Cannes films met with hushed reverence

Last week’s column focused on the religiously ceremonial nature of the Cannes Film Festival. This week’s column focuses on its scripture — the films themselves.

As with most ornate handwritten texts, the first thing that strikes you about Cannes is the attention paid to presentation. The films are shown with crystal clarity — never dim or blurry — on huge screens in darkened theaters with plush seats and sharply audible soundtracks. Like congregations at a solemn Sunday service, the audiences are respectfully still — all cell phones silenced, all crying infants banished, all conversations hushed, all food and beverages forbidden. We are in a sacred setting.

And, as with all religions, there is a certain ritualistic feel and tone to the proceedings. The “texts” of Hollywood are typically fast-paced, splashy, plot-driven, straightforward, crassly commercial popcorn offerings. Four such films managed to infiltrate Cannes this year: Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Clint Eastwood’s The Exchange and Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda.

Cannes’ inclusion of these entries shows how tolerant it is of the diversity of film. Nevertheless, there was an agnostic (albeit generally positive) reaction to them. Audiences tended to treat them less like serious art and more like larkish entertainment. (To my mild shame and embarrassment, I liked these Hollywood entries — they were well-made and provided a nice counterpoint to Cannes’ typically heavy fare.)

The main sacrament of the festival was provided by film “sermons” that seemed like pages out of the same hymnal: brooding, meditative, slow-paced and artistic. That’s not to be judgmental — in the religion of Cannes, all are accepted and welcome. It is, however, to say that Cannes films are typically a denomination all their own.

And when it came to these “texts,” the cup runneth over. In the span of 11 days, I saw 30 feature films and nine short films, a small fraction of the vast array of offerings. And, like familiar prayers, they shared a certain aura.

With few exceptions, all these films included the following elements in varied portions: (1) set somewhere other than North America, either Third World countries or Europe (preferably France); (2) had a downbeat or outright bleak mood; (3) possessed no or sparse musical soundtrack; (4) were filled with long takes of people going about daily lives or quietly staring off in the distance; (5) involved drugs; (6) were punctuated by bursts of violence; (7) showed pregnancies of all kinds, including unwanted ones; and (8) depicted plenty of sex and nudity.
I enjoyed and was moved by all that I saw at Cannes. These films are typically more creative and varied than those seen in multiplexes, and I found them mesmerizing. As with all things subjective, I found that some were better than others.

So, like any good Sunday School teacher, I will limit my focus in order to give a flavor of kinds of films presented.

• Soi Cowboy: This Danish feature centers on an overweight man living in Thailand in a cramped apartment with a young, petite, pregnant Thai woman. Their relationship is unclear; we are not even sure he is the father. The start of the film involves the two of them separately getting up, using the bathroom and making breakfast all without them saying a word and in washed-out black and white. This goes on for what feels like 20 minutes. The man goes out and runs some errands, shopping with street vendors and purchasing a necklace for the woman. When he returns, they look at the necklace while watching TV and she comments on its resale value.

Next they are seen traveling to some temples. There are long sequences of them in a hotel (there is a bizarre, lengthy scene of nothing but an elderly Anglo woman with a walker as she shuffles from the elevator down the hall to her room only to turn around and shuffle back; this elicited frustrated and confused laughter from the audience) and of them touring the temple. The camera loses sight of them at the temple, and then suddenly everything is in color and we are watching a family on a Thai rice farm. We see two brothers, one of whom has returned to the farm to fetch the other brother and take him into town. On the way there through the jungle, the retrieving brother, with his sibling’s consent, chops off his brother’s head. He takes his brother’s head to a whorehouse where we again see the overweight man and the young Thai woman. They are sitting at the table and are clearly involved with the owners of the whorehouse, who also appear to be some kind of Thai mafia. He delivers the head to the young Thai woman — who appears to be related to the two brothers. The head is supposed to be some kind of threatening message to the young woman (who is clearly one of the prostitutes) for getting pregnant. The brother delivering the head seeks payment from the Mafioso, but is shot dead instead. The end. All of this has the feel of a David Lynch film, with inexplicable and murky images and relationships. It was an exercise in tone and mood.

• Involuntary: This Swedish film focuses on the exploits of five separate groups of people during a couple of days in Sweden. Their stories are intercut, periodically going back and forth between the groups. The groups include: a party at a house where the patriarch gets facially injured by a misfiring firework; a couple of preteen girls as they take sexually provocative pictures of themselves and meet up with friends and party; a tour group on a bus; a young woman teacher at a junior high school; and a group of guys who hang out together at a country resort.

The camera remains stationary for each segment as we follow the activities of each group. The people come in and out of the field of view. Each group’s story centers on whether to divulge information and the ramifications of doing so — or not doing so. The patriarch is seriously injured, but his pride — and not wanting to disrupt the dinner party — keep him from saying so, with serious consequences. The group of guys ends up engaging in homosexual harassment, much to the discomfort of one of the men, who has to decide whether he will confront them and tell his wife about the sexual abuse he endures. The tour bus passengers are detained because a curtain rod in the bathroom is broken and the driver insists on having the culprit fess up. That person’s failure to do so results in their not proceeding. The young girls linked up with some others whose behavior get more and more rowdy and puts the girls in potentially dangerous situations. And the teacher witnesses another teacher harshly physically disciplining an unruly student. When she exposes this incident to school officials, she is ostracized by the other teachers. The film was creatively put together and is very thought-provoking. It had me reflecting on the whistle-blowing book by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan and the visceral reaction it has elicited.

These are just two examples of so many wonderful films. Other outstanding films included: Tulpan, a touching and naturally striking film about a Kazak family raising sheep on the stark, flat steppe and how the older boy, who just got back from a stint in the military, wants to marry and create his own herd (this won an award); The Silence of Lorna, a well-made film about a woman involved in an immigration scam in Belgium with tragic results; Linha de Passe, an excellent story of a single mother raising four boys from separate fathers in the slums of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and how she tries to keep them from a life of crime (the actress here won the acting prize); Entre Les Murs, an engaging French film about a teacher trying to inspire his diverse students, who face the usual problems of growing up in a melting pot and dealing with their disparate ethnic and national identities (this won the Palme d’Or); Afterschool, a disturbing American film about our voyeuristic culture through the story of a troubled prep-school boy who happens to film the shocking death of two students; Versailles, an affecting French film about a homeless single mother abandoning her boy with a homeless man living in the forests around this palace; Johnny Mad Dog, an aggressively in-your-face film about marauding boys as they join militia forces to take over an African government; and The Good, the Bad and the Weird, a wild, colorful Korean film that was a collision of the Sergio Leone movie, Mad Max, martial arts films and a cartoon.

The sad fact is that those who do not gain entrance to film festivals like Cannes probably won’t have a chance to see these or most of the other films. Unless they are bought by American distributors, they will remain hidden from view, like a lost Ark of the Covenant. But they are as inspiring as any religious artifact for those who are seeking a respite from the typical Hollywood blasphemy. And it’s worth the effort of an Indiana Jones to find them.

Doug Young is The Statesman’s globetrotting film critic.