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Cannes Dispatch: Part Two: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

By Patrick Z. McGavin



CANNES, France—At the major festivals, everything’s about starts. A tone, a mood, a rhythm is created at the beginning and the festival rides it. During some years at Cannes, the program starts slowly or opens problematically with lackluster works that never quite engage or excite. The energy just seems depleted, the sense of disappointment acute.

In the first two and a third days of the festival, the films have been exceptional. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, the only relevant question is whether the festival is capable of sustaining the near constant sense of rapture and exhilaration. If the state of the world has rarely appeared so hostile and tragic, great art is emerging from every corner of the world.

Admittedly, the opening film, Blindness, was a disappointing artistic failure. The first day was salvaged by Waltz with Balshir, an animated Israeli documentary about a former soldier trying to rehabilitate his memories about his personal connection to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps. The film is a first-person essay by the talented Ari Folman (the animation is by the excellent Bridgit Folman Film Gang). The structure is based on Folman’s interviews with his former friends and army commanders, which reconstruct the narrative of his activities as a young soldier during the Lebanese civil war.

Waltz is a searing meditation on memory and guilt. If the start of the film threatens to appear too episodic and repetitive, the traditionally drawn animation renders a destabilizing and surreally beautiful succession of imagery, particularly the dread, confusion and frightening simulacra of war, which assume a haunting, tragic intensity.

The best film of the second day was Three Monkeys, the fifth feature of the exceptionally talented Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. His previous work, Climates, was my favorite film of year in 2006. Climates brilliantly navigated the emotional and personal contours of a couple’s relationship that Ceylan imbued with a lyrical, sharp register of pain and regret. The new film is grungier and shadowy, detailing a different kind of guilt concerning the fallout of an unusual business transaction between an ambitious politician and the personal driver who agrees to take the blame for his boss’s crime.

The drama pivots on the emotional wreckage of the unorthodox arrangement that expands to the driver’s wife and son. Thematically, the film is a sharply drawn noir about behavior and consequence — it binds a malicious dark humor to a trenchant exploration of circumstance and fate. Visually, Three Monkeys is frequently astonishing. Like Climates, the movie is shot in high-definition digital video. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips has written perceptively about the influence of Chekhov in Ceylan's work — and that influence is especially evident here. Ceylan is also especially adept at creating an environment and a mood: The bleached-out colors and crystalline images attain a level of photorealism that gathers a tremendous immediacy and vitality.

As impressive as Ceylan’s film is, French director Arnaud Desplechin’s extraordinary new work, A Christmas Tale is the festival title most likely to be judged a masterpiece a decade from now. Interestingly, both films are linked by the lingering and unresolved emotional pain of the death of a child. I saw my first Desplechin film — his second feature, My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument — at Cannes in 1996, and I’ve been an admirer ever since.

Desplechin’s previous work, Kings and Queens, was the strongest French feature of the last five or six years. That film borrowed the structure of John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. Every shot of the new work is electric and enthralling and reaches a musical buoyancy and novelistic density. Stylistically, the film is so imaginatively conceived and constructed: The story, character detail and emotional force are conveyed through a collage of dovetailing flashbacks, iris shots, family photographs, musical interpolations, direct-address confessions and a shadow puppet précis of the family’s tragic past.

The story, set in the director’s hometown of Roubaix, is an anthropologically precise dissection of family dynamics and social anguish structured around a tense reunion in the days around Christmas. The exquisite Catherine Deneuve is the matriarch of the Vuillards. She’s unfortunately burdened by the same rare and fatal genetic affliction that resulted in the death from of her first-born son nearly four decades earlier. That death haunts and divides the surviving family members. The amazing Mathieu Amalric is the family screw-up whose irresponsibility has left him estranged.

The encounters between Deneuve and Amalric are marked by currents of guilt, envy, power and control that their bruising exchanges are like chess masters. Deneuve’s daughter, the vivid, beautiful Chiara Mastroianni, delivers her most revealing and impressive work to date as the daughter-in-law caught in an equally slippery space, a character worthy of Proust who subtly contributes to the contentious group dynamics.

Desplechin wrote the script with his frequent collaborator, Emmanuel Bourdieu. The structure seamlessly negotiates time and space, allowing just enough character exposition and behavioral detail to amplify the bruised feelings and nearly unbearable pain. The use of music — interweaving classical, American jazz and French hip-hop — is also bravura act of layering and expanding on the ideas and expressions of the movie.

The film, which was photograhed by Eric Gautier — also the cinematographer on Into the Wild, directed by this year’s jury president, Sean Penn — moves confidently between various visual formal and stylistic registers. The various formal elements never strike a false tone and weigh the work down. A Christmas Tale is not just generous and open and free, but it has a range and humanism of the greatest French director, Jean Renoir.

At two and a half hours, every moment is unexpected — the depths of characterization, humor and verve never fail to astonish. It has moments of incredible pain, conveying a sense of transience and emotional fragility that is alternately revealing, observant and continually alive.

If a better work plays in this year’s festival, that’s a film I'm waiting to see.

 

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