Postcards from Cannes, Part 5: Shield of Straw, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Great Beauty

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the Festival de Cannes, a beeline for the Coens Brothers’ new film; plus, Takashi Miike and Paolo Sorrentino in Competition.

What any big festival needs is a big dumb action film. And Takashi Miike’s latest, Wara no Tate (Shield of Straw, Competition), is exactly that. It’s full of plot holes, unbelievable situations, and general silliness, but then for anyone who knows Miike’s genre work, this is hardly a surprise. It requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, and for some critics, that was clearly too much to handle. But the thing is, it gives us a morally complex universe. It’s also a classic ride. I will eat my hat if a Hollywood remake doesn’t happen within the next five years.

Four special agents are assigned to protect a child murderer en route to Tokyo. The problem for them is that the murder victim’s grandfather has offered a ¥1,000,000,000 (US$10,000,000) bounty to the person who kills him. A simple prisoner transfer becomes an incredibly messy trip, with everyone (from policemen to hospital staff) out to kill the murderer, as well as anyone who gets in their way. The film works as a thriller (even though it ends on an anticlimactic note) and Miike’s underrated ability to stage action sequences comes to the fore. It also looks (reasonably seriously) at the price we pay for higher ideals; whether the rule of law is worth fighting for in the face of corruption, bonuses, and the easy way out; the extent that victims will go to feel empowered; and whether revenge is as straightforward as it sounds. Compounding the moral dilemma is the fact that the murderer has no redeeming qualities whatsoever; at best, he is merely human. Whether the moral murkiness of the film would be made even starker by having the murderer not face the death penalty (as he does in Japan), or that the state will kill him anyway says as much, is an intriguing consideration. It was certainly fun, and led to my first experience of Cannes’ famous cheers and boos chorus. Many didn’t take it seriously because it’s a high concept picture (i.e. explainable in ten words or less), or because they felt it didn’t belong in Competition, but its thematic ambiguity suggests deeper consideration is merited.

I finally got to see the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis (Competition), the most hyped and positively reviewed film of the festival thus far. I spent an hour or so in a queue, but needn’t have bothered. The media had the easy ride—after yesterday’s fury with the “yellow” press being turned away, today they were allowed to essentially walk straight in. Conversely, it was the industry folk, some of whom had been waiting more than three hours, who were told that they weren’t getting in. It seemed that we had benefited from the complaints made—and it showed that in terms of hierarchy, media is king when it comes to attendance (besides the movie makers themselves, of course). I initially joined the industry queue, not knowing the right spot for the press to wait. When I found out I was in the wrong place, I moved without thinking and with only half an apology to the people who told me I had a shorter wait, and who themselves would probably not get in because of me.

I’m starting to see how hierarchies work, and how seductive it is: every person for him or herself, each according to his or her rank. And it’s remarkable how quickly you adapt. I had made what seemed like interminable but irrelevant faux pas when I first arrived: I stood in numerous wrong queues, I wore a suit on the first day (no suits needed unless you’re going to a proper screening, and even then, it’s a tux), I didn’t know how the wifi worked, and I waited for hours to use the limited number of computers. Now I walk past the people holding their signs begging for tickets, giving at most a curt “désolé” if I’m feeling charitable. For the most part, I treat them like they’re homeless people, simply an apathetic glance away. Queues are now viewed as guides rather than strict structures, because if I wait for someone in front of me to adjust his or her bag, someone else will take my place. I took pleasure today when someone ahead of me didn’t get in because he wasn’t media. Petty. It turns you petty. I walk out of the Palais looking nonchalant, like I belong in there, and not like the wide-eyed lost child I was in the early days. I worry about what I’m becoming. After all, I’m only a small fry film critic in the whole scheme of things, swallowed into all of the noise.

Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of a no-name musician in 1961 Greenwich Village. But he believes in himself. The Village is a small fry scene but it’s fertile, diffuse, and passionate enough to already be attracting those who would make it legendary. Llewyn Davis (a brilliant Oscar Issac) is a folk musician drifting along from gig to gig. His ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) is now performing with a new boyfriend (Justin Timberlake), while that boyfriend is on the verge of becoming big thanks to a few novelty songs. Davis moves from couch to couch, borrows money where he can, and as for his music—who knows what he wants. He claims he doesn’t want to become a careerist, yet pleads with record producers. He initially rails against being a trained monkey, but will happily be a trained monkey later on. He brags about authenticity, but behaves brutally towards an actual folk musician. This is highlighted in a truly vicious scene in which Davis berates an Arkansas musician on stage—it shows exactly how the iconic ’60s folk musicians/record labels took on enough folk to be viewed as legitimate but were exclusionary enough to disregard anyone who didn’t fit within rock‘n’roll stereotypes as to looks, age, and gender. It’s pre-Judas, and one can only imagine how the idealistic Davis would have reacted to the changes that Bob Dylan brought within a few years. The Coens also leave us pondering how an older man might look back at this time—either pretend it never happened like Davis’s father with his life, or take it as something to brag about: “I opened for Bob Dylan.”

The Coens’ familiar mixture of humour and bite has led many to accuse them of patronizing their audience—perhaps unfairly so. Here, the tone is much sadder, despite it being very funny. That said, there is the usual mix of Coen freaks: John Goodman’s narcoleptic jazz musician, a horrifically bad Beat poet, a taciturn early classical music fan; but there is also a huge cast of really sad people such as Davis’s father, the parents of Davis’s former musical partner, and the aforementioned Arkansas musician and her husband. And of course, there’s Davis himself. It’s an America on the cusp of change—there are references to Kennedy, the moon landing, Bob Dylan, contraception—but it’s also a change that will leave many behind. By the end, we don’t know if Davis will fit in with what is happening inside, or will become just another Mr. Jones. America, like all places, is built on the labour of those who simply fade into the darkness.

The film looks great. The winter hues of white, grey, and brown combine to capture a noir-ish, end-of-the-night feel (particularly effective are the bumpy roads). The script is also very dense: James Joyce is evoked, for instance; Ulysses is deliberately referred to, but it’s arguably the darkness, the eulogising, and the circularity of Finnegans Wake, that is more of a reference point. But the end product is anything but highfalutin. The music is well integrated, and the Coens probably have another soundtrack hit à la O Brother Where Art Thou (again with T Bone Burnett) on their hands. Directed with a lightness of touch, it’s a film about people being left behind, and who see the world changing but are unable, for some reason or another, to go along with it. And, finally, it’s desperately sad portrait of mediocrity.

WhereasInside Llewyn Davis offers a resigned outlook on worldly success, Paolo Sorrentino’s marvellous La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, Competition) is more like a projectile vomit. It 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 Palme d’Or winning 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.

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.