Catherine Deneuve, left, and I do believe she's smiling directly at me. On her right, respectively are the directors of her film Je Vais Voir Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas, and Deneuve's co-star, Rabih Mroue.
Here’s something you might not know about Cannes audiences: they are very, very supportive of the films they see, even when the films themselves are not very good, and especially when there’s talent in the room.
Thus, all you really need to do to guarantee a rapturous response – an ovation that goes on and on and on, rising and falling like waves on the sea – is have Catherine Deneuve show up at the premiere of a movie where Catherine Deneuve is driven around Lebanon for 70 straight minutes.
This movie exists. I’ve seen it. It’s called Je Veux Voir (I Want To See) and it’s really no big deal. A movie-star riff on Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry from directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, it plants Deneuve (as herself) in a car with actor Rabih Mroué and follows along as he drives from Beirut to the southern edge of the country, so a small film crew – which includes Hadjithomas and Joreige, playing themselves – can shoot footage of her touring the lands just north of the Israeli border, which were reduced to rubble by Israeli shells during the countries’ “second war” in 2006.
But the brief glimpses of a devastated landscape are really just secondary to the filmmakers’ delight in their own meta-ness, and their love of their star. It’s a love I happen to share – she’s really quite amazing in Arnaud Desplechin’s Une Conte de Noël, which I saw yesterday, but the concept of this exercise means she can do very little besides peer through a car windshield, fuss with her seatbelt and light the occasional cigarette while the audience applies its own politics to the charged imagery.
Doesn’t matter, though. She was there, she waved regally from the stage when the film was introduced, and when the movie was over, and the house lights found her sitting in the audience with the rest of the cast and crew, she moved a young woman to tears by leaning down and planting kisses on her cheeks. If Cannes has a queen mother, Deneuve is it.
The four other screenings I attended today were not quite as memorable. Walter Salles’s Linha De Passe is a perfunctory exercise in scrappy squalor, following a Sao Paulo family as they struggle with issues of morality and identity. It’s the kind of movie that ends with a twelve-year-old kid driving a bus down a highway as the soundtrack swells triumphantly – never mind that his legs probably aren’t long enough to reach the pedals.
Next up was Cloud 9, Andreas Dresen’s gray German drama about a sixtysomething seamstress (Ursula Werner) who risks her comfortable marriage when she begins a torrid affair with a 76-year-old customer (Horst Rehberg). The dreary digital video aesthetic is impressive, as is the cast’s willingness to spend a great deal of screen time in various states of undress, but there’s an element of calculation to everything that left me suspecting I’d watched a very elaborate stunt. As a German friend pointed out to me after the screening, “if this same script was filmed with beautiful thirty-year-olds, it’d be terribly banal.” But way hotter, obviously.
Not hot in the slightest – and I mean that as a compliment – was 24 City, the latest in director Jia Zhang-Ke’s meditations on the cultural and literal disintegration of his native China. This one finds Jia setting up his tripod in the depressed town of Chengdu, where a massive factory is about to be torn down and replaced with condominium apartments.
Eight people deliver lengthy monologues about their lives in Chengdu, illustrating the sea change in Chinese sensibilities as the nation moves inexorably from Communism to capitalism; half of them are actual Chengdu residents telling the stories of their own lives, and the other half are fictional characters played by Joan Chen, Zhao Tao, Lu Liping and Chen Jianbin. The gambit is slightly distracting – the actors are comfortable in front of Jia’s camera, while the “real” interview subjects are hesitant and slightly fidgety – but it serves the concept surprisingly well.
My last screening of the day was Service, an unclassifiable Filipino picture from Brillante Mendoza centring on a family-owned porn theater in an unspecified city. If Je Veux Voir is an accidental answer film to Waltz With Bashir, Service is the cracked-mirror version of Une Conte de Noel, exploring the power dynamics and long-buried resentments within a splintering family and coming up with a very different narrative.
It’s a roundelay of enthusiastic sex, venomous insults, slap fights, minor catastrophes and major gross-outs, and that’s before the goat shows up. People might complain about its excesses, but there’s no question that Mendoza has made precisely the movie he wanted to make. And it has a goat in it.
Cannes fun fact: Gummi bears are a perfectly acceptable candy to put out for buyers and critics wandering through the film market in the lower level of the Palais. But note that buyers and critics wandering through the film market in the lower level of the Palais have filthy, grubby hands.