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Cannes '10 Day 2: Old maids, old masters

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 13, 2010 05:41 PM

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What did I learn today? Lots. For one thing, when I overheard one journalist explain to another that a certain movie in the main competition could have been entered for reasons of national appeasement, that "it's French in a bad way," I assumed he was talking about Wang Xiaoshuai's "Chongqing Blues," which we had just left. It's a fine if unremarkable kind of mystery-noir about a deadbeat dad working backward to find out what led to his son's police murder. This particular person was actually talking about the quite lovely Mathieu Amalric strippers road-trip film from the previous night. He loved "Chongqing Blues."

To each his own, but his comment about bad French and national appeasement struck me because the film, as hard-working as Wang is, feels interchangeable with some French mysteries -- a little bit realist, very much muted (for some reason, Bruno Dumont comes to mind, although that's an unfairly inflammatory comparison). Wang, whose best film remains 2001's "Beijing Bicycle," zeroes in on what feels like a real generational sea change in Chinese mores and attitudes. But it didn't move or provoke me, and I wanted it to.

I also learned that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi makes a better dartboard than George W. Bush. The Italian satirist Sabina Guzzanti has taken a sledgehammer to Berlusconi's kneecaps (don't worry, they're made of titanium) to make "Draquila: Italy Trembles," 90 minutes of damning, but fairly deployed facts and footage arguing that Berlusconi and his administration's cronies were dazzlingly corrupt during reconstruction efforts after an earthquake seriously damaged the city of L'Aquila.

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Guzzanti's movie follows Erik Gandini's "Videocracy," which rather inventively manage to savage Berlusconi's grip on Italian television and public opinion (he owns the country's three top private television stations and runs the broadcaster RAI). That's a better movie. But this is a more entertaining one. Guzzanti is commendably fearless. Her American contemporaries are obvious -- she's part "Daily Show," part Michael Moore. But she hails from a robust Italian history of pasquinades and jeremiads, which is to say that there's a poetry in her bluntness.

Italy's culture minister is boycotting the festival, calling "Draquila" propaganda, which, of course, is rich. But it's not fooling anyone. Nothing, it seems, can break the prime minister's surreal grip on the Italian electorate, neither a statue to the face nor a well-made documentary to the groin. 

Here's another lesson: The brilliance of Romanian understatement doesn't work for everything, like extramarital affairs. Radu Muntean's "Tuesday, After Christmas" employs the same lack of dramatic inflection and last-minute irony that, for starters, made "Police, Adjective,", a shock. But this film about a man cheating on his wife with their daughter's dentist suffers the monotonous lapses that this current class of Romanian films are too tightly written and formally and socio-politically well-conceived to produce. There is a wonderful conversation between husband (Victor Rebengiuc and Mirela Oprisor), in which the Mrs. articulates the insult she feels regarding fall-on-your-sword apologies. Muntean captures true day-to-day with unvarnished faithfulness. His camera and editor are as patient as those of his peers. But in this instance, the movie's doldrums become ours. 

housemaid_remake.jpgThe South Koreans, meanwhile, continue to work their high-wire blend of farce, thriller, and melodrama. The occasion here is Im Sangsoo's main-competition remake of Kim Ki-Young's 50-year-old "The Housemaid." Im's movie, also about a young maid's affair with the man of the house, applies generous layers of soap opera, soft-porn, and horror to the proceedings. The movie is a major tweak, turning a lament for the ravages of class and gender into a lurid grotesque. That's fun, until the "Melrose Place"-ness of things exposes a tension in how sincere versus slick the class and gender revisions want to be. Jeon Do-Yeon, who won the best actress prize here three years ago for "Secret Sunshine," plays the young maid. And Yoon Yo-jeong plays her loony, domineering boss -- the old maid, a combination of Alexis Carrington and Marla Gibbs as the housekeeper on "The Jeffersons." The bottomless reserve of talented South Korean actors shows no signs of drying up any time soon. 

It would have been smart to go home after "Housemaid." I'm sleepy. But I would have missed "Vicious Circle," the very short film (about three minutes) that the Iranian director Jafar Panahi sent to Cannes from his ongoing arrest at the hands of Iranian authorities. He offers a too-brief explanation of what's transpired and how he is. The important news is that he's still alive and has access to a camera. 

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I also would have missed the two enormous standing ovations for Manoel De Oliveira, the Portuguese director who, at 101, has lived to see yet another festival and shows no slowing down. He carries a cane, but it appears to be in part for walking and in part for show. What exactly is 101 about this spry man with the hale complexion? His filmmaking is just as healthy. His latest treat, "The Strange Case of Angelica," is about a photographer (Ricardo Trepa) commissioned to take photos of a dead young bride. He finds that he's besotted with her. She appears alive before his camera lens and comes to him in dreams. 

This is the sort of questioning, slightly corny bon-bon only a wise old man could get away with. De Oliveira's camera remains watchful. As ever, framing and artful staging are his old-fashioned stock in trade. Here they create a mournful ghost-story atmosphere. One tracking shot requires Trepa to run behind a truck while taking still photographs as though he were using a Steadicam. It's a nifty joke. The director continues his interest in mortality, too. This time, however, what's the harm in kicking the bucket if it lands you in the arms of a gorgeous phantasm? Of course, there are several worried thoughts from the movie's geriatric stars about the plagues of modern life (recession, pollution, armageddon). So this is the rare film whose joy stems the idea that death is a magical liberation from earthly woe. Never mind that De Oliveira's evergreen career suggests there's still enough magic wherever he goes. 

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