crossing over to great effect –though 2006’s “Private Fears in Public Spaces” landed Resnais a Best Director gong at Venice. “Wild Grass” sounds like a similarly fanciful piece, perhaps not provocative enough for the Palme – though it’s possible the jury might rustle up a gold-watch honor of some sort for the local legend.

“THE TIME THAT REMAINS” (Elia Suleiman)

The pitch: Using his parents’ letters and diaries, Suleiman directs an expansive autobiographical work spanning 60 years, portraying the struggles of Palestinians persecuted in their own homeland. (Hebrew and Arabic dialogue)

The history: The Palestinian-Israeli auteur makes his first Competition appearance – and, indeed, his first feature film – since his “Divine Intervention” took the Jury Prize in 2002.

The outlook: “Divine Intervention,” an unusual black comedy touching on a number of hot-button social issues in contemporary Nazareth, was a major talking-point at the 2002 fest, and Suleiman looks to build on that success here with a similarly political work painted on a far larger canvas. The Cannes jury often looks kindly on personal narratives with a social conscience – “Persepolis” and “The Class” are just two recent examples – while the film could benefit from its topical geography, particularly in the wake of last year’s surprising “Waltz With Bashir” shut-out. I sense a real contender here.

“INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (Quentin Tarantino)

The pitch: Like you need reminding. Yank GIs kick Nazi ass. Bloodshed ensues. (Tarantino dialogue)

The history: Everybody and his mother knows that “Pulp Fiction” walked off with the Palme d’Or 15 years ago. “Basterds” marks QT’s third shot at the gold.

The outlook: What is there to say at this stage? No film in the Competition enjoys a higher public profile than Tarantino’s self-described “masterpiece,” with every new nugget of publicity amplifying either the anticipation or the dread – depending on which side you’re on. All that’s left is for the critics to finally decide whether there’s a real film beneath the hype. QT has probably made the right decision to unveil it on the Croisette – “Death Proof” enjoys a healthy critical following in France, after all – but there’s a reason the Palme d’Or almost never goes to major Hollywood productions: Cannes usually prefers to reward films that need the attention.

“VENGEANCE” (Johnnie To)

The pitch: A French former assassin (turned gourmet chef) travels to Hong Kong to avenge the murder of his daughter’s family. (English, French and Cantonese dialogue)

The history: Another Tarantino favorite, the prolific Hong Kong genre lord makes his second Competition appearance; “Election” contended in 2005.

The outlook: What’s with all the assassin movies in the lineup? To’s film sounds as populist as Tarantino’s – a straight-out revenge thriller (hell, even the title doesn’t pretend otherwise) headlined by Johnny Hallyday, a French superstar, if not a critical favourite. Exploitation fare doesn’t tend to register with the Cannes jury, and I see no reason why this should prove the exception to the rule, though it will probably prove a crowdpleaser.

“FACE” (Tsai Ming-liang)

The pitch: A Taiwanese filmmaker travels to Paris to shoot a film based on the myth of Salome in the bowels of the Louvre, but finds himself unable to communicate with his French cast and crew. A starry French ensemble includes Jeanne Moreau and the very busy Mathieu Amalric. (French and Taiwanese dialogue)

The history: The celebrated Taiwanese minimalist makes his third Competition appearance; he has yet to be rewarded by the jury, though “The Hole” took the FIPRESCI Prize in 1998.

The outlook: Tsai has a devoted critical following, particularly since his last feature “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” impressed at Venice in 2006. But “Face” represents quite a leap for the director: though the lead character is a recurring presence in Tsai’s films, and the film-within-a-film narrative appears to fit with his dreamy aesthetic, it’s his first venture outside his home country. Eastern auteurs have enjoyed mixed fortunes lately when testing their talents abroad: for every “Flight of the Red Balloon,” there’s a “My Blueberry Nights.” I think the film will need to forge an emotional connection with audiences to avoid being dismissed as an indulgence.

That’s the lot, then. (If you missed Part One, check it out here.) Tomorrow begins the often ruthless process of lining ‘em up and knocking ‘em down. There will inevitably be disappointments, but there will likely be as many pleasant surprises.

What am I most personally excited for? The Audiard, the Campion and the Von Trier, among others… but that’s a shot in the dark too. Last year, I was barely aware of “The Class” prior to the festival, and look how that worked out for me.




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8 responses so far

  • 1 5-12-2009 at 6:24 am

    head_wizard said...

    Cool anaylisis thanks can’;t wait for the festival to start

  • 2 5-12-2009 at 7:56 am

    voland said...

    I’m most excited for “Thirst”, Oldboy was a flawless masterpiece. “Antichrist” sounds good as well, Basterds at least got Pitt, whether it sucks or not.

  • 3 5-12-2009 at 8:52 am

    red_wine said...

    There is gonna be such a circus around Inglorious Basterds, there already is.

    Guy, what is considered to be to the true second prize, Best Director or the Grand Prix? Which has more credibility?

  • 4 5-12-2009 at 9:44 am

    El Rocho said...

    I think it’s going to go to the lesser known filmmakers this year. As much as von Trier and Tarantino and Campion (though she’s a good bet) and some other the other heavy-hitters have continually produced masterful pieces of filmmaking, it’ll be the directors or films that need more attention that will take the top prizes.

  • 5 5-12-2009 at 10:04 am

    Jester said...

    (tarantino dialogue)

    Thanks Guy, that made me laugh

  • 6 5-12-2009 at 12:38 pm

    A.J said...

    The opening and closing films aren’t in competition? Why did I think they were?

  • 7 5-12-2009 at 3:34 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Nope, “Up” and the Chanel film are out of competition. There’s no hard and fast rule — sometime the opening/closing films are in competition (“Blindness” last year, for example), sometimes not (“The Da Vinci Code,” say).

  • 8 5-12-2009 at 4:05 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Red Wine: The Grand Prix is the true runner-up prize. When you read/hear past jurors’ accounts (I recommend William Goldman’s and Alexander Walker’s for maximum gossipy detail), it’s clear that the Grand Prix goes to the film with the second-most support in the Palme d’Or voting. (Both Goldman and Walker describe near-deadlocks in the voting where a casting vote was needed to decide which film would get what prize.)

    Best Director usually goes to a film from an established auteur, so it’s more often a consolation prize for big names, but I think these things can be pretty randomly decided.