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Cannes '09 Day 2: Attaque du sex

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 14, 2009 10:11 AM

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In the Palais, the Nespresso coffee company (all the caffeine, none of the soul) has rented a space, from which beautiful women hand out free espresso. Obviously, it's extremely popular. Two cups helped get me through a lust-laden morning and afternoon. It began with "Fish Tank," Andrea Arnold's second feature (her first was "Red Road" from a couple of years ago). Arnold is a smart, gifted filmmaker, and her new movie, like her first, has its moments -- nearly all of them involve the sureness of her hand, the strength of her eye, and her skill with actors.

But it's a problematic and predictably provocative exercise, set in and around a public housing project in Essex, England (the fish tank of the title, I presume). The story focuses on a sniping 15-year-old named Mia (Kate Jarvis, who's never acted before but has a lot of life in her). Mia wears sweat suits, giant hoop earrings, and a scowl -- she's a b-girl by way of Sporty Spice. And initially, it looks like Arnold is giving us the comedy of her life. Mia watches a gang of girls from the housing complex do a comical, phlegmatic dance routine to Cassie's R&B hit "Me &U" and declares their work terrible. She's right. They ape the video's robo-Jackson choreography while barely moving their bodies. As it happens, Mia aspires to dance and works on routines set to the music of Eric B. & Rakim.

But not long after Mia tries to free an ailing white horse chained up near a highway (the first of the movie's flagrant animal metaphors), a plot, involving her mother's young 'n' sexy new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), kicks in. You know where this is headed, but it enters the tale of obsession with a modicum of tact, mostly thanks to Fassbender who buries all sleaze under a veneer of charisma. The movie's real trouble stems from its underclass portrait. Mia's young mother (Kierston Wareing) is hell on a pack of cigarettes, hell on a beer, and hell on her two daughters (they share a love of exclamatory profanity). Why this guy likes her so much is a bit of a mystery.

For too many poor people in too many movies (a lot of them English) poverty is more a spiritual and psychological condition than a financial one. Mia's life is joyless. And the narcoticized drudgery the film perpetuates is too, too much: Drugs, drink, sex, pop songs (hip-hop and R&B) -- all balms against poverty's apparent cancer of the psyche. But one of Arnold's final images did manage to move me: a goodbye dance between mother and daughters in their living room, set to a Nas's "Life's a Bitch." The song does all of Arnold's talking for her -- and more forcefully. But the filmmaker's trouble with articulating any fresh ideas suddenly makes poignant sense for her characters, who don't touch or talk as they dance their pas-de-trois. Nas's lyrics explain the pain, without explaining it away.

Waiting for a Nespresso once "Fish Tank" was over, a buddy, who didn't like the movie, said jokingly about one of Mia's more uncouth choices, "You know the Cannes Film Festival has begun when somebody urinates on a living room carpet." Word.

After "Spring Fever" and "Fish Tank," "Air Doll," from the newly prolific Hirokazu Kore-eda, rounded out a remarkable 12-hour binge of sex and suffering. The movie is the least expected film of the three, a kind of comedy about a Japanese loner (Itao Itsuji) whose plastic sex doll comes to terrific life in the form of Bae Doo-na. Dressed for a while in a French chambermaid's uniform (the epitome of fetishistic "sexee"-ness), the doll gets a job at a video store and falls in love with a meek co-worker.

The task of keeping her inflated creates obvious sexual metaphors, but as a comic disquisition on man's backhanded use for woman, the movie entertains. There is something here, and I liked it. There's a bit of Nagisa Oshima's sensual sex-tragedies and evident evocations of the Pinocchio tale. The movie has charm, yet -- despite the sad dénouement -- feels slight (apropos of that title, it's airy and hot, though I mean the "hot" part only erotically).

Meanwhile, Kore-ada has made a film a year since 2004's masterpiece, "Nobody Knows." Two of them haven't even opened in the United States -- who knows what will happen to this one. Almost no one walked out on this new film, which is showing out of the main competition, and the applause during the closing credits was hardy. And to correct my friend about the festival's official start -- I think it's when a grown man is shown making real love to a plastic woman. Now, we're cooking.

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1 comments so far...
  1. What a fabulous revview. Fabulous. Am I following you on Twitter? I hope so. @sofiamiller

    Posted by Sofia Miller May 14, 09 05:52 PM

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