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Cannes ’11, day one: Woody Allen and naked self-victimization

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in nine years of attending the Cannes Film Festival, it’s that trying to predict the quality of a given year’s lineup in advance is a mug’s game. Movies that look tremendously exciting on paper frequently fizzle—I can still remember the palpable anticipation, for example, as we all filed into the Grand Théatre Lumière for the world première of Southland Tales. (There’s nothing quite like 3,000 people realizing in unison that there’s more than two hours of this juvenile nonsense to go.) On the flip side, the Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days screened early in 2007 to a half-empty house of mildly curious journos, most of whom came out raving; it went on to take the Palme d’Or. There’s really no way to know. All you can do is look at the list of directors and say Hot Or Not.

That said, there’s more than enough potential awesomeness this year for almost anybody’s sensibility. Over the course of the next 10 days, I’ll be reporting on the latest insane provocation from Lars von Trier, Melancholia, which I feel confident will reveal a side of Kirsten Dunst we’ve never seen before; Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, a project that’s been gestating so long, it was expected to be in last year’s Competition slate; a 3-D remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece Harakiri, directed by the reliably unreliable Takashi Miike (fresh off his terrific 13 Assassins, now playing in major cities); a new Hong Sang-soo picture that just might involve clueless male academics and a whole lot of drinking; Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks in a propulsive automotive thriller called Drive; the long-awaited return of Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) with We Need to Talk About Kevin; etc., where “etc.” encompasses work by names as big as Pedro Almodóvar, Gus Van Sant, and the Dardennes.


Also: Woody Allen, whose latest effort, Midnight In Paris, opened the festival last night. (It arrives in U.S. theaters next week.) Folks here are being almost freakishly kind to this one, for some reason—perhaps because it feels considerably less sour and misanthropic than most of his recent work, or perhaps because it features the sort of fabulist premise we all fondly recall from Woody’s classic New Yorker short stories. Owen Wilson plays a successful screenwriter and aspiring novelist who, while on a trip to the City Of Lights with his unsupportive nag of a fiancée (Rachel McAdams), stumbles onto a mysterious portal to the Jazz Age, where he hobnobs with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel. Dazzled by these encounters with his heroes, he’s startled to discover that they have no idea they’re making history, and are generally just as discontent with their own present as Wilson is with the 21st century. But this anti-paean to nostalgia gets spelled out, underlined, and hammered home until it effectively undermines itself by making viewers feel nostalgic for the days when Woody Allen trusted them to possess half a brain. What should be the film’s gently melancholy subtext inhabits lengthy monologues, most of them delivered by Wilson, as he gradually realizes his folly.

Granted, that would be a minor issue if the movie were uproariously funny. And in fairness, I should report that the screening I attended had the press corps in stitches. But they were laughing every time a new historical figure turned up, as if that were somehow witty per se. Once we know we’re in ’20s Paris (which we do immediately), why is the mere appearance of Picasso hilarious? Frankly, the Bill and Ted movies demonstrated more creativity than Allen manages here; as is often the case with his late work, I had the distinct impression that I was watching a first draft. But maybe I was just thrown off by the hideously uncharitable portrait of McAdams’ anti-imaginative fiancée. Literally everything she says or does makes her out to be the world’s pre-eminent killjoy (the better to drive Wilson into a romance with ’20s flapper Marion Cotillard). Thirty years ago, Woody was capable of introducing Diane Keaton as an insufferable know-it-all (in Manhattan), then revealing the credible human being underneath the amusing caricature. Now, not only is he content with a single dimension, he can’t even be bothered to give his shrewish Wrong Gal any first-class zingers. (Watching McAdams struggle to negate her natural warmth and sensitivity made my stomach hurt.) Midnight In Paris is the laziest of trifles, enjoyable only to the extent that it never offends, challenges or stimulates. It’s everything Cannes isn’t. Grade: C.

Thankfully, the other film screened on Day One, Sleeping Beauty, is everything Cannes ought to be, even though I didn’t find it especially successful. The feature debut of Australian novelist Julia Leigh, this deliberately unerotic portrait of a bizarrely dispassionate sex worker (Emily Browning, from Sucker Punch) is unsettling from its first shot, in which we watch this lovely young woman work to overcome her gag reflex as a man in a lab coat slowly pushes an object on a long string down her throat. For the rest of the movie, Browning seems content to be acted upon, submitting passively to the whims of pretty much everybody she encounters—including Leigh’s exacting camera, which observes her with a clinical precision that’s both awe-inspiring and off-putting. In the most extreme stage of this journey into self-abnegation, Browning agrees to be repeatedly drugged into unconsciousness and left naked in a bed, where elderly men can use her in any way that doesn’t involve penetration. Gradually, however, she grows curious about what’s happening during these encounters, and buys herself a tiny spy camera.

That last sentence, though accurate, risks making Sleeping Beauty sound way more narrative-driven than it turns out to be. I haven’t read any of Leigh’s novels, but she’s clearly a born filmmaker; I can think of few first-time directors who’ve demonstrated such a keen understanding of how to create and build a visual rhythm, both from shot to shot and from scene to scene. At the same time, however, she’s created a character study of someone who’s opaque to the point of incomprehensibility. Browning’s actions are never less than compelling, but she comes across as more of a conceit than a person—and even that conceit seems like something of an empty provocation, entirely divorced from real-world behavior. I know I’m not supposed to take director’s statements in press kits too seriously, but after seeing the film, I was not at all surprised to find this remark by Leigh: “I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with ‘Did I really see that?’ and ‘Did I really hear that?’ and ‘Can such a thing really exist?’” Mission accomplished, but I look forward to seeing what kind of films she’ll make should she choose a less adolescent objective. Grade: C+.


Tomorrow: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Gus Van Sant’s Restless (about which advance word is less than stellar, alas), and the first appearance in Cannes Competition for French actress/director Maïwenn. For immediate post-film reactions, check with me on Twitter.

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