A superstar of the festival circuit in the early nineties, the career of Iranian Abbas Kiarostami later became almost a caricature of the art film scene; beautiful long takes without any particular purpose, long conversations about very important stuff that wound up feeling random, and an overall air of pompousness that, alongside his openly experimental last two features, diminished his circle of fans to a very small, hardcore group. This time around, he returns to the Fest with what it turned out to be, surprisingly, the real first controversial film of the festival, Copie Conforme (Certified Copy), which was booed by a few (and harshly criticized by some reviewers) but widely appreciated and acclaimed by others. I found it deeply enjoyable.
For his first film shot outside his home country, Kiarostami chose an unexpectedly playful, almost cute story; an English writer is in Tuscany presenting his latest book, an essay on art, mostly focused on the difference between fake and real. A nameless woman, played by Juliette Binoche, apparently a fan of the writer, manages to spend an afternoon with the man, time that will be spent doing some touring of a small Tuscan village and talking about some of the ideas of the book. When they are mistaken to be a married couple, they play along and the exercise soon proves to be perfect to take out some very serious complaints each other has about the opposite sex. Or maybe not, because as the film goes on we start realizing that what really is going on might not be what we expect.
The second Korean film in competition was rather disappointing. Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry could have been far more interesting with half an hour less (which can be said about pretty much every film seen this year). An older lady in charge of her teenage grandson starts taking a poetry class, with the idea of writing a poem, because she wanted to do that when she was a child. When a schoolgirl shows up dead (what is it with Koreans and dead schoolgirls?) and it looks like the boy had something to do, the woman must face some serious moral choices. With a lot of points in common with the far superior Mother, Poetry suffers from some structural problems (a really unnecessary Alzheimer subplot, for example), but its “trying to find the beauty on simple things” might made it successful with people who like stuff like The Secret.
Also disappointing was Chatrapas, by the Georgian master of the absurd Otar Iosseliani. Somewhere deep down the craziness, surreal images and slapstick there is a great story that deserves to be told; a young filmmaker in Communist Russia gets in trouble for pursuing his art and comment on the current situation, but the weird choices (the film seems to be set somewhere in the sixties, but some of the actors wear contemporary clothing; when the action moves to Paris, the characters continue using typewriters, LPs and all sorts of props from that era while the passersby are using iPods, making the story terribly confusing, and worse, boring.
Woody Allen’s comments on life’s darkness seemed to spill over the last moments of the festival, with the movies becoming increasingly gloomy and depressing. There is nothing happy about Schastye Moe (My Joy), by Sergei Loznitsa, a road movie about a trucker who keeps encountering awful people. Since it takes place in Russia, though Loznitsa is Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised and now a German citizen, it is easy to see what he thinks of the motherland. There are a number of very interesting devices (this is his first fictional creation after a long career in documentaries) and even some humour, but ultimately, the amount of nastiness onscreen for almost two hours ends up working against the film.
Indeed, pretty much every film seen this year suffers from this syndrome; even the very interesting Rebecca H. (Return to the dogs), at only 65 minutes, feels about 20 minutes longer that it should be. Geraldine Pailhas is great as the title character, who may or may not be the fantasy of an actress named Gerladine Pailhas who is shooting a film with a director named Lodge Kerrigan. Or maybe it is the other way around, and Rebecca dreams she is the French actress and that she is sister of actor Pascal Gregory, who plays an actor named Pascal Gregory… Or maybe…
Another film that would improve enormously with a good trimming is Hors la loi (Outside the Law), by Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory), which also caused demonstrations and police mobilization outside the Palace, and extra security checkpoints. Days before the festival, an ultra-right politician (who had not seen the film) complained about its inclusion in the competition because it showed an anti French, one-sided retelling of Algeria’s independence movement. It starts well, finishes well, but feels eternal during its middle section. La Nostra Vita (Our Life), by Daniele Luchetti, could have also been pretty good, but its problems are caused mostly by an undercooked screenplay. A construction worker has a modest yet happy life, with his pregnant wife and lovely children. When she dies, he takes it upon himself to get ahead and make good money, but a number of things are against him. Some interesting comments about the current state of the Italian society and really good performances on the plus side, but some strange narrative decisions (the wife dies about 15 minutes into the film, and not much happens before that) make the whole thing a little superficial.
The only American film in competition was Doug Liman’s Fair Game, which fortunately is closer to The Bourne Identity than to Mr. and Ms. Smith. It is a factually close dramatization of the Valerie Plame-Scooter Libby affair, with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, but hardly worthy its competition slot. Many thought the same about the unfathomable Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), the film with the most walkouts so far. Nature has never looked (or sounded) so cool as in Apichaptong Weerasethakul’s latest work, in which death can visit relatives, a princess has sex with a catfish and Boonmee’s song “mates” with a monkey-ghost, which makes him also a monkey-ghost. It is based on a book by a monk and has all the new-age themes so popular these days, and although a lot of critics are going crazy about it, for most people it will be just a gigantic pile of nonsense.