Cannes 2009: This time, it's visceral

CANNES, France — Memorable for its in-your-face sensationalism, the 62nd Cannes Film Festival opened with the 3-D computer animation Up, saving the "Yours" for the final minutes of the competition's penultimate movie, Gaspar Noé's "psychedelic melodrama" Enter the Void.

The sad, tawdry, monstrously inflated tale of two traumatized club kids adrift in the neon wilderness of downtown Tokyo, Enter the Void climaxed, so to speak, with a wide-screen, simulated vagicam mega-closeup of a Brobdingnagian penis, thrustin' atcha. Perhaps it was the simple expression of the filmmaker's megalomaniacal desire to fuck the audience. But, having bitch-slapped viewers for the past two and a half hours with drug visions, strobe attacks, febrile sexual encounters, a graphic abortion complete with bloody fetus, a fatal shooting in a feces-smeared toilet stall (repeated three times), and a subjective view of a head-on car crash (four times) — everything but the latter shown from an overhead perspective with a nausea-inducing jittery camera — Noé's final gesture seemed more like his desperate last attempt to provoke a response—any response.

Were we jaded? The competition had already offered up Chan-wook's feverishly baroque vampire gore-fest Thirst, Brillante Mendoza's harrowing Kinatay — in which a young prostitute is abducted, beaten, tortured, raped, sodomized, murdered, and matter-of-factly dismembered in a 45-minute more-or-less real-time sequence — and, of course, Lars von Trier's Antichrist, with its three indelible money shots: crushed testicles, ejaculated blood, and clitoral circumcision self-performed in tight closeup. Even the competition's most ostensibly academic movie, and eventual winner, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon subscribed to the cinema of cruelty, enlivened by tame images of mutilated children and crucified songbirds.

Von Trier had told journalists that Antichrist arose out of his severe depression. Was he simply characterizing his own mental state or was he responding to a malaise affecting all of cinema? While Antichrist et al. offered shock therapy, more benign films like Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces and Tsai Ming-liang's Visage prescribed a nostalgic course of treatment — each celebrating the process of movie-making. (There was also a gentler expression of cinephilia in the outpouring of critical love for 87-year-old Alain Resnais' inane Wild Grass — the cinematic equivalent of Willem DeKooning's last paintings.)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to fuse cine-narcissism with desperation and take movie magic literally. In Inglourious Basterds' fantastic revision of World War II, all aspects of the motion picture apparatus (projectionists, exhibitors, film critics, exploitation directors, movie stars) band together to destroy fascism, and, as the director might have enthused, really fuckin' rewrite history! But if the most characteristic films selected for competition at Cannes were put under psychoanalysis, a fundamental, ontological anxiety might be revealed: Do movies still move us? Does cinema still have the power to thrill? What does it take to provide a visceral experience? Not for nothing did Noé describe Enter the Void as a ghost story. Is the medium itself even alive?

Unlike the past two festivals, Cannes 2009 did not offer a superabundance of cinematic riches. But the short answer is yes, of course. Just beyond the competition's klieg light, signs of life: There was Francis Ford Coppola's struggle to reinvent himself as a personal film artist in Tetro and Malian director Souleymane Cissé's first movie in 15 years, the sardonic soap opera Min ye ... (half a season of Desperate Housewives in two hours). Haim Tabakman successfully transposed Brokeback Mountain to the back alleys of ultra-orthodox Jerusalem in Eyes Wide Open; Zhao Liang painstakingly documented China's underground legal system in Petition; Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues presented an unclassifiably sad and funny drag queen fado musical, To Die Like a Man; and Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu produced a small masterpiece on the nature of vérité, Police, Adjective. A 20-year-old French-Canadian director, Xavier Dolan, won three awards in the Directors' Fortnight with his sardonic family drama I Killed My Mother, while 24-year-old Philippine filmmaker Raya Martin recast his country's national struggle as an imaginary primitive talkie called Independencia. Martin's special effects include tinted black-and-white film stock, occasional superimposition, and almost synchronous sound. Pure cinema — no sex, little violence, not even 3-D!

Handed a surprisingly violent but generally lackluster slate, the Cannes jury decided to share the wealth by recognizing nine of the 20 films in competition.

The Palme d'Or went to one of the most substantial movies vying, Haneke's The White Ribbon. Jury president Isabelle Huppert — girlish yet steely in an elegantly understated white lace dress — appeared delighted to bestow the award on the Austrian filmmaker who had directed her own prize-winning performance in The Piano Teacher, Cannes' grand scandale of 2001.

Runner-up Grand Prix went to French director Jacques Audiard for A Prophet — a conventional prison drama in which a Corsican gangster gives a poor Arab youth his education in crime. The movie was a critical favorite, and the press, which watches and riffs on a live telecast of the award ceremony en masse, was delighted with the prize — as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award for Resnais.

On the other hand, incredulous gasps and boos greeted Huppert's announcement that Mendoza had been named best director for Kinatay — the competition's least entertaining exercise in cine-brutalism and hence its most hated film. Kinatay proved to be the jury's most outré choice. Despite rumors that it might win the Palme d'Or, Noé's Enter the Void was shut out, while von Trier's Antichrist and Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds were recognized only for their performances. The nine-member jury was distinguished for including five actresses — lending additional weight to the choice of Charlotte Gainsbourg for her brave and uninhibited turn in Antichrist. The Best Actor award went to Basterds' comic, sinister villain, the multilingual German actor Christoph Waltz. His performance was more universally admired than the movie and, indeed, Huppert appeared to roll her eyes during Waltz' effusive thanks to his director.

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