Postcards from Cannes, Part 4: Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, Grand Central, Bends, Death March, Borgman

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Partying at the Festival de Cannes; more from the Competition and Un Certain Regard; plus, on not getting into the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

It’s hard to go anywhere in Cannes without hearing complaints about the weather. It is fair pouring down, which has made the long outdoor queues a trial for some. Then there are the people who expect sympathy from those not in the south. The rain has also meant a few sniffly noses. While waiting for the first film of the weekend, a poor French critic got bailed up by an English critic next to him, who asked: “that’s not going to be happening during the film is it? You’re not going to be blowing your nose, are you?” He didn’t know how to answer. When she started berating on the phone to someone stereotypically named “Verity” a few minutes later, I’m sure he had something he wanted to say then.

For others, the rain affected that other famous pastime of Cannes—going to the parties. Two of the great French party songs of recent times, M83’s ‘Midnight City’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, have been on incessant repeat in and around the Palais, exhorting the passersby to dance. Presumably the party spirit is alive and well. The trade magazines are full of party reports and how-to-survive guides, along with snarky comments about the celebrities who aren’t that keen to be here. There are also daily photos of grimaces, and hugs to be dropped as soon as “thank you” is said by the photographer. There is almost as much pleading on the streets to get onto the yachts under tarpaulins erected to keep off the rain, or the bars where famous people might be, as there is to get into the big name movies. All to consume the on-tap multinational branded champagne or beer, spot or sleep with an A-Z list celebrity, or dance to poor DJs (Paris Hilton, for example) playing poor songs. Business cards are probably collected and then thrown out on the walk home. By the time I arrive early in the morning, the streets have been wiped clean, the rubbish pecked at by pigeons, and the city has started all over again.

But then I’m not entirely convinced that the parties would be that much fun—unless, of course, one is an insider (and even then…). The desperation to get into parties is certainly impressive. Careers are to be made! It could be you, like some wonderful reality TV show! You’re going to be a star—you just need a famous person to recognise this on the basis of a drunken/drugged-fuelled conversation! Though how fun a party can be if 95% of the people there want to be someone else at that party, and where the conversation is likely to be ingratiating and self-serving, I don’t know. This, of course, is speculation on my part. I haven’t been invited to any myself, and with this attitude, am unlikely to be. I’m currently reading Balzac’s great Lost Illusions in my spare time at the festival, a brutal dissection of art, superficiality, social climbing, and snobbery in early 19th Century France. It seems, on the evidence of my encounters in Cannes, plus ça change…

Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film, Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (Competition), has provoked all sorts of reactions from critics—from one star, to five stars, to general bewilderment. Despite this, it clearly falls within the bracket of Desplechin’s thematic concerns: madness as a banal concept, institutionalisation and ennui, unexpected encounters. Whether it’s as successful as his best work is another argument, but on its own terms, it has perhaps been unfairly written off.

Jimmy Picard (Benecio Del Toro) is a World War II veteran suffering from the after-effects of a brain injury sustained during combat. The medical establishment cannot tell if it’s psychological or physiological. As a last resort, they draft in Native American anthropologist George Devereux (Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric) because of Picard’s Niitsítapi (Blackfoot) heritage. The film is essentially a two-hander between Del Toro and Amalric, with Devereux seeking to analyse Picard’s hidden trauma. It is a largely static affair as the two men sound each other out, and the middle section is a little too analytical and lacking in tension (though that could be my general intolerance of psychoanalysis). This limits the emotional resonance, and by extension, the tragicomic effect that Desplechin nailed in Kings and Queens. It is only in the final third, when Picard opens up about his life, and the visual imagery becomes more impressive, that the film really hits its emotional stride. The performances are fine, and the World War II period detail subtle. Furthermore, the subtext of 20th Century Native American treatment (and its link to Picard’s institutionalisation), and to that end, the post-war trauma and treatment of Native American soldiers, suggests a much wider story is hinted at beyond simply two people trying to come to terms with themselves.

Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central (Un Certain Regard) ties nuclear power plants and a love triangle to fairly clichéd effect. Gary (the impressive Tahar Rahim) drifts along until he finds himself getting a job at the nuclear power plant. He falls in love with a colleague’s wife (Léa Seydoux), and this obviously causes tension. I won’t be as harsh as to say it’s a remake of Pearl Harbour, but you get the picture of danger and brotherhood being threatened by rampant hormones. The novelty of the nuclear setting can only carry the narrative so far. The visual photography is moody and you do feel like you can smell the sweat. Bodies and movement (and stasis) are well captured, suggesting Zlotowksi has the talent to pull off better mood pieces in the future.

Flora Lau’s Bends (Un Certain Regard) promised much more than it delivered. Set in the borderzone between Hong Kong and mainland China, the film follows Hong Kong driver/Shenzhen resident Fai (Aloys Chen Kun) as he tries to sneak his pregnant wife into Hong Kong so that she can give birth to a second child without falling prey to China’s one-child policy. His employer in Hong Kong, Anna (Karina Lau), is struggling herself—her husband has moved out and she is having her life taken away from her. The film is structured in as a dual narrative, but the major flaw is that the most interesting story, that of Anna (in part because of Lau’s excellent performance), is essentially only there to service the child narrative. The pacing is far too uneven, and the emphasis on contemplation is a little too overdone. Even legendary cameramen Christopher Doyle’s camera work is awkward. An unfortunately forgettable film.

Adolfo Alix Jr.’s idiosyncratic account of the horrific Bataan death march, Death March (Un Certain Regard) deserved a much better fate than it got. More than two thirds of the audience walked out before the end (I was the only person left in my entire row) and it may prove to be a very hard sell. That said, I quite liked it. Sure, it was overwrought, repetitive, and melodramatic—and yet it almost seemed like the perfect way to film such a horrific event. Following the fall of the Philippines to Japan in World War II, tens of thousands of Filipino and American soldiers were forced to walk over 100km in horrific conditions. Tens of thousands died as a result of the Japanese war crime. Alix Jr.’s approach is to film it impressionistically, and to try to capture the subjective conditions as accurately as possible. In order to do this, he eschews realism by using purposefully fake sets, unbelievable characterisations (ghosts, zombies), chiaroscuro lighting and crisp black and white, slow motion, and so on. It’s akin to Manoel de Oliveira’s films of the ’80s, in which the real and the highly artificial were forced together in order to get inside the characters’ minds (another touchstone is Elem Klimov’s hyper real Come and See). It is only at the end, when the “real” filters back through via natural settings, do we (finally) sense an escape. It’s unusual and original despite its imperfections, and well worth further consideration.

Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman (Competition) is a riotous black comedy underlined by some fairly unsubtle social commentary. An upper-middle class Dutch family is shaken by the arrival of a hobo-looking character. Their prison-like house (or modernist abode) contains a large garden and three sullen children. Similar to Pasolini’s Theorem, the new arrival has religious connotations—is he God or the Devil? A bravura opening sequence initially suggests the latter, but as the family slowly reveals their racism, privilege, and xenophobia, van Warmerdam points us towards an open interpretation (though a few innocent bodies are lost along the way). While it isn’t the most resonant of films because of its in your face message, it is a rather fun slap in the face of European smugness.

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The absolute buzz film of the festival to date has been the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which premiered on the Saturday night. So much so, that demand for tickets has been fierce among the media—especially given the media hierarchies at play. The top of the top were the only ones able to get into the evening media sessions last night, leaving those lower in the rankings wet and cranky after hours of waiting. Luckily I foresaw it, and decided not to bother. I tried again in the morning, this time in sunshine; however, only middle and top ranked critics got in, leaving the yellows (the lowest) still waiting. A few smug comments were uttered by the higher ranked critics as they worked their way around some of the furious yellows held back by the bouncers. A festival employee came half an hour before the movie started to tell the yellows that they wouldn’t get in. The fences were rattled. Swear words were delivered in a variety of languages. Hands were clasped in prayer as some begged the employee. Some begged the bouncers, who simply shrugged and flexed their muscles. Some also begged the random guy with a walkie-talkie. Some shouted, “We are workers. This is impossible. How are we meant to work?” Others mentioned interviews, saying that they couldn’t do an interview today if they haven’t seen the film. Some moaned that it was the third time the yellows were deemed unimportant enough to keep out. Others simply complained about the class system. The official’s conciliatory offer of three tickets didn’t appease the critics. Many surged and threw elbows in others’ faces to try and prove that they were there “first” to be entitled to one of the three. Some who had already been waiting over an hour or two simply waited until the end to see if there was a last minute chance. There wasn’t. I’m not particularly fussed—the film will definitely come back, especially on the back of its press and the Coens’ established reputation. Still, you could see some critics muttering, pathetically no doubt, to themselves “just you wait.” Many others vowed that they would be higher ranked next time, or vented that it was an outrage they were bottom of the bottom this time around. People don’t like being told they are bottom of the bottom. People don’t like being treated as if they are bottom of the bottom. Whether anyone else cared or cares, is another matter.

The 66th Festival de Cannes is Brannavan Gnanalingam’s last assignment as The Lumière Reader’s Europe correspondent. He has also covered international film festivals in Venice, Rotterdam, and Berlin. Previously based in Paris, he returns to New Zealand in the Winter.