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