INSTANT 3: Cannes Directors, 2012

The Cannes Film Festival 2012 has been slowly coming into focus over the last week or so, attempting once again to live up to its reputation as the pinnacle and premiere event of world cinema, past and present.  As usual, this year's festival boasts some high profile entries, including Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Jeff Nichol's Mud, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, which will mark the first attempt to bring the work of the great American novelist Don Delillo (Great Jones Street, 1973; White Noise, 1985; Underworld, 1997) to the screen.  I saw Delillo read from Cosmopolis at the Steppenwolf Theater upon the book's release, and had the opportunity to ask him why there had never been a film adaptation of any of his books, to which he replied: "I guess because nobody's gotten it right yet."  Here's hoping that Cronenberg's take on Delillo is more satisfying than the lukewarm A Dangerous Method, his film adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure.

Before attending last year's Chicago International Film Festival (check out my diary of the CIFF beginning here) I posted recommendations for Netflix instant viewing that aligned with three of the directors being featured--namely Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, and Werner Herzog--and now that the Cannes is taking shape I would like to dig a bit deeper into their list of featured directors, past the likes of Cronenberg and Anderson, and recommend the work of some slightly more overlooked directors.  Sadly, I won't be able to attend Cannes this year due to my busy schedule of champagne receptions and Chinese buffet encounters in the Flint, MI area, but in the meantime here are an INSTANT 3 that will help us simulate the cinematic climate of the French Riviera from our couches, if not the actual climate:

1.  Code Unknown, dir. Michael Haneke (2000)

Haneke's 2009 Palm d'Or winner The White Ribbon failed to rank high for me in relation to his past films (although it seems I may be alone in that initial impression), but like most of his output it still manages to leave one with the sense of a demanding and highly skilled master at work. Though 2000's Code Unknown is a cinematic puzzle that I won't profess to having solved entirely, it remains the film of Haneke's that has left the greatest impression on me.  As in Cache (2005) and Funny Games (1997 + 2007), Haneke is equally preoccupied with the often brutal characters and volatile cultural spaces he presents as he is with interrogating our audiencing of them.  Haneke's films represent some of the most complex and daring challenges to film language within the last couple of decades, so for those wanting respite from the redundant tropes of Hollywood storytelling, Code Unknown will most definitely do the trick.  It's the type of film that threatens to liberate one from lazy, disengaged film viewing forever.  Also, as she has proved in Kiezlowski's Blue before, and Assayas' Summer Hours since, Juliette Binoche is astounding, and Code Unknown will surely stand as one of her most difficult, revealing, and accomplished tasks as an actor.  Haneke's film at Cannes this year is titled Amour and features Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert (the star of another Haneke worth viewing instantly, 2002's The Piano Teacher).  

2.  Animal Love, dir. Ulrich Seidl (1995)  

The world does look like an "America's Funniest Home Videos" montage, to some extent.  But, it also looks like Ulrich Seidl's Animal Love, whether or not you want to admit it.  A glance at the customer reviews on Netflix will quickly reveal that many who viewed it were perhaps expecting something as uncomplicated as that most All-American celebration of voyeurism, and have most likely never encountered anything that might have prepared them for Animal Love.  I have yet to catch up with much of this Austrian director's work, but it is apparent from this 1995 documentary that he not only possesses a striking visual sensibility, but is also operating at a level of engagement with society that threatens to pull back the curtain on aspects of mundane existence that have become rote in their representations;  in this case, human/pet relations.  Indeed, many will find it intolerable both in terms of what it shows and how it shows it, but for those of us who need to witness what's going on behind that curtain, Seidl reveals in a supremely artful and uncompromising way what is normally hidden. Some have called his work derivative of Herzog, which Animal Love suggests both in its technique and its overall themes of looking at humans and animals in an unromantic fashion, but ultimately this seems to be the film where Seidl begins to define his uniquely provocative and humanistic perspective.  Seidl's entry at Cannes this year, Paradise: Love, is the first part of a fictional trilogy that "tells of sex tourism, older women and young men, the market value of sexuality, the power of skin color, Europe and Africa, and the exploited, who have no choice but to victimize other victims." 

3.  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010)

As I look at the list of films both in and out of competition at Cannes this year, there are a number of directors with Instant View counterparts that I would like to fit into this third spot (maybe...Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django, Kiarostami's Ten, or Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris?), and that excludes consideration of the Cannes Classics lineup, which features the Hitchcock Restoration of his 1927 silent film The Ring, as well as screenings of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Roman Polanski's Tess (1979).  But, if I follow faithfully the path I've created so far, it's the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul that fits most neatly into this third spot, providing a dose of much needed magical realism in contrast to the stark worldviews of Haneke and Seidl.  For film buffs this Thai director needs no introduction, but for those who have never seen a film by Weerasethakul, Uncle Boonmee is maybe the perfect gateway drug.  And, his films are a bit drug-like, inducing a suspended sense of time, re-presenting the world through a mythological lens, creating a space where the mystical meets the everyday.  As with Haneke and Seidl, the patience Weerasethakul asks of his audience has the potential for forging new relationships to film form and culture.  Also, if Uncle Boonmee is the gateway then the journey is required, particularly through his masterpieces of the last decade, Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), and Syndromes and a Century (2006).  His Special Screening at Cannes is of the not-quite-feature-length Mekong Hotel, featuring Tilda Swinton.      


nathaniel drake carlson said...

Great selections as always. For me Haneke becomes (like Kiarostami strangely enough) an increasingly divisive presence in terms of my own reaction to his work. These days I would have to say it's almost an 80/20 ratio against but the stuff I love I really love.

You nailed it with Code Unknown certainly--it's the absolute pinnacle of his craft, the top of the mountain, nothing else even begins to come close. But it's also in some respects anomalous, atypical--the same way Oliveira's I'm Going Home is atypical of his own body of work despite retaining a few aesthetic similarities (both are from '01 incidentally, not that that means anything I suppose). CU is infinitely more mature in its restraint and powerfully subtle implications than virtually anything else that came before or after in Haneke's filmography (definitely not the miserable Seventh Continent which takes as its seeming sole agenda its license for banal but insistent provocation). It's much more like a Claire Denis film than a Haneke. Having said that, sometimes the blatant approach can work (as in both versions of Funny Games--probably even more so in the US edition for its compacted and resonant effects).

I was surprised by your seeming disinclination towards White Ribbon. What about it did you not like? It's actually one of the only other ones I like a lot and it's one of the very few things that gives me hope for his future work. Hopefully, Amour will be a return to the Denis like restraint of CU and not the Bergman restraint of Piano Teacher but I'm not holding my breath.

Jason Hedrick said...

Wish I had more to say about "White Ribbon" other than it just didn't interest me as much as some of the earlier films, especially for something I was expecting so much from, even though I appreciated the craft of it all. Chalk it up to "the hype" maybe? As with you, I am not a huge fan of all of his stuff, and haven't seen some of the earlier things, like Seventh Continent. I very much appreciated "White Ribbon," but was not thrilled by it in the way I was with "Code Unknown" or even "Time of the Wolf." Also, although you know I love films like "Beau Travail" and "Trouble Every Day," I think Denis-like restraint maybe counts for something more with you than it does with me.