Critical Roundup #3:
Cannes favourites at NZIFF

FILM, Film Festivals
Continuing our series of “critical roundups” looking at New Zealand International Film Festival highlights our writers have previously covered abroad, we select three of Brannavan Gnanalingam’s favourites from the Festival de Cannes: Paolo Sorrentino’s marvellous new film, The Great Beauty; Steven Soderbergh’s reputed final film, Behind the Candelabra; and, for dedicated cinephiles, Lav Diaz’s latest masterpiece, Norte, the End of History.

Paolo Sorrentino’s marvellous The Great Beauty opens with an epigram from Louis-Ferdinand Céline, an indication of what is to follow. The film is based on Céline’s misanthropic masterpiece Journey to the End of the Night. Céline deliberately exaggerated horror—World War I, colonialism, poverty—and in the process, made it even more real. Sorrentino, however, takes beauty—the human form, art, literature, architecture—and by using the same tactic, turns it diseased. The obvious cinematic link is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, only instead of a young playboy like Marcello Mastroianni drifting through the excess of Rome, we get an aged playboy named Jep Gambardella (a wonderful Tony Servillo).

Jep had a great debut novel when he was young, but has done nothing since except party in all grand Roman style. Now, he sees death everywhere, and finds himself disgusted with everything that was meant to make him happy. The accoutrements of success did not lead to more success. While the film could have easily fallen flat at this point—i.e. turned into a Peter Greenaway film—it resonates on a number of levels. It is bitingly funny. Sorrentino picks his targets, and nails them—plastic surgery, foodie cardinals, smug Marxists, empty bankers, contemporary theatre and art—amongst many others. He constructs the bacchanalian excess, has fun with it, and shows how empty it all is at once. Or, if you will, the hangover that exists at the same time as the party.

Sorrentino films Rome exquisitely, suggesting the notion of an eternal city clashing with the transience of the folk who also think they’re immortal. The cinematography is sensual (Luca Bigazzi’s camera makes Rome look both seductive and dangerous), the editing flows then jars with great relish, and the performances are fitting. A few characters—such as Jep’s girlfriend—are poorly drawn, but they’re the exception in what is a beautiful mood piece. There’s a beating heart desperate for connection and love underneath all the disgust. Start from the roots appears to be Sorrentino’s conclusion, rather than looking down from above. Read More

Steven Soderbergh first made his name at Cannes after winning the Palme d’Or for Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989. He beat fellow indie luminary Spike Lee, whose Do the Right Thing was also in Competition, and together they were seen as part of the “mainstreaming” of the ’80s independent film movement (a third, Jim Jarmusch, also features in the NZIFF programme with Only Lovers Left Alive). That proved not to be the case, of course, with Soderbergh adapting his career into a mixed model approach: studio financed films and independent projects. He has just announced his retirement from filmmaking, citing a lack of artistic vision from studios. Part of this frustration, no doubt, stems from the difficulties he encountered making his final film, Behind the Candelabra.

Behind the Candelabra wasn’t financed by Hollywood studios because it was deemed “too gay” to be a success. Its tale of the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) certainly had enough star power to be successful, but no one bit for five years. Instead, HBO took it on. This has probably prevented Douglas from winning a Best Actor Oscar—the Academy love actors overcoming circumstances (this is Douglas’s first role since fighting throat cancer), and actors impersonating real people. Emmys, watch out.

On the back of Soderbergh’s recent “State of Cinema” address, one can sense the link between Liberace’s packaging and eventual casting off by the entertainment industry, and the director’s own disgust for Hollywood’s conservatism and treatment of auteurs. The film’s account of the love affair is fascinating. Thorson underwent plastic surgery in order to look more like Liberace. His feelings of imprisonment led to drug use. Eventually, as the film suggests, Liberace simply found another younger lover. The film doesn’t delve too deeply into its themes of disfigurement and repression, and the overall feel is of a handsome if standard biopic of a rise and fall.

It’s also a cautionary tale; cautionary towards drugs and sexual freedom—make of that what you will. To be honest, I am bored of American mainstream cinema’s insistence that if a story is a homosexual love story, it must end in death. No happily ever afters—though obviously, this is a true story of a pop culture icon. Unfortunately, the humour around Douglas’s performance sails very close towards generating laughter from camp stereotypes rather than via Liberace’s famous wit. Despite this, Douglas is excellent in the role, as is Damon as his “straight man” opposite, while an absolute highlight is Rob Lowe’s cameo as a deranged plastic surgeon. Ultimately though, the film does suffer somewhat from Douglas’s absence in the third act. The excess that Liberace surrounded himself with is presented as seductive, but Soderbergh chooses to show Liberace drifting away rather than going out with a bang. Whether this biopic is a fitting end to an uneven but admirably experimental career is a moot point. Hopefully, Soderbergh finds his niche in television. Read More

Norte, the End of History has the long takes, leisurely pace, and extreme length that has seen its Filipino slow cinema pioneer, Lav Diaz, garner a hardcore aficionado reputation—and yet this magnificent film felt surprisingly concise.

Diaz provides an excoriating and dense view of contemporary Philippines, with his inspiration appearing to come from Dostoevsky—in fact, you could say it’s Crime and Punishment meets House of the Dead. The film covers two narrative strands. In one, a promising law student drops out to pontificate about the ills of the Philippines and debate philosophy and politics with his friends. In the second, a family struggles to cope economically because the father’s broken leg prevents him from working. Both rely on a pawnbroker, and her subsequent violent death spirals off into terrible repercussions for both.

Diaz focuses on guilt and repression; the wrong person is in prison, but instead of Diaz’s characters searching for atonement, they spill into more violent and shocking territory. There is a clear parallel drawn to Filipino history, as early in the film the characters pontificate about bringing a certain criminal political figure to justice. He asserts that the Philippines cannot progress without such a purging. But as the narrative continues, we begin to see why nothing has happened. Diaz presents a society governed by self-preservation, individualism, and arbitrary, insufficient gifts to the have-nots to make up for a lack of proper structural change. Meanwhile, the victims—those crippled by the ruthless capitalism on display in contemporary Philippines—find life harder and harder. Reliance on dignity or religion, while fine, barely seems to cut it in an extremely unfair and corrupt society. Diaz suggests that in any system, and despite any “revolution”, there will always be people left behind.

The images are frequently startling. Diaz is noted for his black and white visuals and rapid approach to filming. Here, the images are almost all perfectly composed and contemplative (it’s a big screen film if ever there was one). His images are constructed via diagonal lines. His characters are frequently static but the implication is clear: things are askew. It is only in the final shot, where the lines move forward as the young victims are forced to walk towards and beyond the camera, that you sense Diaz’s real pessimism with the Philippines’ future. It’s a devastatingly lucid film. Given how impressed critics have been, hopefully we’ll see a wider distribution of his singular oeuvre. Read More

See ‘The Cannes List’ for a full round down of In Competition and Out of Competition films scheduled to screen here in July and August. For a thorough overview of this year’s Festival de Cannes, read Brannavan’s Postcards from Cannes.
The New Zealand International Film Festival 2013 opens in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.