Cannes – Out of Competition

While it was our main goal to see all films in competition at this year’s festival (a goal we achieved), we did manage to see some of the films in the sidebars as well. This is a quick rundown of five films shown out of competition, some of which proved to be… let’s call it ‘interesting.’
Midnight In Paris (Woody Allen)

The Woody Allen European Tour brought the Manhattan master to Paris for the first time for Midnight In Paris, a charming exploration of nostalgia and people being stuck in the past (even literally). The Woody Allen role this time befell Owen Wilson, and he turned on his director’s acting mannerisms and neurotics just enough to be the audience’s on-screen representation of the wide-eyed kid who gets to be a part of the past he so idolizes. Staying in Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and his in-laws, Wilson’s Gil one night goes on a stroll and gets lost. Not only on the map, but also in time. He is magically transported to Paris in the 20s, and gets to meet all his heroes who roamed the streets and bars of the French capital in those days: Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. Gil has the time of his life and returns several times, even falls in love with a girl (Marion Cotillard), but by the end of the film he finds out that you should not linger in the past, which we tend to remember too fondly, but instead see the beauty in the present. This message is presented a little too much on-the-nose (if not having it literally spelled out), but by then the film has won the audience over with its wit and the loving way it paints a romantic picture of a Paris that probably never existed the way the protagonist imagines it.

It is interesting to note that Allen refrains from showing a lot of what comes to the mind of non-Parisiens when they think of Paris. No Eiffel Tower here, no Arc de Triomphe, very little Versailles. The director quickly gets this over with in a four-minute sequence that starts the film, showing ‘a day in the life’ of the city. Otherwise, present day Paris is presented like any other major metropole. It is in the sequences in the past that the lensing and the art direction get a chance to shine, deliberately painting too glorious a picture of the city. Although the reveal of yet another famous name from the past every five minutes can get a little tiresome, the large cast all sell their small parts, especially Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, who manage to get the biggest laughs, while Michael Sheen makes a great pseudo-intellectual douchebag who impresses Gil’s bride-to-be. Woody Allen’s latest may not travel too deep, but it is funny and charming, and perhaps the film’s message should make us reconsider Allen’s earlier films: were they really all that good, or did time make them seem that way? Decide for yourself.
Porfirio (Alejandro Landes)

A man in a wheelchair wakes his son, because he needs to give him his bath. We see the two in profile, the man in the wheelchair clearly naked, because his ass is sticking out between his seat and his back support. His son is squatted before him, holding his father’s ankles. The father is leaning forward, his head touching that of his son. “What the hell are they doing?” you think. And then a big turd drops from the father’s rear end. Welcome to the 9:00 am screening of Porfirio! Porfirio, the title character, has been in a wheelchair (and in a diaper 24/7) ever since a stray police bullet hit his spine. We observe him in his own little world, which most of the time doesn’t extend further that his front porch, from which he sells minutes on his mobile phone (a common practice in parts of the world). He is trying to get compensation from the Colombian state, but when the state continues to stall, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He buys two hand grenades (this is Colombia, after all), stuffs them in his diaper, and boards a plane to Bogota.

And this is where things got strange (or should I say, stranger). As we see the plane take off, the film ends, but then the main character sings the rest of the story directly into the camera, while the credits roll. And it turns out Porfirio was actually playing himself (something only revealed to the man three weeks before the shoot), and this was his true story. Having not read the press kit beforehand, this made the film all the more interesting. Suddenly, some scenes develop more meaning or become downright bizarre. For instance, at one point Porfirio was seen having sex with his wife, filmed in a matter-of-fact way, and it did not seem faked either. But his real wife has divorced him, and Porfirio himself decided that his next door neighbour should play his wife. Let that thought sink in for a while. Without the background story, the film may be too tedious for some at times, but it does show what confinement to a wheelchair does to a man, certainly in a country like Colombia. A lot of this was very loosely scripted, and the scenes of Porfirio staring into the distance, his eyes a window to his soul, are humbling. An intriguing portrait of a man driven to drastic measures.
Code Blue (Urszula Antoniak)

While in line for the Dutch director’s sophomore effort in the Director’s Fortnight, the audience was warned: “Some scenes of the film Code Blue may hurt the audience’s feelings.” And sure enough, about five minutes in came the first walkout, crying. And many would follow. This is because Antoniak chooses, in contrast to her optimistic debut Nothing Personal, to go to some very dark places.

The film handles the story of Marian (Bien de Moor), a nurse taking care of terminally ill patients. She gives all the warmth she has to her patients, sometimes even acting as a redeemer of sorts by helping them on to the next life. These are her most intimate moments, the moments she lives for. Outside the hospital, her life is cold and controlled. To say her apartment is sparsely furnished is an understatement, and human contact is minimal. One day, she unwillingly shares an act of voyeurism with a man in her apartment building (Lars Eidinger, of Everyone Else fame). This frightens but also attracts Marian, and she reluctantly tries to make a connection to him, albeit in very strange ways (I will not spoil anything here, but suffice it to say the audience warning was there for a reason). When she finally does make contact by a chance encounter, their relationship moves to a dramatic and painful (for the audience, too) climax. According to the director, Marian is a metaphor for Death, her only intimacy being assisting the dying. She is driven by redemption and sacrifice, only giving, never sharing. Suddenly she shares an experience with another person, and it’s as if she is brought to Life, but she does not know how to live it. She is only used to sacrifice, and this leads to a strange, twisted relationship.

The problem here is that Antoniak often crosses too far over the line. Some of the scenes are so grotesque that they lose the intended impact, and result in an impact of a different kind: repulsion. The sex and violence, filmed in an austere and detached way, are too graphic, too freakish, causing the audience to drop any empathy for the protagonist, whose self-hatred is too much to take. No matter how ‘brave’ (that seems to be the adjective for this kind of performance) Bien de Moor is in breathing lifelessness into her character, and how well some of the shots are constructed, one can’t help but feel that this is an experiment gone wrong. There are interesting ideas floating around here (Antoniak remains a director to watch), but they are obscured by the sheer excess of darkness surrounding them. Watch at your own risk.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)

One of three strong debuts seen at Cannes this year (the others being Sleeping Beauty and Michael), this film we conveniently dubbed M4 or MMMM tells the story of Martha (a phenomenal Elizabeth Olsen), a young girl who becomes entangled in a cult, and when she manages to escape finds it difficult to adjust to a ‘normal’ life while staying with her sister and brother-in-law. It would spoil too much to go deeper into the plot, but the two phases of Martha’s life (in-cult and post-cult) are told intertwined, and director Sean Durkin manages to build a lot of tension from this. He is helped by superb cinematography and sound design, and a really good use of the anamorphic format. For a debut, Durkin shows a remarkable talent for unsettling the audience in the most minimal ways: a single look, a sound, an effectively composed image. There is an increasing sense of terror, but this always remains more Carrie than slasher, as he steers away from cheap effects. The film remains calm and restrained, all the more tying a knot in the audience’s stomach. Kirsten Dunst may have won the Best Actress award, but Elizabeth Olsen gave the best female performance I have seen on the Croisette. She digs deep into the pysche of a brainwashed girl who is clearly no longer adapted to a life that is socially acceptable (or is it just a social construction?), but also manages to lay bare the flaws of this life outside the cult, as the film tries to find the fine line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear what demons Martha is fighting, and her inabilty to open up to her sister because of her cult experiences is on display in a few heartbreaking sequences where Olsen shines. The relationship with her sister, already fragile to begin with, becomes more fractured as Martha’s behavior becomes stranger. It ultimately leads to a confrontation and an ambiguous ending that will be one of the focal points of people’s discussions about this film. John Hawkes turns in another fantastic performance as cult leader Patrick, creepy and charismatic. You can see why young women would let themselves come under the influence of this man. Hawkes does a lot from the eyes, and his transformation from kind leader to psychopath is impressive. Other supporting roles are all top-notch, a special mention going to Brady Corbet as the young man who reels the women into the cult. With Durkin winning Best Director at Sundance and Olsen already having Oscar buzz, this small psychological thriller deserves all the accolades it gets.

And for those wondering where the other names in the title come from, you’ll just have to see for yourself. The last one is utterly chilling.
This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)

By now, the story of renowned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi should be known by cinephiles the world over: arrested in 2009 on dubious grounds of making a film against the Iranian regime and depiciting the events following the bloody 2009 election, he was eventually sentenced to six years in jail, and banned from filmmaking for twenty. Panahi is currently under house arrest (probably, as he is shown watching footage of the tsunami in Japan) in Tehran, waiting for the handling of his appeal.

Just the story of how This Is Not A Film reached Cannes is a fascinating one: it was smuggled on a USB stick, hidden in a cake sent from Iran to Paris. And what it is, is even more fascinating. It is ostensibly a day-in-the-life documentary about Jafar Panahi, filmed at his Tehran apartment. The director is in front of the camera, instead of behind it (that would be an offense). Yet he is very much directing, whether he is telling collaborator Mirtahmasb to shoot this or that, or when he is outlining scenes from a scenario he is working on (complete with delineating sets with tape and playing out the scenes). It is a sign of life, but it is also more that that. It is the statement of a man who refuses to stand down to an oppressive regime, and almost gleefully explores every loophole he can to make a document of what it means to have a dissenting voice in Iran. And while it is brought as a documentary, some scenes feel just too surreal to not be staged (again, this would constitute an offense). A girl, never shown on screen, trying to dump her dog at Panahi’s, is later trying to do the same to the janitor, who is being interviewed by Panahi while riding the elevator down floor by floor. The whole ‘interview’ looks fishy and oddly comical. The final shot of the film, outside through the gate of the apartment building, has a clear double meaning. Officially we are watching bonfires on the Iranian New Year, but the image of a burning country is immediately evoked. The little tongue-in-cheek gag the two directors play in the end credits shows they know they are on dangerous ground here. Yet they seem undaunted by it all, making very light of the situation. Panahi turns out to be a humorous man. But with a 3-foot iguana roaming around the house that may or may not be a pet, you can’t help but wonder if this is all real or staged. It feels a bit like ‘Banksy in Tehran.’ Apparently, this is not a film. But maybe it is.