Screenin’ in the Rain: Notes on Cannes 2013, Part I

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cannesIt wasn’t until the midpoint of a drizzlier and gustier than usual edition of the Cannes Film Festival that the red carpets seemed to dry—or should I say heat up, as some of the finest competition titles only emerged from behind the clouds in the back half. By then, future Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color had yet to screen for those in moist bowties and ruined suede shoes, but let’s be honest: it’s hard to judge what will ultimately be deemed the year’s most important films against one another, which is why jury president Steven Spielberg was asked to do so and not any of us. All in all, the highs didn’t seem as high compared to the previous fest (where was the new bat-guano crazy Holy Motors? The stately international crossover hit, à la Amour? The top-of-their-game auteurist charm of a Moonrise Kingdom?), but between all the sections—in and out of competition, Un Certain Regard, Critic’s Week, and the inarguably stellar Director’s Fortnight—Cannes 2013 offered a more consistently satisfying slate of programming. Reading back through my scribbles in the dark, here are a few words on noteworthy films:


cannesWe’re Here, We’re Queer
Since my money was on Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Like Father, Like Son to win top honors, as a genteel daddy-issues drama seemed the snuggest fit in Spielberg’s wheelhouse (it instead received the Prix du Jury, or the bronze medal), it was refreshing and rewarding that my favorite of Cannes—Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour lesbian love affair Blue is the Warmest Color—snagged the Palme. Even classier, the jury offered the prize to not only the film’s French-Tunisian auteur but also his two extraordinary leading ladies, Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarchopoulos, whose onscreen romance subtly and believably spans a few years. (In the latter, younger actress’ showier case, her character’s maturity stretches from teenage to young womanhood.) However, the only attribute of Blue that seems to be on people’s wagging tongues has been the film’s sexuality—specifically a raw, extended sequence that is absolutely frank but hardly shot pornographically—as our still-puritanical, begrudgingly progressive society almost predictably latched onto. It’s like saying The Brown Bunny was a movie about a blowjob, when everyone knows it was a movie about Vincent Gallo’s unchecked narcissism.

Gender lines are now suddenly being drawn in the sand, prominently so by the New York Times‘ typically astute Manohla Dargis, who unfairly posits that the film’s explicitness denies years of feminism in the service of male-gaze titillation—which The Daily Beast‘s Richard Porton thoroughly rebuked. As a straight male critic, my own defense of what I believe is an erotic moment in the service of conveying the eroticism between two characters finally breaking their palpable tension, moreso than the sake of an audience’s voyeurism, comes two-fold: first, the scene is precisely within the director’s previous methodology as a cinematic storyteller. Kechiche’s terrific earlier films have—in the similar vein of Béla Tarr and Jacques Rivette—used longer running times and prolonged sequences to deepen character dynamics through gestures, expressions, reactions and other behavior. Whether it’s a gang of banlieue kids yelling at each other for several minutes in Games of Love and Chance, or a family bickering over dinner with their mouths full of cous cous in The Secret of the Grain (which, coincidentally, ends with a belly dancing sequence that’s far more erogenous yet was never taken to task, presumably because no nudity is depicted), the length of a shot shouldn’t be as imperative as the camera’s position and conveyed meaning, and what makes Blue such a masterfully told coming-of-age tale is that scenes don’t simply cut the moment a plot point is hit. Dargis also fails to mention that the drama lasts at least another hour and a half after everyone is fully clothed again; as a long-term relationship runs its course, we’re privy to how intimately this couple has known each other, giving weight to their ensuing complications later.

cannesI could mention that Seydoux is just as naked and lusty within the tangled, nuclear-facility love triangle of Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central, but nobody’s mentioning that fine film, either because it didn’t win prizes or it’s too heterosexually grounded for tsk-tsking naysayers to raise a stink. Instead, I’ll point to how much I adored Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du Lac), an incontestably steamier noir-thriller that earned French auteur Alain Guiraudie both the Queer Palm and the director’s prize in Un Certain Regard. With the sinister motives of a Patricia Highsmith potboiler but moodily refined with a Bressonian austerity and a claustrophobic single location (the gay cruising spot on a secluded beach), this stylish and provocatively unsettling tale of dangerous hook-ups features more penises onscreen than I can ever remember—flaccid, erect, even ejaculating. The plot is almost so minimalist that it shouldn’t be spoiled, but in a nutshell, a sweet and flaxen-haired Adonis (Pierre Deladonchamps) desires a mustachioed stud with a dark streak (Christophe Paou), and perhaps our romantic hero should be listening to his instincts rather than his hormones in pursuing this shifty prowler? As much a moody genre piece as it is a self-critique on the carefree nonchalance of a cruising lifestyle, Stranger is a spellbinding attraction—fatal or otherwise.

With his feathered capes, glittered pompadour and miscellaneous flamboyance, Michael Douglas was the wrongly predictedshoo-in for Best Actor in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic and so-called final feature, Behind the 

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Candelabra. Frontloaded with camp pleasures before formulaically shifting to disquieting melodrama, Soderbergh’s restrained (or, in the context of the previous thread: chaste) take on the 88-key-tickling Las Vegas showman doesn’t focus on his career so much as his peculiar relationship with his former lover, confidante, chauffeur and protégée Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). The leads are fabulous, and the extravagant costume and production design are to die for, but the story beats are so oversimplified that there’s little room for illumination beyond whatever’s bouncing off Douglas’ sequins. Here’s hoping that Soderbergh’s “retirement” only lasts as long as Jay-Z’s so he can go out on a higher note.

 

Coming soon in Part II, it’s hipster auteurs, the third dimension, artsploitation thrillers, and the return of El Topo

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