You’ll never get taken seriously as a film critic until you cover the Cannes Film Festival. That’s what I told myself as I typed in the numbers of my American Express card, self-financing a trip to the most prestigious event in world cinema. If I kept the sleeping down to four hours a night, I’d be able to file enough reviews from the road to at least break even. And maybe have some good French meals along the way.
My friend Krikor, a half-Armenian half-Belgian film writer who lives in New York, is a veteran of the fest, so we ended up sharing a flat. As I stumbled in with my bags he greeted me on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean with a glass of cold rose. He reeked of a very specific blend of hashish and Camembert that I’ll forever associate with the twenty-four films I saw at Cannes — a not unpleasant odor, but one that can get overpowering after time.
When we read about the brutal caste system that still exists in India and we often think something like this can never exist in the West. Untrue. The color-coded press badge system at Cannes tops being picked last for the volleyball team in gym class as far as public humiliation goes.
The creme-de-la-creme get a saintly white badge. Few ever lay eyes on one, and I would not be surprised if ownership granted you an immediate audience with Sarkozy. Below that is the pink badge. You need the pink badge. If you don’t have the pink badge you get the blue badge and the blue badge means you are stuck on line out in the blazing sun or the pouring rain and you STILL may not even get into the film.
I got the pink badge. Many of my colleagues got the blue badge. All they asked me was “how did you get the pink badge?” I didn’t have time to answer them, because I was busy entering the fabled Salle Lumiere while they were still stuck behind their blue barricade looking sad. (It’s okay for them, though, because some poor souls were condemned to have a yellow badge. I don’t know much about this sort: I would never be seen associating with them, at least not in public.)
With my social stratification firmly in place it was time to see some movies. I caught 24 and a half (more on that in a bit) while I was there and only three of them were stinkers. The rest were either very good or great.
Among the most original films I saw was Ari Folman’s follow-up to “Waltz with Bashir” called “The Congress.” This live-action/animation hybrid is loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem science fiction novel, and predicts a world where movie and drug companies merge to create a hazy future of narco-entertainment and mass hallucination. It is very much a “midnight movie” and confirms that Folman is among the most innovative artistic voices coming out of Israel today.
“The Congress” had its critics, though, but Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” received universal praise. This winsome character portrait set during New York’s folk music revival scene of the early 1960s is one of the Coens’ best films ever, and, yes, I realize that’s saying a lot. While it does contain a lot of humor, it isn’t a jokey comedy like “The Big Lebowski” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” but is a melancholy look at a talented man who makes poor decisions. It also features the best supporting performance by a cat in the history of cinema.
A number of other notable directors showed good new work at the fest. Cult director of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” Alejandro Jodorowsky screened his first new film in twenty-three years. “Dance of Reality” is a surreal memoir of growing up the child of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants in Chile loaded with wild imagery, unpredictable story tangents and the occasional bit of wisdom.
Roman Polanski has continued his recent trend of adapting real-time plays with David Ives’ “Venus in Fur.” Starring his wife Emmanuelle Seigner and the ubiquitous Mathieu Amalric, this two-hander is a small gem of a story concerning gender politics and exploitation.
Also, legendary lo-fi New York director Jim Jarmusch brought his best film in years, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” a dead-pan vampire tale starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. It’s a bit of a gift to late night movie audiences, and will make you feel ten times cooler by the time you exit the theater
Other great titles I was able to catch include “The Past” by Asghar Farhadi (the Iranian filmmaker whose “A Separation” beat Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” for the Academy Award in 2012.) It is another of his dense character dramas where a central, unknowable event has an unpredictable ripple effect. Farhadi is an undeniable major new voice in cinema.
Another relative newcomer who knocked me dead was J.C. Chandor with “All Is Lost.” Starring Robert Redford and only Robert Redford, this firmly realistic survival tale plays with almost no dialogue, pitting Redford against the elements inside a life raft at sea.
Lastly, the most emotional film I saw was Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is The Warmest Color” (also titled “La Vie D’Adele Chapitres 1 & 2), which won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest prize. It is a dizzying, heart-wrenching look at first love with all of the exuberance and desolation that frequently comes with it. The film ought to spark some controversy, as it includes a number of highly frank, lengthy and unsimulated lovemaking scenes (and homosexual ones at that!) but they are absolutely essential to understand the characters. Adele Exarchopoulos is launched into the stratosphere as a world class actress with this one.
The movie I didn’t get a chance to see, but wanted to, was “Omar,” the new one by Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian director of “Paradise Now.” A friend of mine did, however. When I asked “how badly did it make Israel look?” His response was “pretty bad.” In the press notes, the main character is referred to as a “freedom fighter.”
I did get a chance to check out the controversial Israeli film “Rock the Casbah.” Now, technically, it didn’t play at the Cannes Film Festival, but the Cannes Market, which is like this entire shadow festival happening simultaneously with the competition films. While the big premieres play in the large theaters with velvet seats and red carpets, there are small rooms for industry professionals to check out movies looking for international distribution.
The chaotic ‘fog of war’ scenes of urban pacification are extraordinary
“Rock the Casbah” is a good film, but not a great film. While I admire Yair Horowitz’s even-handed approach to the 1989 Intifada in Gaza, there are some moments that get just a tad too maudlin for my taste. Still, the performances of the four main IDF soldiers stationed on a Palestinian family’s roof are all top notch. The chaotic “fog of war” scenes of urban pacification are extraordinary, and the film does a good job of showing what efforts Israel takes in order to keep casualties to a minimum.
With those nice comments made about an Israeli filmmaker, it’s time for a guilty confession. I mentioned I saw 24 1/2 films. That’s because I had to leave one early. And, of course, it had to be the one that would bring the most shame upon my family. Claude Lanzmann, the director of “Shoah,” brought a three hour and forty minute new film to Cannes called “The Last of the Unjust.” It is, essentially, a long interview with Benjamin Murmelstein the last Head of the Jewish Council of Elders at Theresienstadt. Obviously, this is a movie I must see.
For a moment I could hear myself snoring, right there in the Salle Debussy, with legendary Claude Lanzmann himself in attendance! Hell, maybe even this year’s jury president Steven Spielberg was there, too! (Others saw him at a screening of the risque lesbian film, fyi.) And there I was, denigrating the seventh art and disrespecting our people by loudly snoozing!
Despite this embarrassment, it was a terrific trip. I had good wine, I had Algerian kebabs with harissa sauce and I got a good look at Catherine Deneuve in the flesh (she was in attendance for Claire Denis’s new film “Bastards.”) I got to hear an audience loudly boo a film (Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” — deservedly.) I saw Emirs in Bugattis, Britons with sunburns, Italians in leather, Russians wearing more perfume than clothing and young women of every nationality in gowns that looked like what you’d wear to make fun of someone wearing a gown for the Cannes Film Festival. I can’t lie and say I looked all that elegant, but at least I had my pink badge. And a plan to return again next year.
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