2009 Cannes Film Festival

By Lightning, Robert K. | CineAction, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

2009 Cannes Film Festival


Lightning, Robert K., CineAction


On this my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, my viewing selections were, by and large, fortuitous. (Beyond an attempt to see as many Canadian films as possible, the selection process was entirely without system). The conventions of traditional narrative cinema were predominant among the films that I saw with predictable exceptions like Tsai Ming-Liang's Visage (where the conventions of post-war European art cinema predominated). Home, family and gender relations were also predictably the focus of most of the films I saw.

Of those films, in terms of narrative content, Quentin Tarentino's Inglourious Basterds was the most audacious (I did not see Antichrist), utilizing as it does the history of World War II as well as the conventions of the anti-Nazi film as the basis for a violent revenge fantasy. (Due to the nature of the material and its contemporary political relevance, I am reviewing Inglourious Basterds separately. The Tsai will be reviewed at a later date). Most of my selections proved of modest achievement with the Tarentino and Tsai providing variety of content and style respectively. (I apologize in advance to both the reader and filmmakers for any errors in the following readings including those of judgement, based as they are upon one viewing of each film in the heightened atmosphere of a film festival. This preamble should also stand as a general spoiler alert).

Min Ye/Tell Me Who You Are ...

(Souleymane Cisse, Mali/France)

Set among Mali's bourgeoisie, Min Ye details the disintegration of the marriage of two professionals: she, a sales representative for a vitamin company; he, a venerated filmmaker (suggesting the possibility that the material is autobiographical). Reminiscent of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, if for no other reason Cisse's film is fascinating (at least to this western viewer) for the dichotomy of local and generic detail, that is the contrast the film inadvertently reveals between those aspects of marriage specific to local custom (primarily polygamy) and those intrinsic to bourgeois marriage per se. For instance, exemplifying the local, the wife's presence is not only expected but much desired by the polygamous husband's teen-aged daughter (by another wife) at the daughter's birthday party. It would be difficult to find an equivalent to this extended family tie (where the daughter even refers to the more recent wife as 'aunt') in the west. On the other hand, the rivalry between the two wives (the party is disrupted by name-calling and the exchange of threats between the two women) easily equates with negative relations between current spouse and ex-spouse in western culture.

The film is also about the continuing emotional purchase of cultural traditions in the face of modernity, a theme made apparent by the supreme irony that a woman in late middle-age and of completely independent means should nonetheless feel compelled to commit to heterosexual marriage. The wife, Mimi, has in fact only agreed to a late polygamous marriage because she presumed that it would allow her a certain amount of freedom within marriage and, as the film introduces her flagrantly engaged in intimate relations with her long-time lover, the particular type of freedom she mistakenly thought marriage to a polygamous professional would allow is made obvious. Mimi, in fact, uniquely among her set of female professionals, actively challenges patriarchy's sexual double standard. If her affair is largely accepted with a wink and a nod by other women her request for a divorce is roundly condemned by all, including her own female lawyer (If the film accurately depicts contemporary Mali, women are very well represented in the legal professions).

As a woman brazenly, even recklessly, challenging a profoundly traditional patriarchal society (in which a lover can still be charged as 'co-respondent' in a divorce case), Mimi is almost totally engaging. A wife's virtue, even when wed to a polygamous husband (who condemns Mimi for violating "our laws"), becomes the crucial issue upon which Mimi is judged by her society and she adamantly refuses to admit her transgressions, even to a witch doctor (who provides her a potion to speed the divorce, to be given her husband after sex). …

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