Cannes Wrap-up: Todd McCarthy on This Year's Strange, Contentious Festival

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From Lars von Trier to Terrence Malick, there were a number of fine films, but no absolute knockouts.

CANNES -- This was a year of some strangeness in Cannes, of one major auteur being kicked out of town, another proving invisible and yet another -- one not allowed to work or travel from his native country -- sneaking his illicit new creation into France hidden in a loaf of bread.

Even if there were a number of very fine films, the 2011 festival arguably did not yield any absolute knockouts. The more elaborate works from the heavyweights in the competition -- Terrence Malick, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, Paolo Sorrentino, Nuri Bilge Ceylan -- were among the more contentiously debated, provoking reactions across the full spectrum of critical opinion.

By contrast, it was often the simpler, more modestly scaled films, the films that did not insist at the outset upon their importance or greatness -- Michel Hazanavicius’s silent black-and-white comic melodrama The Artist, Nicolas Winding Refn’s stripped-down auto actioner Drive, the Dardenne brothers’ small, redemptive drama The Kid With a Bike, Aki Kaurismaki’s seriocomic thriller Le Havre -- that went over best; clear thinking and an assurance of how to place an economical style at the service of substance were most often what carried the day.

It seemed to vaguely disappoint his most ardent longtime admirers and is far from perfect, but Malick’s The Tree of Life remained the film that made the strongest impression on me throughout this 64th Cannes. Artistically risky and aesthetically beautiful, it made its points impressionistically through hundreds of visual and aural pin-pricks, and I’m quite keen to see it again. Brad Pitt is terrific in it, but it’s the framing material, with Sean Penn playing Pitt’s grown son who doesn’t get to say or think a thing, that doesn’t cut it. I’m willing to bet that, had a nonstar played the son, Malick -- who cut Adrian Brody out of The Thin Red Line -- might have eventually decided to eliminate this material entirely but could not without causing a contractual mess and ruining a relationship.

The high-art contingent seemed highest on Turkish virtuoso Ceylan’s metaphysical thriller Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which I had to miss but many compared to a more abstracted Zodiac, while we all grooved on the prolific Danish genre enthusiast Refn’s Drive, a sort of thinking fan’s alternative to Fast Five. I learned here from Refn’s father, who is von Trier’s longtime editor and sometime assistant director, that his son spent a good part of his teenage years frequently the now-extinct grindhouses on 42nd Street in New York City, which explains a few things and makes him something of a spiritual brother to Quentin Tarantino.

Back in form, the director said, because he’s drinking again after having turned out disappointing work while sober, Kaurismaki delivered one of his most delightful films in the French-language Le Havre, in which Andre Wilms reveals a resilient inner core to his author-turned-shoeshine man that recalls such long-ago leading men as Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Jean Gabin. The modest and self-consciously artificial art direction also summons memories of movies past in this tale of determined selflessness and humanity.

Similar in its depiction of moments of grace and enlightenment, of an adult helping a child who has been cast to the elements, was Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s very fine The Kid With the Bike, in which decisive moments of change or elevated insight are marked with strains of classical music. There were funny stories circulating of the child actor Thomas Doret, impressed with actress Cecile de France’s reports of Clint Eastwood preferring to do only one or two takes on Hereafter, trying to get the famously demanding Dardennes to do the same and actually succeeding in one scene where he gets hit and knocked down.

Hazanavicius’s The Artist, an A Star Is Born-like Hollywood seriocomedy about a silent star’s decline and an actress’s ascent with the arrival of talking pictures, which was moved up from a noncompeting to a Competition slot just before the festival began, is nothing if not lovingly and conscientiously done with its use of black-and-white and silent film technique. The increasing feeling is that, if the Weinstein Co. handles it with the aggressiveness and enthusiasm for which it is known, the novelty of this cinephile’s delight could make it into a one-off event for the wider public.

Another oddball film with some potential is Josef Cedar’s Footnote from Israel, a flawed but compelling father-son contest set in the rarefied but -- the way the film handles it -- hardly inaccessible world of Talmudic academia.

It was not to all tastes, but I enjoyed being transported into the exotic realm of Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance), which takes place entirely in a high-end Paris bordello in 1900, just the time when such establishments were being shut down. Titillating in a different way was Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, in which a twisted Frankenstein's monster tale is airlifted into the era of advanced scientific breakthroughs, plastic surgery and sexual identity change. This might not be one of the Spanish master’s best films, but his seductive craft alone makes it more than worth seeing.

The general feeling here is that von Trier was obviously goofing and not being sincere with his Nazi comments and was probably just trying, however misguidedly, to enliven a press conference that was starting to sag at that point. If you watch the video of the press conference and don’t just read the transcribed words, it’s quite clear that this was a film director’s lame version of a comic trying desperately for a laugh that was never going to come; he just kept digging the hole deeper, and it might be some time before he can climb out of it, if he can at all. Which leaves the uneven but unavoidably compelling Melancholia in a precarious spot: Will distributors dump it? Will it be protested at film festivals? Will it be harder for von Trier to find the money for his projected next film, the hardcore The Nymphomaniac? That’s what he’s worried about.

Similarly erratic was Sorrentino’s nutty, sometimes funny, other times madly misguided This Must Be the Place, in which you can’t take your eyes off Penn playing a 50-year-old goth rocker who’s been hiding in an Irish mansion for 20 years before taking off on a road trip in an America that’s unknown to him.

Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a very well made but maddeningly obvious study of a family which includes a teenage mass-killer-to-be, while Maiwenn’s Polisse, quite liked even by some highbrow critics in France, has a souped energy but feels like multiple TV episodes crammed into one overflowing pot.

The films I found perhaps the least rewarding in the Competition this year were Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty from Australia and, surprisingly, Takashi Miike’s Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, which, unlike last year’s 13 Samurai, I found hopelessly ponderous and without a shred of relevance to a modern audience.

As for the film snuck into Cannes in a loaf of bread, it was This Is Not a Film, a brave and unique document from the front represented by Jafar Panahi’s Tehran apartment, where he is waiting to see if he will be sent to jail. In the meantime, having been banned by Iran from making films for the next 20 years, he recorded thoughts, snippets from a proposed film and telltale sounds and images of things going on in the city beyond his windows, with a home video camera -- hence, it is not really a movie -- and managed to get them to the outside world, which will surely, deservedly and thankfully see them at numerous film festivals in the coming months.