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    Cannes 64: Regarding Un Certain Regard

    By Gregor Sedlag | June 23, 2011

    Un Certain Regard could mean to take a look where it hurts. Photo from L'Exercise de L'Etat by Pierre Schoeller, courtesy Archipel 35

    Un Certain Regard sometimes means to risk a glance. Photo from L'Exercise de L'Etat by Pierre Schoeller, courtesy Archipel 35

    Apart from reporting on the remarkable success of Andreas Dresen’s Halt auf freier Strecke (Stopped on Track), which was awarded the Prix Un Certain Regard ex aequo with Arirang by Kim Ki-Duk, KINO – German Film remains true to its subheading of „International Reports“ by looking at some of the entries in this year’s Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes and beginning with the inspiring programme of the Un Certain Regard sidebar which perfectly complemented the strong Competition.

    In attempting to summarise the films reviewed here, I would say that most of them are following established genre rules, but they provide an added value with their presentation of specific regional settings that far exceed their original genre parameters. Moreover, they offer “a special view” of the world and its people through the art and craftsmanship of their authors, directors, producers, cinematographers and actors. It is testament to the very skill of a film festival programmer to discover such works of cinematic art and put such an impressive selection together as was the case with as this year’s Un Certain Regard.

    Here, in alphabetical order, are some of films from the Official Selection’s Un Certain Regard which are featured in this omnibus review:

    – Bonsái by Christián Jiménez
    – L’Exercice de L’Etat (The Minister) by Pierre Schoeller
    – Loverboy by Catalin Mitulescu
    Martha Marcy May Melene by Sean Durkin
    Miss Bala by Gerardo Naranjo
    The Hunter (Okhotnik) by Bakur Bakurdadze
    – Skoonheid (Beauty) by Oliver Hermanus
    – The Day he arrives by Hong Sangsoo

    and Out of Competition:

    Dias de Gracia (Days of Grace) by Everardo Gout

    Bonsái by Christián Jiménez: Young Chilean literature teacher Julio (Diego Noguera) finally becomes the author and writer he always wanted to be by pretending to his current and literature-loving girlfriend Blanca (Trinidad Gonzále as a very sober, long-distance love and sex companion) that he is making some desperately needed money by transcripting the manuscript of a renowned Chilean novelist – a job he in fact failed to pitch with success. Too ashamed to admit his failure to her, he invents the novel that never existed – reviving the long suppressed memory of his first, but devastating, big love affair from their universitity days. The relationship to Emilia (Natalia Galgani) is transmitted by flashbacks which are broken up tragically, but stay in the shadows. When the novel is finally finished, Julio gets the feeling that his former beloved is dead – and his current lover leaves him and sets off for Europe. A metaphor for the idea that great art always has to cannibalise life in order to really develop? The film is based upon the novel of the same name by Chilean writer Alejandro Zambr who addresses the issues of love affairs, metafictional games and reflections on how books are like bonsai trees. Director Christián Jiménez describes this role of the eponymous tree as follows: “A film is not only a story, but also an artifact. In this case, I aspire for the bonsai  to be not just a plot element, but also an inspiration for its style: synthetic, ascetic, focused in detail rather than context, and endowed with a significant degree of lightness.” His second film after the 2009 feature debut Ilusiones Opticás (Optical Illusions), Jiménez’s Bonsái cocoons the viewer within a quiet and melancholic narrative flow, providing quite familiar and melancholic insights into an arguably global Bohemian lifestyle as well as touching on coming of age and loving in vain – whether it be in Europe, Chile or Korea.

    The Day He Arrives by Hong Sangsoo is such a film – focusing on a tiny, unspectacular slice of life about a former creatively renowned up-and-coming filmmaker who left Seoul to make a living in a provincial town teaching film students. Visiting Seoul again, he is unable to meet up with an old friend straight away and has to roam around the picturesque Bukchon area, running into film business people he didn’t necessarily intend to meet. As so often in real life, there is no plot, but events just drift. We witness a couple of these – talking, eating, boozing and some tender, but undecided love interest for the barmaid, modeled on the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend who won’t be providing any new meaning to life. Over several days, we follow the arbitrary paths of the protagonist. Nothing really dramatic happens, but everyone in the cinema is excellently entertained by seeing their own bland blunt perfectly matched in a drama without any drama.

    L’Exercice de L’Etat (The Minister) by Pierre Schoeller is a drama of a totally different calibre. It begins with a traumatic and violently eroticised dream sequence that consistently becomes the key visual of the film as a study of power and politics in the world of France’s notorious political class. The Minister didn’t lose any credibility through the fact that one of the real “Alpha Crocodiles” of French politics – Dominique Strauss-Kahn – had already been arrested in New York and was facing serious allegations of rape, sexual harassment and other connected offenses against U.S. law. This was especially the case when,  in a short supporting role, one of the featured grandees seems to have been modelled on “DSK.” However, Pierre Schoeller’s movie isn’t an eccentric genre painting of the French political system, even though the figure of the Président de la République Française as a sphinx-like head of the whole system seems to resemble a congenial synthesis of François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac – almost outperforming Marlon Brando’s legendary performance in The GodfatherThe Minister is a real tragedy and consistently moves forward into a personal catastrophe – but without the cathartic power of relief. What is really tragic ist hat the “man without a background” gains a profile because other disturbingly anonymous forces can wipe out his political career like a blank slate. The strictly hierarchical and well-established phenomenon of systemic corruption has been the perfect breeding ground for investigative stories in the French film policier for some decades, and probably serves as a desperately needed vent to stabilise the public order. But The Minister doesn’t need the pretext of a criminal plot to come to the crux, the opening and climax with devastating car accidents seem to be the only kind of incidents that are capable of briefly disrupting the free-wheeling political machine from its incessant and unreal momentum. When will German cinema achieve a comparably lucid insight into the current Berliner Republik and its unwritten rules, well-kept secrets and inherently possessive demons?

    Loverboy by Catalin Mitulescu is a story of doomed self-destructive love set against the backdrop of harsh contemporary Romanian life. “Romeo” Luca‘s (George Pistereanu) uses his  handsome looks to draw girls hungry for a good time into the arms of the criminal pimps. In the course of the film, we follow the downfall of Luca’s great summer love Veli (Ada Condeescu) whose dedication to “Loverboy” is, finally, just as fatal as that shown by the other runaways who were recently entrapped by him. Nonetheless, they are totally aware (oder unaware? ) of the criminal, but glittering and glamourous milieu there are tempted to enter. In many ways harking back to the lessons told in the fairy tale „Red Riding Hood“ – and the leader of the pack here is a really big, bad wolf who drives a brand new BMW in the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanța -, this unsentimental story focuses on another angle to the dreadful business of “white slavery”. It shows that this path is not necessarily inevitable, but “all the girls having sex for money have a love story behind it,” a unnamed loverboy said during Catalin Mitulescu’s research for the film. A wonderful performance by the sober-minded prosecuting police officer who knows about “Loverboy’s” fatal, but guilt-free responsibility for moulding the girls into these kinds of “weapons.” “Loverboy is a trade. This film is a love story,” says Catalin Mitulescu.

    Coincidently, Martha Marcy May Melene by Sean Durkin also deals with a kind of white slavery and misguided love by a young female soul – Martha (Elizabeth Olse) – who is searching for meaning and significance in her life. The plot opens at a self-sustaining farm in  upstate New York’s  Catskill Mountains, which, at first sight, looks like a peaceful back-to-the-roots Neo-Hippie community with a slight bias towards Militia(?). One is immediately aware of an uncanny feeling of discomfort and the peer-group surveillance is obviously part of a cultish ultra-patriarchal regime that could be a re-enactment of the Manson family’s  values. Martha eventually flees her intentional “family” and seeks refuge with her older, but estranged sister and brother-in-law who are living a righteous Double Income No Kids lifestyle which seems nearly as strange as being integrated into the perverted harem commune that is at the beck and call of the charismatic cult leader (John Hawkes). Unable to tell her hosts about her disturbing experiences under the cult’s influence, Martha gradually reveals by way of flashbacks the very reason for her escaping: she had witnessed one of the girls in the cult committing a murder during one of their nightly break-ins at the often abandoned summer houses of wealthy New Yorkers – thus exposing the righteous Robin-Hood-Reloaded manner of the supposedly self-sustaining farm community. In the end, Martha Marcy May Melene turns out to be a psychological thriller which is directed unlike the usual suspense thriller genre narratives. Moreover, from a European spectator’s perspectivem Durkin’s upstate New York looks very cool and stylish, almost Scandinavian – bereft of the worn-out “Americana” countryside stereotypes that Hollywood always tends to propagate.

    The Hunter, Georgian-born director Bakur Bakurdadze’s second feature-length film after Shultes (2008), draws its authenticity not only from its almost documentary-like direction, but also from a cast who are practically all making their acting debut in this film. The performances by the main protagonists are impressive – whether it is the lead role of Mikhail Barskovich as the calm, but  decisive hog farm patriarch Ivan who becomes involved with Lyuba – played by another debutant Tatyana Shapovalova – who is on work release from the local prison colony. Or the subtle depiction of Ivan’s little handicapped son Kolya (Gera Avdochyonok ) – who is not playing just to get the spectator’s sympathy. But, despite having only one arm, Kolya is helped by his father to learn one-handed shooting so that he later go hunting. This is as touching and evident as Ivan’s tender, but hopeless sexual love affair with his former protegée. One should take time to become captivated by this calm and gentle story which presents an image of rural Russia contrasting sharply with the “Rubljovka” image of the notorious Nouveaux Russes under Putin’s thumb. The current Prime Minister of the Russian Federation likes to present himself in the leading role of a caretaker “okhotnik” resembling The Hunter’s Ivan when he ousts a ruthless rich hunter from his shoot – with a dry and sudden single shot from his rifle. Ivan’s little son Kolya eventually puts this all into words when he asks his father when they are standing in front of a run-down Second World War war hero memorial: “What is the Soviet Union?” Indeed, Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov is quire right when he says: “The Hunter (Okhotnik) is an existential drama that takes place wholely on a hog farm. And yet the film contains no drunkenness, foul language or other attributes of “black” Russian cinema, which, in and of itself, makes this an interesting experiment.”

    Skoonheid (Beauty) by Oliver Hermanus is a strong, but disturbing portrait of the tragic love interest of a “closet” homosexual father of two daughters whose object of desire is the boyfriend of one of his grown-up daughters. Think of the setting for star fashion designer Tom Ford’s 2009 feature film debut A Single Man and 1960s West Coast academia and move forward in time to the rural Afrikaans-speaking Boer milieu in post-apartheid South-Africa – to a man’s world where even cruising gays are just “faggots” and coloured and blacks are still off  limits. The inability to acknowledge that the suppressed sexual desire for one’s own gender could be part of a greater complex – called “love”–  is the tragic, but inevitable beginning of a fatal downward spiral. Deon Lotz as the craftsman and joinery owner François brillantly plays this restrained and encapsulated character in a mid-life crisis, giving a performance that is even stronger than Colin Firth’s in A Single Man. François’ object of desire is the 23-year-old posterboy Christian whom he can only possess by means of brute force. It is a painful and distressing scene of male-on-male rape which seals François’ total moral and personal breakdown. Apart from this personal tragedy of a family man who falls victim to his inner desires, the film poses the question whether the politically “incorrect” perpective on a still (informally) apartheid society can be overcome by South Africa’s  young and unburdened “Rainbow Generation” as represented by the victim’s Beauty?

    One of the most violent and deadliest conflicts in the world today is being fought where no one  would first think of. It is neither Afghanistan, nor Pakistan  or Libya, but Mexico’s northern federal states of Chihuahua, Sonoro and Baja California – all bordering the USA and fighting a desperate “narco war” against powerful drug cartels who have in part been responsible fort he breakdown of public order. Miss Bala by Gerardo Naranjo shows the fatal entanglement between the mafia clans and the state’s corrupted elite as seen from a surprising female angle: the eyes of a “Simplicissima” – Laura, a young, aspiring beauty queen competing in the “Miss Bala California” contest – who accidentally gets caught between the warring parties who are all part of a much bigger story. Presenting the criminal and violent drug war excesses through the eyes of a young woman makes it possible for the film to follow narrative strands one would otherwise never see in a hard-boiled action thriller. Although Miss Bala supposed to be a contemporary realistic movie, the dystopian war operations in the relics of a failed state are directed in dreadful way – the classic post-apocalyptic action blockbusters of the 1980s like Mad Max or Escape from New York seem ridiculously feeble  and conventional compared to this film with its disturbing atmosphere of an ubiquitious menace coming from hi-tech forces where one doesn’t know which side they are on. With its moral blurring between the usual Hollywood stereotypes of good and bad guys, Miss Bala could be regarded as part of a dead serious realignment of action cinema as seen from a Latino perspective. Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus and José Padilha’s Tropa de Elite are arguably brothers in spirit to this movement.

    Such an idea gains more weight with Everardo Gout’s Out of Competition title Dias de Gracia (Days of Grace) which brings the catastrophic situation of the drug war together with the Mexicans‘ enthusiasm for the FIFA World Cup: the football world championships provide the backdrop for the film’s cleverly interwoven plot strands which make the audience view the action from a totally new perspective. A strategy I can only compare with the stunning composition of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995). Days of Grace literally raises the question once more of “Who is Keyser Söze?” and, at the same time, offers hard-boiled action thrills against the background of Mexico’s notorious history of violence.

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