A final look at the festival’s films, from the transporting “Aurora” to the glossy “Fair Game” to Godard’s divisive “Film Socialisme”
CANNES, France — To be at the Cannes Film Festival is often to feel at once cut off from the world and fully a citizen of it. On the one hand, this is an insular, claustrophobic place: those who come here for the movies (as opposed to the meetings and the parties) spend long days holed up in dark screening rooms, and when they are not consuming movies, they are invariably writing or tweeting or arguing about or making deals to buy or sell or screen them. But the cumulative experience of watching the films themselves, in what is without fail a truly global selection, is transporting, a reminder that cinema is a way of seeing the world — or to quote the Romanian director Cristi Puiu, here with “Aurora,” one of this year’s strongest films, “a tool for the investigation of reality.”
Some of the year’s best fiction films vividly evoked not just the physical reality but also the moral logic of their locations: civil-war-torn Chad (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man”), economically devastated Buenos Aires (Pablo Trapero’s “Carancho”), post-communist Bucharest (“Aurora”). Two competition films dealt with French-Algerian relations: Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men” is a somber drama set among French monks at a monastery in the Algerian countryside. Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law,” about three brothers involved in the Algerian fight for independence, brought right-wing demonstrators — as well as armed guards and added security — to the Palais des Festivals for this morning’s screening.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” a trancelike tale of death and rebirth that is far and away the best film in this year’s competition, is the most delicate and immersive of ghost stories, haunted by the violent history of Thailand’s rural northeast. Additionally, the ongoing clashes between the Red Shirts and the Thai military in Bangkok loomed as an off-screen specter.
Among the more anticipated of this year’s large crop of political movies (as well as the only American film in the competition), Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” about the Valerie Plame affair (starring Naomi Watts as the outed CIA operative), turned out to be at best a glossy spy adventure. As the film jets from Kuala Lumpur to Cairo to Amman, with pitstops in the bowels of the Bush-Cheney administration, it’s increasingly hamstrung by TV-movie cliches and dopey sloganeering (almost all of it by Sean Penn, as Plame’s ambassador husband Joe Wilson).
Nearly three times as long as “Fair Game,” the French director Olivier Assayas’s “Carlos,” a three-part made-for-TV miniseries about the ’70s terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal (shown once here on the big screen), is much more agile in its game of geopolitical hopscotch. (It’s due to open in the U.S. this fall through IFC Films.) Assayas’s great subject is globalization. (His previous movies include “Demonlover,” “Boarding Gate” and the recent art-house hit “Summer Hours.”) More than almost any other filmmaker working today, he grasps how the world we live in is increasingly defined by fluid exchanges of people and ideas and money. Shot in more than half a dozen countries in three continents, with a hero (played with rock-star bravado by Edgar Ramirez) who evolves from freedom fighter to mercenary megalomaniac, “Carlos” is above all a film about the rise of global terrorism, and its connection to global capital movements.
But the festival’s most distinctive — and most divisive — state-of-the-world address? That would have to be Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme,” which has inspired fervent praise and even more fervent dismissals. Godard’s thorny post-’60s career — which has produced works of startling beauty and intricacy but which inspires considerable antipathy from those who find his late works too abstruse — is a topic for another time (as is, perhaps, the provincial, anti-intellectual streak of the mostly Anglophone critics who come to international film festivals and feel assaulted by movies that feel too foreign or that refuse to adhere to traditional narrative formulas).
“Film Socialisme” is certainly a provocation, especially for non-French speakers — it’s subtitled in what Godard has called “Navajo English.” No surprise that the film more or less divided the critics into two camps: those who were eager or at least willing to parse its dense montage of sound and image, to ponder its analytic intertwining of history and myth, and those who were annoyed that Godard isn’t still making films like “Breathless.” And how did “Film Socialisme” fit in with the festival’s numerous failure-of-capitalism movies (like the well-received financial-crisis doc “Inside Job”)? Godard, for his part, suggests we not take the title too literally. As he recently told a French interviewer: “The film could just as well have been called ‘Communisme’ or ‘Capitalisme.’”