Cannes 2012 | Paradise: Love, Reality, The We and the I
As always at Cannes, the films are screening more quickly than there is time to process them, let alone write about them with any feeling of finality. But we're now at the stage when the movies are beginning to talk to each other. Some of this is deliberate. It's entirely possible, for instance, that the programmers' pairing of yesterday's screening of Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love with this morning's showing of Matteo Garrone's Reality was meant to spur discussion on the depiction of class in contemporary cinema. Other echoes are probably fortuitous. It's only an accident that today I caught a market screening of Berlin Film Festival sensation Tabu, which like Paradise: Love deals with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. And Michel Gondry's The We and the I, programmed by a rival group to open the parallel festival Directors' Fortnight, is essentially a feature-length hangout with Bronx teens just out of school for the summer. The movie meanders, but socioeconomic issues are never far from the fore.
So: Let's chart those connections while I still have WiFi. (To the festival: If you're reading this, please, please fix la stabilité de l'internet in the Palais.) The first part of a trilogy, Seidl's Paradise: Love sends horny, middle-aged, somewhat corpulent Austrian women on a vacation to Kenya, where they regard the black male residents as little more than sex-delivery objects. The women's casual racism is shocking from the get-go, and the movie, pushing the boundaries of hardcore, only grows more outrageous as it goes on. The use of duration to maximize queasiness gives the film a certain structural integrity. But almost inevitably for a film whose first agenda is button-pushing, Paradise: Love ends up simplifying its characters to bolster its provocation, ultimately indulging in the same sort of racial stereotyping it means to decry. And while it's arguably a dark comedy, the movie has an off-putting smugness—as if Seidl thinks he's somehow acknowledging heretofore undiscovered social realities, rather than stacking the deck in an attempt to win an argument with himself. Still, unlike with some other films in competition, it's clear why the movie is here. It's also the most fun festival film so far if you tune out what's onscreen and simply picture Cannes jury president Nanni Moretti (of such middlebrow titles as We Have a Pope) reacting to each scene.
This morning brought Italian director Garrone's Reality, which in a very different way also deals with poverty. It's fascinating to think about the film as a crypto-update of the quintessentially Italian genre of neorealism—mainly postwar movies like Bicycle Thieves, which, as screenwriter Cesare Zavattini is credited with saying, chronicle 90 minutes in the life of a man "to whom nothing happens." This is neorealism for the reality-TV era. Now as then, we have a nonprofessional lead (Aniello Arena, who was reportedly let out of prison to play the role) in a working-class role. (Between this and 2008's Gomorrah, Garrone is cementing his reputation as the cinematic conscience of Southern Italy.) Work as a fishmonger isn't cutting it, and Arena's Luciano auditions at Cinecittà for an Italian version of Big Brother. He comes away convinced he blew the judges away and will definitely be cast—but he's quite obviously delusional. If in the postwar world, simply subsisting was good enough, here fantasy and fame are the new wealth. These are ideas worth grappling with, although from a dramatic standpoint, Reality is a little one-note; it goes half an hour past the prescribed 90-minute mark. Garrone also indulges in the same languorous pans he employed in Gomorrah, a style that always makes me feel adrift.
At least it's a style. For all his wizardry with set design and in-camera tricks, Gondry is not the director you'd associate with focused improv. For every movie in which he gets great performances (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), you can find three (Human Nature, Be Kind Rewind, The Green Hornet) in which the cast just seems to be having fun, with little regard for whether anyone is watching. The We and the I falls into the latter category. It's almost entirely set on an MTA bus, where high-school teens have a sort of Breakfast Club's Journey into Night. A late stab at pathos notwithstanding, there's been very little attempt to structure the film. That's a polite way of saying that the movie doesn't feel finished—and in terms of fleshing out certain characters, of whom the film has too many, it sometimes feels like a movie that hasn't been started, let alone one fit to occupy a tentpole position at a major fest.