Cannes 2008: The Well-Made Film

By Badt, Karin | Film Criticism, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Cannes 2008: The Well-Made Film


Badt, Karin, Film Criticism


The film that won at Cannes this year, Laurent Cantet's Entre les tours, offered a flesh semi-documentary look at French adolescents in a classroom. The director had created a real class of teenagers in the 20th arrondissement of Paris and filmed them for a year. The script, loosely based on a book by teacher Francois Begaudeau, consisted simply of a list of ideas (such as "now there is a disciplinary problem") that the students then "acted out" in a workshop setting. The result: a lively portrait of what it means to struggle through adolescence (both for the students and the teacher) in France, replete with slang, hormonal jolts, and classroom debates. It says a lot about contemporary film taste that this film, which is well-made and enjoyable, took the grand prize. Although the story was innovative and lively, it had no "soul," no cinematic magic or unnamable inwardness, such as that of a Bergman or Fellini or Kieslowski film in days past.

Many of the films in the Competition this year were similarly well-made, and some (although none of the prize-winners) had a special spark. Foremost was Israeli director Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, an animated film about the horrors of the 1982 occupation of Lebanon. The first scene is spectacular: in eerie blue monochrome, a man urgently tells a friend about a repetitive nightmare where he is chased by 26 snarling dogs, black curs who leap to the screen in a hallucinatory flashback. The listening friend is director Ari Folman himself, who nods with a befuddled gaze. Perhaps he too, he reflects, has inner demons creeping into his unconscious from a past he and his friend shared as soldiers stationed in Lebanon during the Sabra and Shantila massacres. The film becomes an exploration of this past, a form of therapy for the director. What makes the film remarkable is its unusual aesthetics for such a loaded subject. "I always conceived of this as an animated film," Folman explained. "If you look at the fragments of memory, you have war, lost love, nightmares. How do you do this in a plain documentary unless you do something extreme? I wanted to make it a journey like Alice in Wonderland. I wanted to take a trip."

The Dardenne Brothers also offered a fine film this year, Lorna's Silence, the story of a young Albanian woman who joins in with a Mafia plot to marry a heroin addict for his papers, then have him killed. Depressing shots of the heroin addict's desperation for his drug (he chain-smokes and panics in the confines of a small bedroom, his skin sickly and gray) reflected the Dardennes' forte for neorealistic portraits of sub-proletarian desperation. Yet what gives the film its poetic depth is the portrait of the woman herself: her moral contradictions. In one surprising scene, the woman--who is supposed to be in on the plot to have the addict die--strips off her clothes to make love to the distressed man, simply to distract him from his pain. It is a simple act of generosity that the Dardennes pull off simply and gracefully. The film's ending also bears witness to the Dardennes' complex moral sensibility. The woman is alone in an abandoned hut, with a make-shift fire burning. Some of the audience was perplexed: is it a happy or a sad ending? Lorna is alone, yet she is both happy and sad. The Dardenne brothers excitedly agreed with my interpretation: "Yes, she is stripped to nothing, but at the same time independent, and her life moves forward."

A favorite of mine--and for many--was James Gray's Two Lovers. Here the banal plot (a man torn between two women, one who is more convenient, the other, his passion) becomes cinematic because of Gray's tender attention to each shot, with minimalist detail. The beginning is a blue-grey soft lit wide-angle view of a river, where a man (Joaquin Phoenix) has just tried to commit suicide. Strangers congregate on the bridge. "Aren't you going to thank us?" says one. Joaquin shrugs his shoulders and walks off. The scene finishes with bittersweet humor, understated and pointed, much like James Gray himself, who, in our interview, responded to questions with a sharpness in his words while slouched in a chair, barely distinguishable from the fabric in his gray shirt and jeans. …

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