Cannes Film Festival Picks
Simply known as “Cannes”, the film festival that epitomizes both red carpet glamour and rarified auteurist taste had an uncharacteristically stratified year between its dual personalities. The Competition, its main section, saw feel good American films, like the Coen brothers’ latest shaggy dog story, Inside Llewyn Davis, about the Greenwich Village folk scene, stacked up against harsh existential anxiety from the rest of the globe, perhaps best exemplified by Jia Zhang-ke’s latest masterpiece: A Touch Of Sin, a searing indictment of contemporary China’s ills told in four fractious chapters. Jia is the key figure in China’s so-called Sixth Generation, the scrappy bunch of directors to emerge after Tiananmen Square and largely confined in their early days to the microbudget underground. They, and Jia, have advanced considerably since. This new film deploys familiar Sixth Generation strategies – day-to-day life quietly observed, dense urban settings, highly specific and local worries – to lull us along for a spell then – KABOOM! – we are subjected to intense bloody and brutal violence. Many critics speculated this was the influence of the film’s producer Takeshi Kitano, the wizard of contemporary on-screen yakuza bloodbaths, but it might also just signal that Jia is really pissed off. Corruption, prostitution, contemporary humiliations of varying kinds steer characters here towards their tragic fates; none of the explosions feel off-key or forced, just tragic and inevitable.
Other gems were to be found in the side section known as Un Certain Regard. Two itsy bitsy films with lots to recommend them captivated me and a few others. Stop This Pounding Heart sees Italian director Roberto Minervini immersed in a steamy, overcast shockingly verdant East Texas town. The Carlsons, a home-schooled family of devout Christians forms the centre of his story. They are real people he has worked with to form this half-documentary, half-fiction hybrid though, because of his photographer’s eye and gentle fragile pacing, the film never feels like a socially-motivated reality TV moment. While some of their beliefs may seem a bit outré – the role of women’s positions are particularly alarming – there is a basic sense of human kindness and decency, as well as a surprisingly robust commitment to organic farming, that signals our stereotypes may be challenged watching the film. The slow pitch story sees the family’s eldest daughter striking up a friendship with a local bull riding boy. His makeshift bucking machine becomes a neighbourhood attraction, bringing them together. The inevitable impossibility of their union reduces her to a mess of tears; her mother’s comfort forms the title and unironically suggests the true purpose of prayer.
My personal favourite would get no truck from the Carlson family. Alain Guiradie’s bold, vaguely structuralist gay film noir murder mystery, The Stranger By The Lake, filled the screen with provincial French dudes steaming up a pebbly nude beach and its forested perimeter. In some ways a love triangle, it also asks difficult questions about why we crave danger and explores the prismatic values created by loneliness. A handsome guy, Franck, possibly about 30 years old, strikes up a friendship with a chubby older man who claims to not be gay; he just prefers to be away from the happy couples on the other side of the lake. Their intimate, touching friendship is interrupted when a moustachioed Adonis straight out of the 1970s arrives and sweeps Franck off his feet. One of the men is murdered. Suspicions lash around until a climax, bloody in more ways than one. What makes the film so terrific is its tone and structure: everything takes place at the beach. When a piece of action ends, we see the same shot of cars driving up, setting the stage, giving space for the boys to assemble and begin their hungry dance. That gives the film a claustrophobic intimacy that belies the natural beauty of the place (and the men). The suggestive, eerie use of light and the underlying itch that something is terribly wrong recalls the best of mid-century Hollywood film noir. The film also contains some brutally straightforward hardcore gay sex – sometimes played for laughs, sometimes to evoke tenderness and sometimes played for horror – it feels almost too real to bear.
Noah Cowan is the Artistic Director of TIFF Bell Lightbox and drives the curatorial vision for the organization’s year-round programming. Some of his landmark contributions to programming since the opening of TIFF Bell Lightbox in September 2010 include the curation of Essential Cinema, the lead curation of A Century of Chinese Cinema, and the co-curation of a major exhibition devoted to Canadian director, screenwriter and actor David Cronenberg, set to launch in Fall 2013.