Last year, the roster of directors present was very impressive, composed of previous winners, big names known to even people who don’t even know much of movies, such as Tarantino or Almodovar. This year, the list is more discrete, so the crowds are lining up to watch the latest of Woody Allen or Godard, sometimes for almost three hours. Godard’s new film, Socialisme, also features the cool if annoying to some concept that the English subtitles had nothing to do with the words actually being told, rather than non sequiturs. He won’t be getting new fans with this one. Another big name this year is Bertrand Tavernier, whose La princesse de Montpensier is a very classic, expensive period piece, made with gusto and attention to detail, but ultimately cold and somehow heavy.
This year has also brought a number of documentaries, some of them quite successful, some of them less so. The best one so far is also the most bizarre: Le Quattro volte (The four times), by Michelangelo Frammartino. Without a single word, Frammartino explores rather philosophically the cicle of life, well, four times; the main characters of this film are a bunch of goats, a giant tree, a lonely old sheperd and charcoal. Some people were irritated, and this film has to be seen while in a certain mood, but there is something quite unique about it and it certainly is unlike anything else.
A similar approach was taken by Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph), but far less successfully. Over your cities grass will grow is not as wordless as Le Quattro volte, but it still pretty austere. We follow artist Anselm Kiefer as he works and we get to see and appreciate his work. The problem is that his work is not all that interesting and we never really get to know anything about the man behind it. It was like being in a museum and getting stuck in front of a piece you only need a minute to appreciate.
Similarly unsuccessful, though probably it will make a big splash in the box office, was Countdown to Zero, by Lucy Walker. In the same spirit as films such as An Inconvenient Truth or Food Inc., Countdown to Zero is more didactic than cinematographic, more an extended news report than a documentary. Nuclear holocaust can happen at any moment, because of an accident, a mistake or sheer stupidity. The film goes on to repeat that idea a number of times, with the opinion of a number of experts, politicians and random people on the street. There is some great material and obviously the filmmaker is right in her point, but mixing the opinion of Tony Blair and Gorbachev with that of some haphazard people outside a subway station doesn’t really amount to anything. The goal of the film is to explain how easily a bomb can be obtained or fabricated and how easily it could fall into the hands of terrorists, but it can be seen as well as a guide to give some lunatic ideas. Also, terrified of just showing talking heads, Walker illustrates constantly with unrelated postcard perfect views of different cities. Worse, during the final minutes of the film, when the experts explain in detail how an actual nuclear explosion would devastate a city, Walker decides to show the new year celebrations on Times Square! Call me old fashioned, but there is something not quite right about hearing how we are all going to die while watching people dancing with funny hats waving at the camera.
Danish director Cristoffer Boe (Reconstruction, Allegro) has developed in his short career a very distinctive style, with a very particular use of music, sophisticated visuals and temporary / special games. His latest film is perhaps his most straightforward and clear, though it still takes some time to understand what is going on. The less you know about this film the better; suffice to say it is as usual a great audiovisual experience.
At the press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Woody Allen said that he is a pessimistic and that you should never really expect anything good from life. That mood seemed to invade the festival. Especially dark was the mood of certain attendants, willing to wait in line for over three hours, making it impossible to get into Biutiful, supposed to be pretty dark itself. De Dieux et des Hommes (Of gods and men) was a rather strange experience. A group of French monks live in the Algerian countryside, planting vegetables, producing honey and living happily with their Muslim neighbours, who receive medical and emotional aid from the monks and even invite them to their celebrations. This part of the film is very contemplative, slow and often stops for the monks to perform a long Gregorian chant. In the second half, violence erupts and the monks must decide how to react to something completely unexpected. The pacing is strange, but there is something almost hypnotic about the clustered life, all which punctuated by the fact this is inspired by a true story. It is a film about faith, in which Christians and Muslims can coexist without any problem (the only problem is extremism, as various events of the film show). I was annoyed and bored, but also fascinated, surprised and moved.
Dark as well was Blue Valentine, already presented at Sundance. Told in two different timelines, it tells the story of a couple as they meet and fall adorably in love, and a few years later when reality has sank in, and the moments that are not dull are in the brink of violence. Blue Valentine starts when most romantic comedies end and the time switches work because every time we see them working out their relationship, we are reminded in the next scene that everything went horribly wrong. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams developed the project with director Derek Cianfrance over many years, apparently shaping the story in a similar way to Mike Leigh, which gives the film a very realistic feel and top-notch performances, especially by Williams. It is the ultimate anti-date movie.
Pablo Trapero’s Carancho was another highlight. Ricardo Darin, who appears to be on every single Argentinean movie, plays a sleazy shyster who follows ambulances and hangs out at funeral homes in order to get clients and lure them into some complicated plots to defraud insurance companies. When he meets a young, pretty paramedic (played by Trapero’s wife Martina Gusman), he sees a chance at redemption. Very corrosive (everybody seems to be involved in the scams, lawyers, doctors and police and everyone seems to go to horrible extremes to make some cash), the film slowly becomes a nail-biting thriller on its final act, which ends in a conclusion that would make Allen proud; indeed, do not expect anything good from life.