When it comes to the movies, those who Cannes do.
Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By SARA LODGE
For cinéastes, the Film Market is fun. I enjoyed finding dreadful posters for films that very few people may ever see. Among the more intriguing offerings were Gothic & Lolita Psycho, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, I Sell the Dead, and Dino Mom. I went to a pitching competition. Contestants drop five euros into the hat for the chance to pitch their film to an industry panel: The first in line have two minutes, the last have only 30 seconds. Watching was fascinating, and painful. Despite their brevity, pitches were often both confusing and dull, and I began to understand why top film industry figures are as hard to reach as Mars.
“It’s a mystery-comedy,” said one aspiring director. (I visualized a man walking into a room, saying “knock, knock, who’s there,” raising an eyebrow, and leaving.) A Saudi woman pitched a movie in which a suburban mother goes into the desert to look for a pink elephant. Remarkably, she finds one wholly without the aid of gin. The winner was a film about Guy Fawkes: “Fundamentalist religion, terrorism, bombs: We love it,” the panel enthused.
I saw two films in the Official Selection that embody the best and worst of Cannes. The first was A Screaming Man, directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, from war-torn Chad. This is a patient movie, which draws the viewer inexorably into a conflict that is both personal and national. A father is the lifeguard at a hotel pool; he loses his job to his son and, through straitened circumstances, but perhaps also through jealousy, stops paying off the local recruitment sergeant whom he has been bribing not to press his son into the army. The son is dragged off to the front line; his pregnant girlfriend appears and begs the family for help. So the father, racked by guilt, goes to the battlefield to try and find his injured son and bring him home. The ending is devastating and tragic.
This small-scale Oedipal drama encapsulates the losses of a whole country. At the end, the 2,000-strong audience rose as one and gave the filmmakers a ten-minute standing ovation. This kind of film eloquently makes the case for the eclectic, cultural, and international focus of the movie menu showcased at Cannes.
The second movie was Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, from Iran. A self-indulgent romantic comedy that was neither romantic nor funny, it followed a middle-aged lecturer in art history and a middle-aged gallery owner as they drove around Tuscany and exchanged dreary conversations about whether a fake could be as good as an original and whether, after fifteen years of marriage, a couple had anything left to share. There was nothing about the empty, awkward, and meandering dialogue that was more profound than the kind of late-night spat between loveless partners that you can see in any bar, on any night, in any city, for free. By the end of the press screening, journalists were hanging over the velvet seats in attitudes of grotesque boredom and despair, like gargoyles from a church roof.
Amazingly, Juliette Binoche won a Best Actress award for her role in this film; she used the platform to demand the release of an imprisoned Iranian director. A Certified Copy eloquently conveys the problems of the Cannes menu which, determined to champion a certain cultural and political agenda, and certain favored practitioners, can be willfully blind to the (flawed but frank) wisdom of popular taste.
On my last day, I met up with some childhood friends who were here to sell a movie. Their competition-winning trailer—for Nitrate, a thriller—was screening alongside two others in the U.K. Film Council tent, so I went along to see them. One was a thriller set inside a shipping container in which there was an unhappy man, a ticking watch, and menacing drums. What they were doing in the container, however, was wholly opaque. Another was a thriller set inside a submarine, in which there were many unhappy men, mysterious bangs, and menacing drums. Even the director, however, was forced to admit that he had yet to decide exactly what the bang-producing monster was.
My friends’ film has a plot. It features a movie director who is trying to finish the last film of a legendary Russian director, Yuri Gadyukin, but is drawn into a web of mystery, danger, and deception. The crowd liked Nitrate but the sales agents were cautious. They knew what to do with container-based dramas; they felt less certain about movies that weren’t set in a can. It was tempting to conclude that it is the container rather than the content, the genre rather than the story, which sells a film.
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