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Letter from Cannes

Some pleasant surprises at this year’s uneven Cannes Film Festival

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Tamara Drewe

Even before it began, the 63rd Festival de Cannes, which took place from May 12-23, was widely considered a failure. Head honcho Thierry Fremaux allowed that it was a “difficult” year, which is barely disguised spin for “there wasn’t much out there, sorry.” Hotly anticipated films—most notably, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—weren’t ready in time. The competition slate, once unveiled, featured a number of once-potent world-cinema names who now seem well past their prime: Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Bertrand Tavernier. Only one American film was to compete for the Palme d’Or, and its director’s last movie was the execrable Jumper. All in all, it’s fair to say that most critics, myself included, arrived on the Croisette with extremely low expectations. But while those expectations were largely met (turns out there wasn’t much out there), Cannes 2010 had a few enormously pleasant surprises to offer as well, not the least of which was the fest’s most deserving top prizewinner in years.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

But let’s save that for the climax and get the high-profile disappointments out of the way. You already know the grim verdict on Ridley Scott’s misguided, joyless rethink of Robin Hood, which arrived in theaters immediately after screening as Cannes’ opening-night attraction. But it’ll be a few months before you have a chance to be underwhelmed by Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in which Oliver Stone neuters Gordon Gekko (again played by Michael Douglas) by involving the chastened financial wizard in a drippy subplot that sees him struggling to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan). Also premiering were two misfires starring Naomi Watts: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a London-set Woody Allen picture on misanthropic autopilot, and Fair Game, with Watts as outed CIA operative Valerie Plame opposite Sean Penn as her self-righteous husband Joe Wilson. The latter’s first hour is swift and stylish enough to remind you that Doug Liman directed Go as well as Jumper, but the film takes an unfortunately strident turn at its midpoint, turning its protagonists into tiresome martyrs.

Speaking of martyrs, jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (Offside), who was finally released just after the festival ended, was a major focus of attention throughout, with Best Actress winner Juliette Binoche using her acceptance speech to hold up a sign with his name on it. As it happened, Binoche received the prize for her lovely turn in the unexpectedly terrific Certified Copy, which saw Panahi’s mentor Kiarostami set aside the last decade’s worth of half-baked digital-video experiments and concoct a philosophically heady, richly ambiguous two-hander about a man and a woman exploring Tuscany who are either complete strangers or a long-married couple. Best Actor went to Javier Bardem, equally fine in Alejandro González Inárritu’s Biutiful … though the movie itself, about a single dad/petty criminal negotiating the Barcelona underworld and succumbing to terminal prostate cancer, suffers from misery overload.

Carlos

Two fine efforts were ineligible for the awards, premiering out of competition. Stephen Frears showed up with Tamara Drewe, his snappiest, most lightly entertaining film since 1993’s The Snapper; it’s a very English ensemble comedy loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. On the opposite end of the spectrum, French director Olivier Assayas stunned many with Carlos, his five-and-a-half-hour portrait of famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal; I found it (yes) overly long, but the stretch depicting Carlos’ 1975 raid on an OPEC summit was the festival’s most electrifying hour-plus.

Until, that is, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka “Joe”) snagged the Palme d’Or at the 11th hour with his haunting, mysterious and altogether wonderful Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. An animist fable about the porous boundary between this world and the next, featuring laser-eyed monkey-ghosts and a princess who’s sexually gratified by a talking catfish, it’s the most audacious and visionary Cannes winner of the past decade, at least. Any festival that recognizes its magic can’t be all bad.

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