Postcards from Cannes, Part 6: Behind the Candelabra, The Bastards, A Castle in Italy, Grigris

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the Festival de Cannes, the paparazzi scrum; plus, the latest from Steven Soderbergh, Claire Denis, and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun.

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, has had his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, premiere at Cannes this year). 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—fittingly, shown on the Croisette.

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. (Personally, my best actor prediction thus far at Cannes goes to Tony Servillo for his performance in The Great Beauty).

On the back of Soderbergh’s recent “State of Cinema” address, one could 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.

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In the aftermath of the screening, I witnessed that peculiar phenomenon known as a paparazzi scrum. Cameras were used to punch neighbours in the face. People screamed in a way you thought had become passé after the Beatles broke up. Actors were called out by their first name, as if the photographers were hailing an old high school friend. “Matt, Matt!” “Michael, Michael!” Some tried the awkward strategy of using nonsensical phrasing to grab their attention. Some drew pencil drawings in order to catch their eye. Others held out their hands, as if begging for a few centimes. It must be a bizarre thing to be a celebrity at the centre of such an event. To Matt Damon’s credit, he tried to speak to everyone who asked for him and gave up a lot of his time: an impressive down-to-earthness from an A-list star; an impressive down-to-earthness that he should be under absolutely no obligation to show.

Cannes, however, needs its celebrity and paparazzi fix. One only needs to look at the coverage in mainstream New Zealand media. As far as New Zealand is concerned, Cannes has only been about the dresses and the stars; the frankly offensive concept that if someone (i.e. Eva Longoria) accidentally shows off a body part by mistake it ought to be displayed and salaciously shared; the fact that Oscar Isaac was excluded from the premiere of Inside Llewyn Davis despite being the star; the €2 million jewellery theft. The only mention of film appears to have been the new Hunger Games sequel, which was merely being publicised in Cannes—and was probably only mentioned because of the media’s current adoration of Jennifer Lawrence. I sat next to a photographer for a major English newspaper, who was bemoaning the lack of celebrities and inquiring whether her photos of Liv Tyler were “celebrity” enough to be printed. It must be as damning for your career as it gets to be debated over whether you’re worthy enough of a photograph. Meanwhile, away from the red carpet, photographers stalk the Croisette looking for attractive people to show what the Cannes crowds are like, creating a skewed perspective of what the festival is like in reality. Interviewers ask “who are you wearing?” as if that is a normal question to ask a normal person. There’s also that weird sense of ownership that the public seem to have of celebrities. My fiancée posted a picture of Matt Damon that I had taken in the process of, er, research. She instantaneously got a comment from a friend about how fat he looked. One only needs to look at the Daily Mail (actually one shouldn’t) to get an idea of the type of comments surrounding body image and “beauty” that are regularly spewed out online.

This obsession with celebrity at Cannes has a number of effects. It increases the commercial possibilities for sponsors and brands (“who’s wearing who” becomes advertising gold). The appetite for non-filmic matters confirms Cannes’ place at the head of filmic matters, to the extent that other major festivals become desperate for this kind of coverage. And finally, it means that the festival remains ever reliant on big name films and big name stars so that such coverage can continue unabated.

Claire Denis’s Les Salauds (The Bastards) was relegated to Un Certain Regard. Given the tepid critical reception and the audience’s rush to get out at the end, perhaps the snub was justified. But it clearly fits within Denis’s singular oeuvre. And while it doesn’t strike the ecstatic highs of Beau Travail and L’Intrus (but then few films do), it’s a deeply unsettling mood piece.

Marco (Vincent Lindon) returns home from a life on the sea after his brother-in-law commits suicide, while his niece is found suffering from horrific sexual violence injuries. He finds himself in stasis, stuck in Paris, and drifting along as he plans revenge. The only problem: he doesn’t know what he’s doing. The story is both familiar and constructed in a Lynchian way—in fact, Lynch at his seediest almost captures the spirit of this film.

But in other many respects, it’s a classic Denis film. The cinematography by Agnès Godard is wonderfully skuzzy, full of black space, wet roads, and empty buildings. Paris is about as far removed from its romantic image as possible, and the roads, apartments, and parks hide malevolent stories not printed in the usual tourist brochures. The acting by many of Denis’s regular cast is effective, although some of the characterisation of her catalysts is a little too vague to hit home. When it comes to masculinity though, she’s brilliant, and at the centre of her world is a man adrift in Paris, hamstrung by family history and roots, struggling with his powerlessness. Denis’s construction of mood via absences, off-screen space (the forests and continuing streets, for example), and the atmospheric music of constant collaborators the Tindersticks, is unnerving. It’s a film that lingers and haunts well past its emetic ending.

Meanwhile, Un Château en Italie (A Castle in Italy) left an impression as arguably the worst of the Competition film thus far—a muddled and frankly irritating mess. The film is about the decline of a bourgeois family; if by decline you mean the tragedy of a wealthy family, each with their own butler, who are forced to consider selling off a castle in Italy so they can afford to continue their gilded Parisian lifestyle. Writer-director Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi stars as Louise, a woman in her mid-forties who’s worried about not having any children. She enters into a relationship with a young actor named Nathan, who is also incidentally the son of a director (Louis Garrel, son of Philippe). She wants children; he isn’t ready. Her brother is dying of AIDS and an old, former friend is a drunk.

The film is clearly autobiographical. Bruni-Tedeschi and Garrel were in a relationship before making the film, her brother died from complications due to AIDS, and she comes from a well-off family (her sister is former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy—thankfully there was no one playing a president’s wife/pop star/sister). She even casts her own mother to play her on screen mother. From such a sad subtext, it is scarcely believable that such a narcissistic, self-absorbed film was made. It takes special skill to make the audience wish for an AIDS victim to die because he’s so annoying. The drunken obnoxious friend is simply drunken and obnoxious; not the Falstaffian character it seemed he was constructed to be. In a flat out offensive moment, Louise realises that she belongs a guy on the basis of spousal abuse. Last, but not least, is the complete lack of social awareness in such austere times—the biggest tragedy in the film being the sale of a Brueghel painting for £2.6 million. If Un Château en Italie is trying to show us how difficult it is being rich, then it doesn’t do a very convincing job. There are a few funny scenes, and Bruni-Tedeschi is a compelling actor, but in such a dreadful film, these small positives are simply wasted.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris (Competition) is another impressive take on dislocation and missed opportunities in his native Chad. The film follows Grigris (Souleymane Deme), who despite being disabled, harbours ambitions of being a dancer. Although an incredible dancer, he is unable to earn a living from his passion, and he desperately needs money to pay for his stepfather’s medical expenses. From there, the film moves into darker territory, as he enters the dog-eat-dog world of petrol trafficking and gang lifestyle. Incidentally—or not so incidentally—petrol is Chad’s biggest export. Chad too, as seen in Haroun’s earlier work, is the victim of numerous civil wars and coup d’états. Along with spillover from wars in neighbouring Sudan and Central African Republic, there’s a sad and desperate background to the narrative.

It’s a fairly clichéd story, one that has been shorn of its dramatic tension, so for those expecting a thriller, it’s unlikely to work. But the film is fascinating because Haroun has structured it around thematic concepts rather than narrative tautness. At the risk of lazily essentialising the sheer vastness of African cinema, it bears some resemblance to the legendary Senegalese film Touki-Bouki. Both films feature a protagonist who commits a crime against a corrupt local and who escapes into the countryside. The fact that Grigris’ pumping soundtrack is credited to Wasis Diop (brother of Touki-Bouki director Djibril Diop Mambety) only assists in that conclusion.

Haroun’s imagery is striking, from the scenes of Grigris dancing to the bravura scenes of the petrol smuggling. The final subversive image of the burning car hints at a way forward for Chad: forget about relying on modernity to fix the ills, and rely instead on communal solidarity, equal treatment of women, and an acceptance of the past. Not so difficult, Haroun suggests.

Disappointing was the poor behaviour of many critics who attended Grigris—an awkward thing to witness, especially during such a contemplative film. As far as I can tell, my role as a film critic at this festival is to service the films. And up until this point, the press have been well-behaved and have refrained from using their phones (in part discouraged by the message appearing before every film). But for one reason or another, there was a distinct lack of respect shown during the screening of Grigris. For some, it was almost as if their work was more important than watching the film itself. The bright lights of modern day smart phones, the panoply of generic ringtones, and the tap tap tapping of keystrokes demonstrated an arrogance that Grigris didn’t deserve.

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.