Cannes 2011: The Middle of the Pack

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, Reviews
Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 10:39 am

Film festival coverage tends towards hyperbole. If you're at home experiencing something like Cannes through blogs, you'll likely get the sense that there are masterpieces and travesties and nothing in between. In fact, the middle is huge--it's just hard to find space and time to talk about it within the on-to-the-next festival culture. What follows are brief notes on three Cannes films that fall squarely in central percentile of what I was able to see.

The Artist
As a formal stunt, this (mostly) silent film love letter to the last days of the silent film era "works," in that it adapts some basic tenets of pre-talkie visual storytelling to suit a modern gaze. But since there's little here other than form--director Michel Hazanavicius has nothing to say about the massive transition at the dawn of sound other than that it happened--that process of adaptation feels like a cheat. If you're making a silent film just to make a silent film, why employ a performance style that mimics not silent film acting nor naturalistic behavior, but the mid-century mugging of musicals like Singin' in the Rain (The Artist's most obvious influence)? Why filter silent style through multiple layers of remove?

Declaration of War (above)
Actress Valerie Donzelli directs herself and co-writer/ex-boyfriend Jeremie Elkaim in a New Wave-tinged dramatization of the formation and dissolution of their own intense relationship. A punk club meet-cute leads to instant coupledom, which hits two stumbling blocks: the quick arrival of a son, and the discovery that their child, who begins to exhibit signs of being "retarded," actually has a rare and serious brain tumor. It's an ambitious genre-fuck, almost an operetta (there's one full-fledged musical number, and several scenes in which the dialogue, camera movement and editing are syncopated to source cues in musical style, although no one is actually dancing or singing) in which micro-specific, stranger than fiction true life detail is given highly theatric spin. This film deserves a champion--its mere existence is fascinating, and its peak moments constitute some of the smartest character-based scenes in any film at Cannes this year (a climactic party scene that teases out the young lovers' unwillingness/inability to leave behind the recklessness of youth even while dealing with their son's mortality is particularly exciting)--but Donzelli's tendency to put much of the film's emotional content in quotes makes it difficult to shift gears when she suddenly turns sincere.

The Look
A profiterole of a non-fiction experiment, in which actress Charlotte Rampling visits well-known, highly creative friends--Paul Auster, Juergen Teller--for casual conversations about big issues: life, death, aging, aura. Director Angelina Maccarone intersperses well-chosen clips from Rampling's greatest acting hits, which hammer home the larger themes, and also offer a much-needed reminder that Max, Mon Amour exists. It's breezy and entertaining, but only occasionally more than superficially insightful. Ideal catch-it-on-cable-on-a-hungover-Saturday viewing.

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