On paper, you couldn’t ask for a more promising lineup. For its 62nd year, the Festival de Cannes, which unspooled from May 13-24, assembled many of the most prestigious names in world cinema, including four previous winners of its top prize, the Palme d’Or: Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993); Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, 1994); Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, 2000); and Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, 2006). So jam-packed was the competition slate, in fact, that major directors like Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows) and South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo (Woman on the Beach) wound up shunted into sidebar sections.
But in the end, despite its endless parade of auteurs, Cannes 2009 served up only a handful of truly memorable movies, none of them masterpieces. The first few days, in particular, were a long haul, as even the better films tread exceedingly familiar ground. Campion, who hadn’t made a feature since 2003’s critically reviled In the Cut, received respectful notices for Bright Star, her portrait of the doomed relationship between Romantic poet John Keats and his muse, Fanny Brawne, but seeing this once-ferocious filmmaker (even In the Cut has its queasy moments) reduced to a genteel literary biopic only made me sad. Likewise, Jacques Audiard’s gripping prison drama A Prophet, which became an early favorite, simply tells—at rather excessive length (two and a half hours)—the age-old tale of the frightened new fish who gradually metamorphoses, via sheer determination, into a criminal kingpin. Very accomplished, but you’ve seen it all before. Where were the bold, visionary works of genius?
Cue Hurricane Lars, whose utterly insane Antichrist, which screened on the evening of Day 5, hit the now-jaded press corps like a cement block to the groin—and if that sounds outré, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Reportedly von Trier’s attempt to combat years of deep depression, the film follows two grieving parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) as they head to their cabin in the deep woods to work through the death of their only child, who fell from a high window while they were busy boinking. The man’s idea of catharsis involves a lot of patronizing speeches and exercises (he’s a professional therapist); the woman’s idea, however, involves both of their genitalia and the contents of a rusty toolbox. Beginning like Ingmar Bergman and concluding like Hostel Part II, and featuring acts of violence so horrific you can’t believe von Trier will actually show them in realistic-looking close-up (he does), Antichrist divided viewers like few films in years. I found it laughable, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t grateful for its presence. Films as nuttily ambitious as this are what Cannes should be about.
Because this year’s competition jury was headed by Isabelle Huppert and included Asia Argento, two actresses known for their fearlessness, there was speculation that Antichrist could actually win the Palme d’Or. Instead, the jury gave their Best Actress prize to fellow fearless actress Gainsbourg, awarding le grand magilla to Austria’s Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon, a punishingly ascetic portrait of the roots of Nazism, set in a small German village just prior to WWI. Critics generally concurred, but while I’ve been a Haneke fan in the past (Code Unknown, Funny Games), this new one seemed like too much stern withholding for too little return. Especially since the best film I saw at Cannes, which won the top prize in the lesser Un Certain Regard section, tackles similar themes in more memorable fashion. Made in Greece, Dogtooth is a bizarre chamber piece about three young adults who’ve never left their house, having been indoctrinated and infantilized since birth; like The White Ribbon, it explores the ways in which despotic parents can permanently warp impressionable kids, but its absurdist scenario allows for moments of alarming black humor that Haneke would surely frown upon.
Of course, no celebration of cinema would be complete without Quentin Tarantino, whose love of the medium permeates his much-ballyhooed WWII epic, Inglourious Basterds. Far from the Dirty Dozen pastiche most of us expected, it’s actually a goofily endearing (if extremely talky) act of vicarious wish-fulfillment, in which a Gentile filmmaker rewrites history so that the Jews can defeat Hitler all by themselves, with the help of an arthouse movie theater. It’s far from Tarantino’s best work, but it did score a deserved Best Actor prize for little-known Austrian Christoph Waltz, who plays the film’s urbane, multilingual Nazi badass. And somehow, traveling to Cannes to see an American movie starring Brad Pitt that’s mostly in subtitled French, German and Italian felt exactly right. This may have been an off year, but so long as there’s still a place where the world’s greatest directors can gather, sign me up.