NOW's man in Cannes, the author of this blog
I never would have believed it a week ago, but it turns out that Cannes is, in the end, just like every other film festival. It slows down towards the end.
Sellers and buyers alike started clearing out on Wednesday, there having been very little buying and selling. The strength of the Euro, and therefore the weakness of the U.S. dollar, is blamed for the quiet times in this year’s film market.
But who dares wins: IFC Films picked up six movies for U.S. distribution, including Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Arnaud Desplechin’s Une Conte de Noel – both of which would place in the top five of the 32 films I’ve seen so far – and Sony Pictures Classics is reportedly sniffing around James Toback’s Tyson. Still, none of the majors acquired a single title, which is unusual.
Of the big American entries, Steven Soderbergh’s Che is still without U.S. distribution, as are James Gray’s Two Lovers and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. And I can see how all three films could pose major hurdles to boutique marketing departments.
Che is now widely agreed to need major surgery before anyone puts it in front of a paying audience. Two Lovers is “tonally challenging”, which means it requires you to pay some frickin’ attention to the performances instead of having the screenplay spell everything out for you. And as for Synecdoche, New York ... well, let’s start a new paragraph.
I saw Synecdoche this morning, at 8:30 am, and it pretty much blew me away. Kaufman’s directorial debut is as conceptually daring and narratively complex as his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – and elements of all three films can be spotted in this one – but with his own hand on the joystick, he burrows further into his idiosyncratic world than ever before.
The movie stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a struggling Schenectady theatre director – his idea of innovation is casting young actors in the leads in a production of Death of a Salesman – who spends most of his time obsessing about the state of his health and watching his marriage crumble.
After a MacArthur Genius Grant lands on his doorstep, he decides to launch the most important theatrical project of his career, or anyone else’s, building a replica of his home and workplace in a Manhattan warehouse and hiring actors to play the people in his life. As the project expands, so does the warehouse, and in the last third of the film Kaufman leaves conventional narrative behind entirely, taking his film into genuine surrealism while retaining its powerful emotional kick.
Although Kaufman is viewed as an intellectual gamesman, his scripts have never been afraid to tackle real pain. Being John Malkovich has a pretty horrific ending, and Eternal Sunshine is one of the most devastating love stories of this decade. Even Adaptation is ultimately a story about love and death.
Synecdoche goes right for the same dark territory, but it sneaks up on you. At first, it seems to be about nothing more than its own bellybutton, but as the details pile up and the narrative gains momentum, it’s possible to see what Kaufman has in mind, and it’s a stunner. I fully expect this to be one of the most divisive movies screened at Cannes this year; I also don’t expect to fully appreciate it until I see it a second time. And a third.
Two films I don’t ever need to see again, however, are Eric Khoo’s My Magic and Wim Wenders’ Palermo Shooting, which I watched in quick succession this afternoon.
My Magic is easily the worst of this year’s Competition entries, a clunky, melodramatic father-son story about a drunken magician (Francis Bosco) who performs increasingly brutal stunts in order to build up a nest egg for his young son (Jathisweran). It’s only 75 minutes long, so at least the mawkish, amateurish scenes of empty suffering – imagine a David Blaine stage production of The Passion Of The Christ, on a fraction of Blaine’s usual budget – was over quickly.
Palermo Shooting runs about 130 minutes, but it felt like I was in the Salle Debussy with it for three or four years. It’s another of Wenders’ travelogue dramas, wandering around Palermo with a German photographer (Die Toten Hosen member Campino, who looks oddly like a Eurotrash version of Jerry O’Connell) who encounters odd sights and sounds while snapping pictures and sort-of courting a comely art restorer (Giovanna Mezziogiorno).
As with virtually every movie Wenders has made since his misbegotten apocalypse epic Until the End of the World, the soundtrack is overstuffed with a who’s-who of cool kids, and Lou Reed has a bizarre cameo, showing up as a sort of hologram in a bar. Oh, and Campino has vivid dreams where a hooded man is shooting arrows at him, leading – somehow – to a climactic confrontation with Death himself, played by Dennis Hopper as an amiable “service provider” rather than a monster to be dreaded.
Vividly directed? Sure. Delusional? Yup. Batshit crazy? Absolutely. Palermo Shooting is so far up its own gastrointestinal tract that it’s not even funny – well, until Hopper arrives, at which point everything becomes worthwhile. When the DVD comes out next year, skip to the second-last chapter and treat that sequence as a stand-alone short film. It won’t make a lick of sense, but neither does the complete feature.
In the midst of all this, I seized the opportunity to escape the screening rooms for a couple of hours and walk up to the Provencal lunch held annually by Cannes’ mayor, Bernard Brochand, at the gorgeous Place de la Castre, which overlooks the festival grounds. Steamed cod, fresh vegetables, a handmade aioli and some spectacular regional wines in the company of colleagues and dignitaries – how could I refuse?
Cannes fun fact: Guests of the mayor receive a complimentary bottle of cold-pressed local olive oil, which is going to be a wonderful cooking aid if it survives the trip home.