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Cannes '09 Day 3: Rain, Romanticism

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 15, 2009 07:07 AM

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The typical assumption about being on the French Rivera to “watch movies” is that it’s a non-stop party, that it’s glamour all the time. To those people I’d like to say: Look at my shoes! The rains came last night –- they’re still here, in fact. And while it was really fun yesterday racing up the red carpet into the Lumiere (we're all stars at Cannes; how egalitarian!), today it’s awful. Have you ever seen a wet red carpet? It retains water that would make a ShamWow weep. My feet are wet.

Inside, someone behind me smells like they had fun last night and forgot to rinse it off. We had all gathered for “Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s first movie since “In the Cut” six years ago, and her first in competition at Cannes since “The Piano” won the Palme d'Or. The anticipation index was higher this morning than for any movie thus far. Everybody’s pulling for Jane Campion. We pull for her to work more often. We pull for the movies she makes to work. And so there we all were pulling for “Bright Star” to succeed, and succeed it does. But that’s about all it does.

The film tells the story of the poet John Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne, and it is suitably, lushly romantic (big R, small r). Every shot is crisp, the compositions as painterly as there always are in her films. But I suppose I wanted more than flowers and butterflies from one of the world’s most important filmmakers and, along with France’s Catherine Breillat, the movie’s premier feminist. I want once more to feel her fearlessness, her powers of political correction (which, mind you, has nothing to do with political correctness), her sense of adventure. (I wanted this not quite as much as I wanted to feel the gentleman behind me not cough on my head four times. Who, sir, were you?).

“Bright Star” gives us Keats (Ben Whishaw) as an endearing scarecrow and Brawne (Abby Cornish) as borderline voluptuous. Their relationship heats up in the English countryside of 1811, and its endurance is complicated by, among other things, his lack of means. (Kerry Fox plays Brawne’s disapproving mother.) The movie heats up when Keats and Brawn are apart, and she waits for him to write. Brawne finds herself where too many of the besotted have been: waiting for correspondence. The anticipation becomes maddening, and in Brawne’s case it’s particularly unbearable: letters from John Keats! Swoon. At some point, Brawn’s loses it because one letter is too brief and prosaic. Which is to say Twitter would absolutely kill her.

There are Campionic touches in the condescension Brawne faces from Keats's good friend, the Scottish dilettante Charles Armitage Brown, whom Paul Schneider plays with brio, if a whiff of insincerity. Brown mocks her interest in fashion design. But his mockery makes him a fool. The clothes are the most audacious thing about the movie. Which, itself, feels like a kind of statement. And yet the film’s intense formal loveliness is crossed with its literary subject. There are passages in which Whishaw and Cornish walk among reeds and flowers reciting Keats to each other (again, swoon). And yet those passages also play like a thesis defense. This is the most rapturous of dissertations, but a dissertation nonetheless.

Before “Bright Star” got underway I caught Roger and Chaz Ebert taking their seats. So all is right with the world. He’s in inspiring good spirits while still being unable to speak. The first time I’d ever head the name Jane Campion was on “At the Movies,” where he and Gene Siskel discussed “Sweetie” and “An Angel at My Table,” two movies I can’t imagine any show devoting five minutes to evaluating were they released today.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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