As you’ll recall, today’s morning screening was Inglourious Basterds, which wound up getting its own separate advance report. Thinking more about the film last night after talking about it with friends and colleagues, I kept flashing on perhaps my single favorite moment in Pulp Fiction, when Vincent is being briefed by Lance on the adrenaline shot.
LANCE: And then you press the, uh, the plunger.
VINCENT: Okay, and then what happens?
LANCE (with a half-shrug): I’m curious about that myself.
That feeling of curious uncertainty, I submit, is what’s missing from Tarantino’s latest. The reason Basterds feels so conventional by his standards is that he keeps telling you what he’s about to show you and then showing you precisely that. We repeatedly hear, for example, that the “Bear Jew,” played by Eli Roth (who gets gratifyingly little screen time), beats the shit out of Nazis with a baseball bat. Tell me what I want to know, says Brad Pitt to a captured officer, or I’ll call the Bear Jew and he’ll beat the shit out of you with a baseball bat. And when the Bear Jew finally turns up, what does he do? He beats the shit out of someone with a baseball bat, in exactly the brutal way that you’d imagined. It’s as if Mr. White had said to Mr. Pink, “Could you believe Mr. Blonde? Why the fuck would Joe hire somebody like that? I hear that dude hates cops so much he cuts off their ears with a straight razor while dancing around to ’70s bubblegum classics.” Imagine the anticlimactic feeling that would inevitably result when Madsen turns up the radio and reaches into his boot, and you’ll have a good sense of why Basterds doesn’t quite work.
Still, at least Tarantino is clearly trying. Broken Embraces, on the other hand, finds Pedro Almodóvar on candy-colored autopilot, shuffling various elements from his previous films around with such studied dispassion that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he made this latest one to fulfill a contractual obligation. Part of the problem may be that this is yet another tiresomely reflexive film about filmmaking, moving back and forth between present-day Madrid, where a blind writer-director (Lluís Homar) wrestles with footage of a movie he shot back in the early ’90s (which bears an unmistakable winky-poo resemblance to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), and lengthy flashbacks to the shoot itself, during which the not-yet-blinded filmmaker embarks upon an affair with his leading lady (Penélope Cruz), to the consternation of the lovestruck mogul (José Luis Gómez) who shoehorned her into the movie in the first place. Further complications ensue, and there are ripe secrets lurking within the ostensible making-of documentary another character was shooting from around various corners, but you never get the slightest sense that Almodóvar cares about any of it as more than an exercise in elegant script construction and gaudy costume design. Coming immediately after Volver—to my mind, the most deeply felt and oddly moving picture he’s ever made—it’s especially disappointing. With that film, he seemed to have found an ideal balance between the overripe melodrama of his early work and his more contemplative (often a little too contemplative) “mature” period; I was looking eagerly forward to a series of late-career masterworks that would find the melancholy within the absurd, and vice versa. Maybe they’re still forthcoming, but Broken Embraces is strictly marking time. Grade: C
Could I possibly be failed by three cinematic heroes in a single day? Alas, yes—though I tend to run hot and cold on Austria’s Michael Haneke, whose stern, finger-wagging lectures on man’s serious fucking inhumanity to man only fully work for me when they’re fractured and elliptical (Code Unknown, the best parts of Caché) or flat-out assaultive (both versions of Funny Games). His latest, The White Ribbon, announces itself as a long haul right from its ultra-austere, respect-my-authoritay opening credits: white letters, black screen, complete silence. Three minutes of that and you start feeling like you should open up your desk and pull out your notebook, and the lengthy (2.5 hours), deliberate black-and-white period piece that follows does nothing to stave off the sense that your knuckles might be rapped at any moment. Set in the months leading up to WWI, the film observes a small, creepy German hamlet in which the adult males are interchangeable abusive martinets (with a dash of incestuous pedophilia), the adult females are uniformly codependent, and every single child looks as if (s)he’s en route to an open casting call for Village of the Damned. Strange things are afoot, we’re told by the narrator—in the film’s one surprising touch, this is an elderly version of the story’s sole non-repugnant character, so we know he won’t become a sacrificial lamb—but they’re not really all that strange: a horse tripped by a wire here, a bloody beating there. Mostly they serve to illustrate Haneke’s usual thesis, which is that human beings are inherently deceitful and cruel and hence unworthy of musical accompaniment, much less color. There’s none of the messy humanity that Juliette Binoche has lent Haneke’s best work, but neither does The White Ribbon punish you in a way that makes you consider your own worst impulses. It’s just a big arty dose of castor oil. Grade: C
Unfortunately, the final Market screening of Police, Adjective, a Romanian drama that’s among the most widely admired films in Un Certain Regard, was jam-packed with buyers, meaning press (viz. me) couldn’t get in. Likewise, I’m sorry to have (probably) missed another Romanian film, the omnibus package Tales of the Golden Age, though that one’s already been picked up by IFC (along with Antichrist and Looking for Eric). And I’m hearing intriguingly odd things about a Greek film called Dogtooth. Hopefully, at least one of the above will screen at 8:30am on Sunday, when the festival reprises the entire official selection (Competition + UCR); my flight home is at 4:30pm, so I can see at least one film that day, and possibly two if the second one is reasonably short.
Tomorrow: Xavier Giannoli and Elia Suleiman. Yeah, I know: Who? But I’m mildly psyched for the latter, as his last film, Divine Intervention, was among my favorites here back in 2002. And perhaps this is just the calm before the storm that’ll be Tsai and Noé.