Arts Express: Reflections On The Cannes Film Festival 2012

Annette Insdorf shares final thoughts on the Cannes Film Festival 2012. Including emerging trends, and at least one new international star on the scene…

By the end of the 65th Cannes Film Festival on Sunday night, at least one new international star and a few trends emerged, while an actress whose career has been uneven-Nicole Kidman-triumphed in two movies. It was no surprise that the prolific polyglot Isabelle Huppert appeared in two Competition films, Golden Palm winner Amour and In Another Country from Korea; but the riveting performances of American actor Matthew McConaughey in both The Paperboy and Mud (screened within a 48-hour period) revealed genuine acting chops that transcend his ‘hunk’ status.

In Mud, directed by Jeff (Take Shelter) Nichols, he plays an enigmatic fugitive living on a deserted Mississippi island. Two boys discover and befriend Mud, even though he murdered a man to protect his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). McConaughey’s trademark Southern drawl is part of what makes the potentially dangerous character appealing, combined with a blunt, muscular body language-which is miles away from his role as a Florida reporter with a secret life in the racially-charged drama, The Paperboy.

While the latter film, directed by Lee (Precious) Daniels, divided audiences, most viewers agreed that McConaughey and Nicole Kidman were in top form. Not since To Die For 18 years ago has she displayed such comic brilliance, playing a Southern-white-trashy-peroxide-blonde pen pal of Death Row convicts. And one night later in Cannes, Kidman was hailed for her performance in Philip Kaufman’s epic HBO drama Hemingway & Gellhorn, playing the celebrated war correspondent who married-and then left-the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls (whose Ingrid Bergman character is loosely based on her). Self-confident, sardonic, and brave-whether in 1936 or reminiscing in 1989-her Gellhorn is a truly memorable hero.

By Closing Night, it was clear that 2012 was a ‘literary’ year for Cannes, considering the large number of adaptations or stories about writers. One could even include the scrappy, popular American indie film Gimme the Loot (screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar), which follows two young graffiti artists trying to spray their words on surfaces throughout New York.

The Official Selection closed with Therese Desqueyroux, adapted from Francois Mauriac’s celebrated novel of 1927. It was to be the last film of Claude Miller, the gifted director who had been Francois Truffaut’s production manager before making such gems as The Little Thief, The Accompanist, and A Secret. He died of cancer after completing this drama about a woman in the late 1920s (played by Audrey Tautou, from Amelie and Dirty Pretty Things) trapped by family traditions and bourgeois conventions.

In the context of verbal storytelling, there were intriguing connections among some of the Festival offerings. For example, both Hemingway & Gellhorn and Walter Salles’s On the Road had loving close-ups of old black manual typewriters-appropriate to films about literary lions like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Jack Kerouac.

Shots like this might recur in the near future, given the announcement during the Festival that Andy Garcia will start shooting Hemingway & Fuentes in January: Anthony Hopkins will play the role currently incarnated by Clive Owen in the HBO movie, and it will co-star Annette Bening as his wife Mary. Garcia takes the role of Gregorio Fuentes-Hemingway’s Cuban friend and fishing boat captain-and directs from the script he co-wrote with Hilary Hemingway (niece of the legendary author).

At the Closing Night party held in the Agora tent behind the Cannes Palais, I had a reunion with the master director of Spain, Carlos Saura, and learned that he is about to direct Guernica 33 Days, starring Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso and Gwyneth Paltrow as Dora Maar. Given that Anthony Hopkins played Picasso in a Merchant-Ivory film in 1996, resonances accumulated …

The narrative structure of many of the films in Competition was noticeably more ‘theme and variations’ than linear. This began with the Opening-Night selection, Moonrise Kingdom-in which a 12-year-old couple-in-love keeps running away-and continued in Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t See Nothing Yet, adapted from two plays by Jean Anouilh: a group of actors convened by their just-deceased director reenact scenes from the play Eurydice that they performed in their youth.

On the Road also builds on the repetition of journeys across the United States-whether on foot or with wheels-as well as the back-and-forth movement of desire: for example, when Dean (charismatic Garrett Hedlund) is married to Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his mistress is Camille (Kirsten Dunst). After he is divorced and weds Camille, he returns to Marylou.

Aqui y Alla (Here and There), which won the Grand Prize in the Critics Week section, displayed elements of this approach as well. Written and directed by Antonio Mendez Esparza, this first feature builds upon his student film at Columbia University’s MFA Film Program, Una y otra vez, starring the same (non) actor, Pedro de los Santos. As Eric Kohn wrote in Indiewire, “The plot of Aqui y Alla is so slight it barely exists. But [it] … balances out that limitation with a richly layered mood that steadily accumulates emotion from one scene to the next. Esparza constructs a family drama with supreme restraint while fleshing out his characters to the point where their problems take root in a fully realized environment where socio-economic conditions pull them apart. It’s incredibly uneventful and devastating all at once.”

Even the superb documentary Trashed, directed by Candida Brady, derives its power from the cumulative voyages of Jeremy Irons, who is front and center as investigative journalist and concerned-even outraged-citizen. The film is a wake-up call about global waste, including shots of paradoxical beauty: for example, a long shot of Irons seated on a Lebanese beach-looking tiny beside mountains of detritus-has a tension between the crisp image and the content of filth. Brady makes a persuasive case for the extensive global pollution of land, water and air-which affects the food chain and therefore future generations. Fortunately, the last section offers solutions for sustainability: San Francisco emerges as the leading recycling example, with a ‘zero waste’ policy. Quoting Albert Einstein, Trashed proposes, “A smart man solves a problem. A wise man avoids it.’

The structure of cumulative repetition also informs “Maddened by His Absence,” the first fiction feature by actress Sandrine Bonnaire (best known in the U.S. for Agnes Varda’s Vagabond), presented in the Critics’ Week. This moving drama stars William Hurt as Jacques, a bilingual man who returns from Boston to France to settle his deceased father’s substantial estate. He is marked by the death years before of the son he had with Mado (played by Bonnaire lookalike Alexandra Lamy-the real-life wife of Jean Dujardin who won the Best-Actor Oscar for The Artist). He is thus understandably drawn to 7-year-old Paul, the son of Mado and husband Stephane. He and the child develop a strong bond that grows obsessive, secretive and discomfiting.

Hurt, sporting a ponytail and beard, was full of praise for Bonnaire during an interview in Cannes. “Sandrine and I have a great connection,” he said of the director (with whom he has an 18-year-old daughter), “even if her original school of orientation was different from mine-which was classic.” He described her relationship to such acclaimed filmmakers as Chabrol, Rivette, Pialat and Varda as “absorbing, not copying. We’re supposed to go further than our great teachers.”

When asked about his fluent French in Maddened by his Absence, he recalled learning the language at the age of 12: “I started studying French by myself because I thought it sounded like music. I fell in love with the sounds, rhythms, and culture. And then she taught me,” he added about Bonnaire.

French was the language spoken at the Closing Night ceremony hosted by Berenice Bejo, discovered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival in The Artist. She began by acknowledging that the star of this year’s Festival-the one that will be most remembered-was the rain. Indeed, the Riviera seemed more drenched than in any previous May, leading to images of actresses’ long gowns and stiletto sandals soaked. “But,” she added, “this Festival is like a bubble where we hide-in a red seat-in the dark of the theater. If the Festival is a parenthesis, films will remain the words, the question marks, the exclamation points. As long as directors make movies as if they were their last, and spectators watch them as if they were their first, the cinema will endure.”

The only American film to receive a prize on Sunday night was Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it was the “Camera d’or” (Golden Camera) for Best First Feature rather than one of the Official Competition titles. Director Benh Zeitlin said that when you are growing up, Cannes is like a temple, but “you never know if you’re allowed to dance in the temple. Now I know you can.”

In accepting the prize for Best Screenplay, Christian Mungiu of Romania acknowledged that his film is based on a true story, “in which people really suffered. We can’t fix the past with our films, but hopefully we can make the future better.” “Beyond the Hills” also won the Best Actress prize, shared by newcomers Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur.

One of the most popular choices was Mads Mikkelsen as Best Actor for The Hunt, a Danish drama by Thomas (The Celebration) Vinterberg. This emotionally riveting film tells the story of a man falsely accused of sexually abusing a child. A cautionary tale, it shows how easily a life can be ruined in a contemporary climate that says you are guilty until proven innocent. Why is everyone so ready to believe a little girl’s claim that a kindly young kindergarten teacher exposed himself? As in Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, a child’s charge has devastating ramifications. (Had The Hunt been an American film, media frenzy would be present as well.)

The Jury, the critics and audiences agreed on the crowning achievement of this year’s Festival: when Adrien Brody and Audrey Tautou announced that the winner of the Golden Palm was Amour (Love), a loud, lengthy and ebullient standing ovation ensued. The Austrian-born Michael Haneke-who directed icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in French-was joined onstage by his two stars.

Just before the ceremony, I congratulated Haneke for making a motion picture so meaningful and moving, so real and restrained. He replied that “simplicity was the key” to directing his drama about an aging couple, in which a husband cares for his debilitated wife. And Emmanuelle Riva acknowledged that the word “love” is central to the magisterial films that seem to bookend her career, namely Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour in 1959, and Amour now. (She also played the mother of Juliette Binoche’s protagonist in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue.) When I told her I was affected precisely because the film doesn’t go for easy tears, she said, “Michael’s point of departure was ‘no sentimentality.'”

In many of the Cannes 2012 selections, one could admire the acting or the directing, the audacity or the formal inventiveness. Few, however, combined stylistic mastery with a compassionate vision of our mortality. If Haneke’s previous Golden Palm winner-The White Ribbon (2009)-was a stark German-language portrait with disturbing events, an ominous tone and a dark view of human nature, Amour offers a humanizing mirror.

– Annette Insdorf

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.