Friday, May 18, 2007

2006 Cannes Award Winners Reconsidered

The 2007 Cannes Film Festival kicked off two nights ago with 2006 jury president Wong Kar-Wai's first English language film My Blueberry Nights. With roughly half of the 20 films that vied for the 2006 Palme d'Or having made their way over to American theaters so far, including all the major award winners, it is now possible for the average filmgoer to at least partly assess the work done by Wong and his fellow jury members in handing out their prizes. Unfortunately, Wong and his peers have in most cases opted to award films that privilege the immediacy of the viewer's reaction by appealing to a primarily visceral response and ignored more carefully crafted films that entail greater ambiguity and demand more active participation on the viewer's part, odd considering that Wong's own works fall squarely in the latter category.

Apparently an unanimous selection among the jury, the Palme d'Or went to Ken Loach's historical drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which detailed the early days of the IRA and the fracturing of the Irish Republican movement which led to the Irish Civil War. The latter conflict is dramatized by having two brothers (Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney) fight on opposite sides of the cause. Although directed with passionate intensity by Loach and benefiting from strong performances from both leads, the film ultimately is too simplistic in its presentation to generate sufficient interest. Having two brothers fight against each other does not create enough ambiguity in the conflict to sufficiently complicate the narrative, especially since Loach's sympathies rest fully with Murphy's character who remains committed to an uncompromised independence from England. Technically assured and occasionally rousing, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is ultimately too simplistic to justify its receipt of the top prize at the world's most prestigious film festival. Responding to the film's undeniable passion, the Cannes jury, as well as art-house audiences who have granted the film a modest commercial success, have elevated an average picture well above its merits.

Still, Loach's picture is worlds better than the film that took the best director prize, Babel. Like 2005's hit picture Crash, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film is an overdetermined attempt to imply importance by assaulting the viewer with unpleasant situations and manipulating characters to fit together in contrived situations that arise, not organically, but out of the director's need to weight his film with unearned significance. If Crash limited its focus to Los Angeles, Babel is determined to take the whole world as its canvas. Characters from as far afield as Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, and the United States are connected in ways that are so unnaturally forced that they border on the ridiculous. Like the hollow ciphers in the older film, Gonzalez Inarritu's characters are granted no autonomy as individuals and are more or less interchangeable. The fact that the film received Oscar nominations for its acting is ludicrous, since no characterizations were required of the actors; simply running around frantically was sufficient. Furthermore, Gonzalez Inarritu's forced connecting of his characters serves little purpose. Yes, he implies, as residents of an increasingly connected global community our actions affect people in remote parts of the globe and vice versa, but beyond that conclusion, hardly a revelation in itself, Babel leaves the viewer with no insight into our world. Still, the Cannes jury, not to mention Oscar and Golden Globe voters, were wowed by Gonzalez Inarritu's pyrotechnics, his insistent maximal style of filmmaking whose combination of frenetic camerawork, overacting, and heavy-handed plot manipulations neatly obscure the hollowness of his project.

With the exception of Pedro Almodovar's terrific character-based drama Volver which won the best actress award for its ensemble cast, all the major award winners were notable for the immediacy of their visceral impact. Only one, however, Bruno Dumont's Flandres, which won the Grand Prix and which opens commercially in theaters this weekend, was worthy of its prize. I have discussed this film elsewhere (see entry of March 28), but a few words will not be out of place here. The film contrasts the mundane existence of a group of young men and women in the rural Flanders region of France (even sex is treated as a matter-of-fact activity with little erotic appeal) with the horrors of an unnamed war in an Arab country which involves all the film's male characters in horrific acts (whether on the giving or receiving end) and shows them abandoning their characteristic passivity for the first time. Only at the end, after having passed through the barbarity of war and returning to Flanders, can the main character acknowledge the possibility of love. Dumont's static shots emphasize the quotidian ennui in the film's first section while intensifying the horror of the war in the second through the camera's brutal indifference. An excruciating but ultimately cathartic film, this is one visceral work that justifies its assault on the audience as well as its prize.

2006's competition films were not a terribly strong lot. Still, it would have been nice to see Wong's jury exercising more judgment and not limiting itself to those films that had the most immediate impact without considering the weaknesses (often glaring) inherent in those works. They might, for example, have found room for Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon's wonderful film Climates which depicts the breakup of a relationship between an arrogant academic and his younger girlfriend against three different seasonal landscapes. A much quieter film than the award winning pictures, it is also much better, and indeed much more powerful, though in a less overt way. The beautifully captured images in Climates linger in the viewer's mind much longer than any of the razzle dazzle visuals in Gonzalez Inarritu's film and its observations about human lives, although much less ambitious, are also much more true. This year's crop of competition films, including new works from Alexander Sokurov, Wong Kar-Wai, Catherine Breillat, Gus Van Sant, and Emir Kusturica, as well as Bela Tarr's long anticipated followup to his masterful The Werckmeister Harmonies, should be much stronger than last year's. The jury is headed by Stephen Frears, and includes the new Nobel Laureate for Literature, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Hopefully, they will exercise more careful judgment than their predecessors.

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