En­durance tests

Films with weighty themes have taken an un­usu­ally prom­i­nent role at this year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, re­ports Michael Dwyer

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

THE 60th Fes­ti­val de Cannes has been test­ing the en­durance of its au­di­ence, not merely be­cause of the sheer vol­ume of en­tic­ing movies on of­fer and the con­se­quent sched­ul­ing clashes, but in the heavy themes ex­plored and graphic scenes that chal­lenge view­ers not to look away.

For me, the most un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence came very early on Tues­day morn­ing at the first screen­ing of The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly, based on the best-sell­ing 1997 book by Jean-Do­minique Bauby and di­rected by Ju­lian Schn­abel, theNew York painter who turned film-maker with Basquiat and Be­fore Night Falls.

The film be­gins in De­cem­ber 1995 when Bauby, then 43 and the ed­i­tor of Elle mag­a­zine in Paris, comes out of a three-week coma at a hospi­tal near Calais. “Keep your eyes open,” is the first sen­tence Bauby hears, be­fore be­ing told he had a stroke that caused the ex­tremely rare con­di­tion of “locked-in syn­drome”, which com­pro­mises the stem be­tween the brain and the rest of the body.

The first half-hour makes for deeply un­set­tling cin­ema as Schn­abel im­me­di­ately places the viewer in Bauby’s po­si­tion, ob­serv­ing ev­ery­thing from his point of view, which is blurred un­til his eyes ad­just to light again. We can­not but share his shock and anx­i­ety at re­al­is­ing that his body is paral­ysed from head to toe and that he can­not be heard, even though his brain is in per­fect work­ing or­der. That ex­tended se­quence is so con­vinc­ingly recre­ated that it ini­tially takes on a suf­fo­cat­ing in­ten­sity be­yond claus­tro­pho­bia, as if one had been buried alive. The only re­lief comes with the dis­cov­ery that Bauby has one re­main­ing form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, by blink­ing his left eye­lid. With the en­cour­age­ment of a ded­i­cated young speech ther­a­pist and her use of a re-or­dered al­pha­bet that pri­or­i­ties the most com­monly used let­ters, he painstak­ingly ex­presses him­self by blink­ing when the cor­rect let­ter is pro­nounced aloud.

Bauby’s in­stinc­tive re­sponse is terse: “I want death”. Within the se­vere lim­i­ta­tions of his altered ex­is­tence, how­ever, he finds a rea­son to go on liv­ing, and to deal with the guilt and re­grets that shroud his thoughts, by dic­tat­ing the book that over a year later be­comes The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly. late Jean-Pierre Cas­sel, in­vest it with heart and in­tegrity.

An­other man’s hor­rific real-life fate is the sub­ject of Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s A Mighty Heart, show­ing out of com­pe­ti­tion in the of­fi­cial Cannes se­lec­tion. It fol­lows the dogged quest to find and res­cue Danny Pearl, the south-Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Jour­nal, af­ter his ab­duc­tion in Karachi in Jan­uary 2002.

A Mighty Heart is based on the mem­oir by his widow, jour­nal­ist Mar­i­ane Pearl, who was five months preg­nant with their first child at the time, and is played by an ef­fec­tively un­der­stated An­gelina Jolie. Through her fright­ened eyes, the hu­man level of the story com­pellingly un­folds in par­al­lel with the com­plex po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion as we ob­serve the metic­u­lous five­week search car­ried out by Pak­istan’s counter-ter­ror­ism unit, the FBI and sev­eral jour­nal­ists.

The film, which ben­e­fits from Win­ter­bot­tom’s ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing in the re­gion on In This World and The Road to Guan­tanamo, me­thod­i­cally re­veals lay­ers of data and the counter-claims made dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­fore it reached its tragic con­clu­sion. It takes on a greater ur­gency at a time when BBC Gaza correspondent Alan John­ston has been miss­ing for three months.

The dis­ap­pear­ance of a mid­dle-aged man af­ter a car ac­ci­dent in Jerusalem trig­gers con­flict, though not of a po­lit­i­cal na­ture, in Psalms, Raphaël Nad­jari’s Is­raeli pro­duc­tion. Nad­jari is less con­cerned Schn­abel’s thoughtwith an ex­pla­na­tion (none is given) than pro­vok­ing film proves with the plight of the man’s wife and two life-af­firm­ing yet un­sons, who have to ex­ist on a on a dimin­sen­ti­men­tal. The ished bud­get when his bank ac­count is fro­com­mit­ted per­for­mzen. On an­other level, this lo­qua­cious, fuances of a very fine ne­re­ally paced film at­tempts to prompt cast led by Mathieu de­bate on the wife’s re­jec­tion of her deA­mal­ric as Bauby, vout in-laws’ re­sponse, which is through and no­tably fea­tur­faith. ing Mare-Josée Two for­mer Palme d’Or win­ners reCroze, Em­turned to the Cannes com­pe­ti­tion this manuelle Sei­week with movies fall­ing far short of their gneur, Max Von best achieve­ments. Para­noid Park is an­oth­Sy­dow and the er of Gus Van Sant’s low-bud­get, min­i­mal- ist movies fea­tur­ing mostly non-pro­fes­sional ac­tors, this time re­cruited on MyS­pace. It plays like a weaker com­pan­ion to Ele­phant, which earned Van Sant the cov­eted Cannes prize in 2003 and fol­lowed twomale stu­dents plan­ning a shoot­ing ram­page at their school.

The pro­tag­o­nist of Para­noid Park is an­other alien­ated teen, Alex, who is 16, liv­ing with his di­vorced mother in Port­land, Ore­gon, and ev­i­dently more in­ter­ested in skate­board­ing than sex. Van Sant, who fi­nally ap­pears to have dis­cov­ered skate­board­ing – can break­danc­ing be next? – squan­ders time ad­mir­ing the ac­tiv­ity in what are es­sen­tially grainy mu­sic videos.

There is, even­tu­ally, a moral dilemma, when Alex is sus­pected of in­volve­ment in the death of a rail­way se­cu­rity guard struck by a skate­board, and Van Sant later re­plays sev­eral ap­par­ently ba­nal scenes that are given con­text and mean­ing by de­tails ever so grad­u­ally re­vealed.

The big­gest dis­ap­point­ment at Cannes has been Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, which be­gan life as an 87-minute pic­ture part­nered with an­other di­rected by Robert Rodrigeuz in Grind­house, a dou­ble bill homage to 1970s B-movies. Since Grind- house failed to ig­nite the US box-of­fice, the movies have been sep­a­rated and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing fake trail­ers dropped, and Tarantino has over-gen­er­ously added 40 min­utes to his seg­ment.

The B-movie pas­tiche works in such in­ci­den­tal de­tails as hav­ing a de­lib­er­ately scratchy, badly spliced print with a washed-out look, but Death Proof, which is now al­most as long as some old dou­ble bills, is a dou­ble fea­ture in it­self. A griz­zled Kurt Rus­sell plays the link­ing char­ac­ter, a malev­o­lent, misog­y­nis­tic stunt­man who takes plea­sure in driv­ing women off the road, even if it means killing them.

He finds easy prey in the first half, but the women in the sec­ond part are sassier and tougher. In case we didn’t get that, they spout ex­ple­tives in­ces­santly through­out end­lessly ba­nal con­ver­sa­tions con­spic­u­ously short on Tarantino’s trade­mark­witty di­a­logue.

His in­ner geek has taken over from the smart film-maker in this tire­some ex­er­cise that fi­nally sparks to life in the last reel, for an ex­pertly staged, ex­tended car chase that name-checks Van­ish­ing Point (1971) as its in­flu­ence and echoes the stunt­man’s scorn for CGI ef­fects.

Re­vert­ing to the US cut for Euro­pean re­lease in the au­tumn would make sense. And I ex­pect the en­tire cast of Babe to fly over the Fes­ti­val Palais on Sun­day night if Death Proof re­peats Tarantino’s 1994 Cannes tri­umph with Pulp Fiction and gets him a sec­ond Palme d’Or.

An­gelina Jolie in Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s A Mighty Heart

Quentin Tarantino as War­ren in Death Proof, which he di­rected (top); The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly, di­rected by Ju­lian Schn­abel (right); Psalms, di­rected by Raphaël Nad­jari

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