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Cannes '09 Day 4: How to make an exit

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 16, 2009 07:16 PM

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One of the staples of this festival is the walkout. It’s an art and a skill. Done right, the members of a packed house will turn from the screen to you and, depending on the film, follow your lead. The skill necessitates a certain intuition. You need to know you’ve attended a film that could inspire your dramatic, unmistakably aggravated early departure. So a seat on the aisle would cause the least fuss. And there are certainly walkers-out who manage to cause a fuss merely by trudging up the aisle at an opportune moment.

But there are others at this festival who like to sit in the middle of a row ( the rows are long here) and leave in a huff or a grumble, their bags, umbrellas, and other “personal effects” knocking people in the head as they depart. The best mid-row, mid-movie exits remind me of how when a contestant’s name is called on “The Price Is Right,” said contestant excitedly climbs over what always seems to be 50 people to get down to the bidding row.

Tonight saw at least one "Price Is Right" exit during Brillante Mendoza’s “Kinatay.” The movie counts as the festival’s first official disaster. Mendoza, who’s Filipino, has endeared himself to critics partly because he didn’t start making movies until his late-30s (he’s in his mid-40s now) and partly because the Manila he captures (most recently in last year’s “Serbis,” which had a run at the Brattle two months ago) is a hotbed of sexual, familial, and bodily strangeness (not to mention a hotbed of humidity). Mendoza likes melodrama. He likes human energy, and emotion; drag queens, hookers, big families, and porn. He likes locating the beauty and comedy in the gross and unhygienic. And in “Serbis,” the beautiful, comic grossness was also the stuff of life.

“Kinatay” is thoroughly lifeless and more about what Mendoza doesn’t like. Here that appears to be women. The movie we think we're getting (a story about two young Manila parents who are marrying each other) turns in a nasty exercise in which the groom rides along with some thugs who’ve tossed a hooker into their minivan. They beat her, tape her up, and proceed to drive her to a remote house for more horrors. The drive is shot in what feels like real time, and the van isn’t lit well enough to catch any of the characters in thought. Mendoza's camera wobbles around, aimed, for long stretches, at the highway, until we reach the house, where all manner of degrading foulness begins, including the camera taking long glances at bloody nubs.

The characters are passive or monstrous, never human. I don’t need to like movie characters. I do need them to be people. One of the final scenes tries to situate the heinousness within a larger spree. But the audience had begun to trudge out at that point. “Kinatay” is as close as a good director should come to current American torture-pornography –- at least until we see Lars von Trier’s attempt at straightforward horror (“Anti-christ”), which debuts tomorrow. It’s really unclear what Mendoza was thinking. When a movie like this goes right, it feel like magic. The same is true when it goes it goes wrong: How did this happen?

And yet I couldn’t leave “Kinatay.” For one thing, I’m terrible at walkouts. I usually can’t commit. I gather my stuff, sit on the edge of the seat, and wait for some imaginary sign that it’s OK to leave -- as if bad moviemaking weren’t sign enough. The movie’s badness managed to push me to the back of the house but not out the door. Partly because I’m naïve. Maybe Mendoza would find a way to right this ship. (Hurry up, Brillante. One minute, forty-five seconds!) But mostly because I wanted to stay for another Cannes staple: the jeer. Sure enough, when the credits rolled, a wan, smattering of applause met a not-insignificant round of boos. Booing -– real booing (especially of something that can’t hear it) –- is uncomfortable because I always expect it to lead to something worse, as though a chorus of boos leads straight to riots in the streets. I left before the credits ended. So who knows, maybe the red carpet is on fire as I type.

(Bad segue alert: Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci cause sheer pandemonium on the red carpet this afternoon, headed to their press conference to discuss sharing the same soul -- or something like that -- in Marina de Van’s “Don’t Look Back.” I missed my intended screening, so that title sounds like good advice: I won’t.)

The Mendoza wasn’t today’s only disappointment. The morning began with “Un Prophète,” the first movie from Jacques Audiard since his exceptional 2005 noir, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.” The new film is a prison picture about a young French-Arab inmate (Tahar Rahim) who winds up climbing the ladder of organized crime until he’s kingpin. In the process, he gives the racist Corsican inmate-gangsters who protect, exploit, and insult him a run for their money.

The film looks fabulous and, for about 45 minutes, is fabulous. Those minutes include one of the more grimly realistic murders I’ve seen in a movie, and, later, there’s the exciting appearance of the festival’s second Nas song. But there are two hours left, and it becomes clear fast that the moral quandaries about obeying one’s criminal DNA that made Audiard’s other movie so good won’t be of use to him here. He’s still a stylist and quite a storyteller, but the movie is looking to make troublesome post-colonial amends.

"Un Prophète" is meant to be a political triumph: crafty Arabs kill and connive their way to the top of the French underworld. But it's sexy and cool. Presumably, this movie will thrill certain of France’s youth. The killing is sleek; the racist enemy familiar and cathartically upended; one of the film’s production companies is called Chic Film. After this morning’s screening, the French, among many others in the audience, went crazy for it. Now they have their “Scarface” and “American Gangster.” Good for them.

The day’s other bummer was Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,” not to be confused with other “Mothers” by Pudovkin, Sokurov, or Albert Brooks. But it’s fair to mistake it for Almodovar’s “Mother,” as in “All About My…” Or any of Almodovar’s Hitchcock noirs. I should be clearer: Imagine an Almodovar movie made by the Coens, starring Frances McDormand. (Never fear, the real thing -- Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" -- arrives in a couple of days.)

In the meantime, there's this. Bong, the unpredictable precisionist of “Memories of Murder” and the gangbusters fun of “The Host,” has made a murder-mystery melodrama. And you could feel the large, packed house waiting to release, to respond to something. We took what we could get: the suspense over a bottle of spilled water, the gallery of smart screwball performers, Kim Hye-ja’s (pictured, above) giving everything to the title role, a mommy desperate to clear her dingbat son of murder.

Formally, this movie does everything brilliantly (a trend this year). But it’s empty. Bong excels at greasing his plots so that scenes slide easily into place. What’s missing is the sense that he likes these people, especially the mother, who’s as much a nitwit as her son. The movie has written her as tragic but jerks between comedy and bathos. This is ultimately a heartless and, more heartbreakingly, dull affair -– at least, by the standards Bong has led us to expect from him. It even features a kind of synth bossa nova music (sub-Almodovar) that sounds like the instrumental track for a karaoke number. And you spend the entire movie waiting for someone to pick up the mic and start singing.

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