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Cannes '11 Day 7: Songs in the Tree of Life

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 17, 2011 04:15 PM

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Hanezu.jpgThere are several ways to react to a movie here. They include: huge applause, huge applause during a standing ovation that can go on for 10 minutes, boos, and whistles -- or some combination of each. Then there's what happened after Naomi Kawase's "Hanezu" premiered this afternoon: almost nothing. The credits rolled to the pitying claps of the moviegoers who remained. It was like hearing coins being tossed into a hobo's can. I must say I would have contributed my two cents. "Hanezu" is not a movie you find here too often: a film so dull and powerfully inoffensive that to boo would be to cause the celluloid (or whatever it was projected from) to burst into tears.

The film is set in the Asuka region of Japan, where the country began ("hanezu" is a shade of red, which constitues a would-be a spoiler) and is dedicated to "the unnamed spirits who lived" during that period (again, how does one jeer that?). The story is one of love told through the fronds of nature. We know this because the camera provides shots of landscapes while two male voices tell us that one is Mt. Kagu and the other is Mt. Minimashi and that both are in love with the same lady mountain, Unebi, and plan to fight to the death for her heart. I picked up my phone and started to dial Hayao Miyazaki. The mountains are believed to have been inhabited by gods. Their ho-hum human equivalents are inhabited by robots in a sleepy state of disconnection. Kayoko (Hako Oshima) loves two men -- a woodworker and some other guy -- and spends the film with either one of them.

A not insignificant procession of scenes more or less happens this way: fabric is dyed, then hung (scarves!), salad is tossed, seafood and zucchini are fried and served in tree stump bowl, Kayoko nibbles strawberry, woodworker gets cut, she sucks blood from finger, a kiss (aka more nibbling), "I'm pregnant, see ya!," mountain takes deep breath, bugs crawl on rock, cricket climbs in hair (a dream, a new conditioner?), vegetables delivered to old woman, sitting around looking at pictures, food shopping ("oh, these are local"), and one mountain says to another: "In our fleeting world, men contend over women." Then Kayoko delivers news that's so interesting it must be an accident. She then offers what can be considered only the truest film criticism: "You're always waiting. All you do is wait!"

The exits began early and never really stopped. It seemed a perfect compliment to Kawase's trickle-trickle moviemaking. At some point a grand older woman, who I see here year after year, began to make her way from the front of the Salle Debussy to the rear (it's a long, inclining walk). She reached the last rows and stopped to put her hand on the shoulder of the man seated in front of me. In a voice somewhere between Isabel Sanford and Nina Simone, she said, "Good luck" and was gone. I think she actually startled him from sleep.

Hanezu 2.jpgSo how does this not work but the Terrence Malick movie that premiered yesterday pretty much does? Kawase's the sort of animist who doesn't trust her animism to speak for itself. The mountain patter is redundant. There's no wonder in the characters or the filmmaking. And yet we're to believe a woman this blah can inspire two different men to go to the extremes they do for her. I have to say, in at least one case, I understood where he was coming from.

Kawase represents a curious case for Cannes. This is her fourth appearance in the main competition (she won the runner-up prize in 2007 for "The Mourning Mountain"), and the festival's seemingly open invitation defies comprehension, except that the festival has always had its favorites, even if they're the favorite of no one else. In the hallways afterward, stories of restorative slumbers were shared, while someone renamed the film, "The Shrub of Life." Which is to say Malick's movie continues to loom over most of what we see here. It's set an interesting and probably necessarily high bar for what other directors should strive to do. Kawase's flat-soda rapture and pulseless tragedy is as earnest as the Malick movie. He just gets much closer to transcendence than she does. 

Yesterday, I went straight from "The Tree of Life" to Bruno Dumont's "Outside Satan." Both movie's are preoccupied with power of God -- or godliness. The Malick's a mountain -- a talking one! The Dumont a hillock on fire.

Outside Satan.jpgIt's always "Afternoon of the Living Dead" with Dumont. Often, his bucolic zombies can get themselves embroiled into great realist astonishments, as they did in his second film, "L'humanit√©," which won the Grand Prix in 1999, and proceeded to divide us all over whether that film and his other realist epics said "major filmmaking" or "empty form." Like some athletes, Dumont has to be taken event to event. His previous film, "Flanders," was a fiasco, but I like the new one. It's a Christ-on-Earth story, in which Christ dresses like a Scottish barfly and looks like he could be the pimp in an old Pat Benatar video, which is say he's something of a devil, too (check out his way with women and his marksmanship). He makes his way around a countryside village committing assorted "miracles" -- sometimes with his mouth, sometimes with a different part of his anatomy. (Malick might have saved some money had he done as Dumont has and put the tree of life in his main character's pants.)

It's blasphemous to say that Dumont is as much a director of grace as the Dardenne brothers, whose new movie "The Boy on the Bike" premiered on Sunday. These men all draw upon Robert Bresson in some sense: They make parables. But Dumont has drawn the wrong lessons -- or at least the eviler ones. Dumont's world is a place in which murderous, hateful things happen to people who can least afford them, which for some moviegoers raises certain moral issues since he's also a calculated realist whose brutality can affront the non-professional men and women who make up his casts.

That's no less true here. But his sense of the divine captivated me even as it made me laugh at its ridiculousness: people appear to suffer in "Outside Satan" in order for the holy barfly to work his magic. Dumont's way with a long shot is still a thrill. His way with people is still very George Romero. But in these ordinary and often ugly faces come waves of emotion that sidestep cruelty and the problems of exploitation by finding some kind of grace. This is a director for whom the words "I let you live" actually count for for a lot.

Where do we go from here.JPGIt seems unfair that a movie like "Hanezu" competes for the Palme d'Or while a real work of ambition does not. But there was Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now?" flourishing outside the main competition. It's a serious musical comedy about a small Lebanese town where the only thing saving the Muslims and Christians from killing each other is its feisty, funny women. Any filmmaker looking for clues about how to make dissonant tones and events cohere should study this movie. I don't how you'll learn anything since Labaki -- whose previous film is the almost-as-good "Caramel" -- never shows any seams. Every single performance, including hers as a sexy widowed mother, is asked to sound every emotional note and does. The women are as passionate as the men, but they're also something I don't recall seeing in a movie: passionately pragmatic.

All the natural sunlight and dust is straight of any 1970s musical, which seems right since most of those movies were fantasies or dreams or fairy tales, too. This one is exhausting in the best possible sense. The elaborate schemes the women concoct to keep the easily bellicose men in check can't be kept up for forever. It would never really work, but the movie is too mesmerizing to put up a fight. Which is to say that it works for us.

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