Not that it’s anything new, by any means, but the movies that are exciting the masses here at Cannes aren’t the same movies that are wowing me. Having spoken to several friends and colleagues who shared my rapturous response to Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, I expected to see it receive high marks today in the trades’ daily critics’ polls, but it seems that a sizable contingent of the international press (including nearly all of the French critics) feel that the K-man has totally sold out by making a talky, derivative (whether intentionally or not), Italian-set Juliette Binoche vehicle. Of course, these are the same folks who bitched and moaned about the Dardennes’ terrific Lorna’s Silence because it dared to have something vaguely resembling a plot, so it’s probably best to just shake our heads sadly and wish them all a speedy aesthetic convalescence.
To add insult to injury, however (and to badly mix my medical metaphors), everybody has now flipped for Of Gods & Men, Xavier Beauvois’ dramatization of a real-life 1996 incident in which a group of Trappist monks in Algeria were kidnapped and murdered. Problem is, I think they’re applauding the monks rather than the movie, which is nicely understated and reasonably absorbing but amounts to little more than mass hagiography. Knowing that their lives were in danger due to Muslim extremism in the area, the “martyrs of Atlas” (the two most prominent are played by Munich’s Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson of the unfortunate Matrix sequels) nonetheless chose not to return to France, as the government urged, but to remain and continue assisting the impoverished locals, who relied on them for clothing, medical attention and moral support. Which means that the movie, not to be too reductive or anything, basically amounts to two hours of eight dudes in robes not getting on a plane. Oh, they falter a little at the outset, with three or four of the monks played by less famous actors expressing a desire to flee; by the film’s midpoint, though, its entire cast fairly oozes doomed nobility, and Beauvois (with whose work I’m mostly unfamiliar—I saw Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die, but that was 15 years ago and I barely remember it) even goes so far as to throw Swan Lake on the soundtrack and give each monk in turn a lingering, now-this-is-courage close-up just before they’re marched into oblivion. Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration—it’s the sort of thoroughly upright docudrama that people hail to the skies but then quickly forget. Go see how much dust is on your local video store’s copy of The Killing Fields, assuming you still have a local video store. I guarantee that Netflix says: Available. Grade: C+
Critical opinion is far more divided on Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first film since his fractious split from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Good news first: Apart from a brief and deliberately mysterious prologue, the entire film (written by the director with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone) unfolds in strict chronological order, focusing on a single character, rather than hopping all over creation. Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a petty crook who strives to keep his exploitation of illegal immigrants to a bare minimum, races all over Barcelona dealing with his various rackets; his two cute kids; his crazy bipolar ex-wife, who’s fucking his brother behind his back; his late father, whose remains need to be removed from his grave (technically a “niche”) as the location is being turned into condos or something (I was starting to tune out by this point); various people who want him to speak to their freshly dead relatives à la Miles on Lost; and his doctor, who, just to keep things interesting, informs Uxbal that he has terminal prostate cancer and maybe one or two months to live. Bardem plays all this piled-on chaos to the hilt, and his commitment to the role makes it impossible not to feel for the guy to some degree; at the same time, it’s hard to keep your eyes from rolling as more and more shit falls on his head, to the point where death starts to seem like it might be a relief. Speaking of which, the film’s most interesting and curious aspect involves Uxbal’s connection to the afterlife, which turns out not to be a scam, is treated with refreshing matter-of-factness (nobody in the film even questions it), and affords González Iñárritu the opportunity for some creepy, barely glimpsed images of ghosts clinging to the ceiling like flies that would fit comfortably in a fairly good J-horror knockoff. In the end, however, Biutiful joins both 21 Grams and Babel (I still like Amores Perros) in the folder labeled Trying Too Hard, overemphasizing scuzziness and misery rather than fate, chance and narrative hopscotch. Grade: C+
And then there’s My Joy, which I don’t know what to do with, frankly. This is the only debut feature in Competition this year, from a Russian named Sergei Loznitsa (he’s made some short documentaries, which I haven’t seen), and for about an hour I was sure I was witnessing an exciting new talent, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell was going on. Following a nondescript truck driver en route to deliver a load of flour, My Joy (WARNING: titular irony) initially has an engaging shaggy-dog quality, as the trucker’s encounters with folks along the road—an elderly hitchhiker, a scarily young hooker—spin off into unrelated mini-narratives of their own; Loznitsa’s camera functions like a wandering eye, forever ready to be distracted by something of potential interest that just happened to wander into the frame. (One tour de force shot leaves the trucker behind in a crowded marketplace to light upon several dozen different faces for a split-second each.) About an hour in, however, the film goes well beyond discursive and becomes almost completely random, abandoning the trucker entirely (in a startling way) and flitting around without even that vague semblance of a narrative skeleton. (A new central figure, bearded and mute, recurs throughout the second half, but there’s no longer any sense of potential identification or character interest.) At the same time, Loznitsa’s view of Russia becomes more and more capriciously violent and ugly—so much so that the only thing I ultimately took away from this remarkable but confounding picture is: Life sucks here, and don’t even bother trying to make sense of it. I’m not gonna chicken out like I did last year with Resnais’ Wild Grass, to which I refused to allot a grade, but be advised that this is far and away the grade I feel least confident about at this point, despite the fact that it’s the same damn grade every other movie received today. Here you go again: C+
Tomorrow: Will be largely swallowed up by Olivier Assayas’ five-and-a-half-hour biopic of Carlos the Jackal (to be released in the U.S. both in that ass-numbing 3-part version and in a shorter cut that “only” runs about three hours). Also, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, which would probably sell more tickets if it were called, with equal accuracy, Oh Noes, My Grandson Is a Rapist.