Wrapping the 2011 Cannes Film Festival
Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier battle for Cannes’s celestial spotlight.
CANNES, FRANCE—Faced with the choice between mere movies and a film that fans regard as a holy object, the jury of the 64th Cannes Film Festival gave the Palme d’Or to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which brought the normally bustling seaside town to a halt May 16 when it first screened. A longtime attendee told me it was the biggest showstopper the festival had seen since the premiere of Apocalypse Now in 1979.
Incredibly, Malick’s comet was overshadowed just days later by L’Affaire Von Trier. As the two biggest and most ambitious titles in the festival, The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia couldn’t help but be compared. Malick’s film ponders the beginning of the world as a parallel to his own childhood; von Trier’s imagines the end of the world as the outgrowth of his own struggles with depression.
Even offscreen, the directors seemed to engage in a sort of cosmic call-and-response. Malick declined to attend his movie’s press conference, while bad boy von Trier not only showed up but delivered a waggish ramble in which he claimed to “understand Hitler.” Rather than just condemn his remarks, the festival took an outrageous extra step and declared von Trier persona non grata, banning him from the awards ceremony. Now we awaited a showdown between Malick, who won’t collect prizes, and von Trier, who literally could not.
By this point, it almost seems irrelevant to suggest that neither director was in peak form, with Malick airlifting biblical allusions and dinosaurs onto a slender memoir narrative that would’ve benefited from the simple, lyrical approach of his Badlands. Von Trier, on the other hand, employs his usual stylistic bravado in service of one of his weaker screenplays; a great first-hour wedding sequence centered on anxious bride Kirsten Dunst (who won a Best Actress prize) gives way to an improbably sloglike second half in which a rogue planet is about to collide with Earth.
In any case, nothing von Trier said was as offensive as the inclusion of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s moronic, slapdash This Must Be the Place, which stars a mincing Sean Penn as an aging rocker who travels to America for his father’s funeral and winds up hunting down Dad’s Nazi nemesis from Auschwitz. Having set a precedent with LVT, can the festival now apologize for this film? A better American road movie in every sense was Danish-born Nicolas Winding Refn’s superb Drive, a pastiche of Michael Mann and John Hughes that’s at once a lonely man thriller, a heist picture and a romance between Ryan Gosling’s unnamed stunt driver and Carey Mulligan’s mother-with-a-husband-in-prison. For all its allusions to other movies, the film is eccentric enough to feel sui generis; Albert Brooks’s riveting turn as a razor-wielding villain made for the fest’s most shocking surprise. Drive pulls into theaters in September, not a moment too soon.
Continuing the festival’s line of great Danes, von Trier’s Norway-raised relative Joachim Trier delivered one of the standout sidebar entries with Oslo, 31. August, a portrait of a recovering drug addict that works so brilliantly as a pushing-30 movie—and a film about the way friendships evolve over time—that the drug stuff is almost superfluous. Familial tensions were also explored in Joseph Cedar’s deserving Best Screenplay winner, Footnote, a wry Israeli comedy about a father mistakenly awarded for his son’s academic work, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher director Lynne Ramsay’s stylishly filmed but unforgivably simpleminded look at the life of a Connecticut mother (Tilda Swinton) after her bad-seed son perpetrates a school shooting. This is great material for a movie, but only if the kid resembles a human being, rather than an omniscient, evil genius.
Needed more children in peril? The fest took a gamble (and received mostly shrugs) on Austrian first-time filmmaker Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, a tense Haneke-like thriller about a pedophile who keeps a boy at home in his basement; the material may be exploitative, but the film’s various feints and dodges—and its use of suspense—are never less than audacious. The Dardennes delivered a solid if slightly trite effort with the abandoned-child parabale The Kid with a Bike, which shared the festival’s second-place Grand Jury Prize with another procedural, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, a slow, two-and-a-half-hour, often visionary look at the existential despair that creeps in during a countryside police investigation.
“In the last day of the festival, I thought it would be too tiring to you,” Ceylan told the jury when thanking it for its award—but notwithstanding von Trier, the festival was, of course, a house of tolerance, to cite the title of another competition film. Patience was tested; tastes were confounded. It was a place where one could actually have multiple conversations about which brothel movie was better (the stylishly realized House of Tolerance, directed by Bertrand Bonello, beating out novelist Julia Leigh’s pointlessly coy debut, Sleeping Beauty) and where the films with ritual disembowelments (Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) and nonconsensual plastic surgery (Pedro Almodóvar’s enjoyable if one-note The Skin I Live In) were somehow the least daring titles on your docket.
At Cannes, cinema is always a matter of life or death, and this year’s edition, while not the strongest overall, raised the stakes to the heavens.