CANNES, France — It's been a blood-soaked first week at the Cannes Film Festival — at least onscreen.
Six festivals ago, Lars von Trier galvanized a mediocre competition with his coup de cinéma, Dogville. Returning this year, again in the midst of an uninspired field, von Trier has managed to raise the stakes — for onscreen cruelty, that is.
Opening with the joke "Lars von Trier Antichrist" and closing with a punchline dedication to cinesaint Andrei Tarkovsky, the Danish stuntmeister's latest recounts the gruesome ordeal of a bereaved couple (suitably anguished Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, having lost their toddler because they were too sexually engrossed to notice him climbing out the window, retreat to the woodland cabin they call Eden. He's a smug psychotherapist; she's borderline psychotic, consumed with guilt. Rather than finding solace, they wind up destroying each other, along with a chunk of von Trier's reputation.
Dogville hit a home run; Antichrist takes a big swing and scratches out an infield single. Fearsomely ambitious, the movie resembles Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, in its nightmare conjugal claustrophobia, and Kubrick's The Shining, in its foredoomed attempt to be the scariest movie ever made. Literal hallucinations seem clumsy and gratuitous; von Trier not only terrorizes the audience with the death of a child and the spectacle of mental disintegration, but with torture, castration, extreme self-mutilation, and supernatural bad vibes.
Asked to "justify" his movie at a mildly adversarial press conference, von Trier declined: "You are all my guests — that's how I feel — not the other way around," blandly adding, "I am the best filmmaker in the world." Be that as it may, von Trier's outrageous Kammerspiel does succeed in its visceral one-upmanship — no small accomplishment in a festival that has already offered up a prolonged and graphic rape-murder-dismemberment (Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay), Ivan the Terrible feeding his enemies to a giant bear (Pavel Lungin's Tsar), and a ravenous vampire using a corkscrew to open up his victim's jugular (Park Chan-wook's Thirst).
Von Trier and the festival's standout, Police, Adjective, notwithstanding, the energy has so far come mainly from Asia. Chinese, Filipino, Iranian, Japanese, and South Korean movies have stoked the most anticipation and inspired the most heat. Both the Competition and Un Certain Regard gave prime early slots to movies that, as taboo-breaking as they are, were shot on the QT and are unshowable in their homelands — China and Iran.
For all its graphic sex — gay and straight — and blunt depiction of youthful anomie (as well as suicide and attempted murder), Lou Ye's disorganized Spring Fever proved a major disappointment. Had the film been made in 1980s Germany, it would have seemed the work of a confused Fassbinder wannabe. Indeed, The Hollywood Reporter's knowledgeable Maggie Lee called it a "tame shadow of China's cult queer auteur Cui Zi'en." Bahman Ghobadi's UCR opener, Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats, was also loosely structured, but, at the very least, this quasi rock-doc has an insider feel. Iran's leading Kurdish filmmaker and all-round purveyor of musical ethnofunk brings his shtick to town in this survey of Tehran basement bands — including rap, metal, indie prog, and any ensemble in which a woman sings lead. That the movie was co-written by Ghobadi's fiancée, the recently released Roxana Saberi, gave this out-front attack on cultural repression additional street cred.
Perhaps Asian auteurs remember an indigenous popular cinema, or perhaps they are working for an international audience. In either case, their movies have drawn heavily on genre: Prolific Hong Kong actioner Johnnie To's soulful hitman thriller Vengeance; South Korean über-director Park's baroque bloodsucker Thirst; and Filipino miserablist Mendoza's far more horrifying crime exposé Kinatay are all in competition, with South Korean Bong "The Host" Joon-ho's murder-mystery Mother and Japanese sentimentalist Hirokazu Kore-eda's manga romance Air Doll both in UCR.
As elemental as its title, Vengeance — which boasts ravaged French icon Johnny Hallyday and a nifty amnesia twist — is the sort of movie one would have felt privileged to discover on 42nd Street back in the day. Still, UCR genre flicks have an edge on the competition's, at least in terms of confounding expectation. Mother starts as a cartoonish, almost slapstick comedy about a village idiot and his doting parent (ferociously played by South Korea's televisual embodiment of mature maternity, Kim Hye-ja); turns glum and hectoring when the 27-year-old child is railroaded into prison for a local murder; then, in its last third, begins to twist and turn into a chilling psychological drama.
More problematic in its meandering structure, and yet occasionally sublime, Kore-eda's Air Doll is a Hoffmanesque fairy tale, in which an inflatable sex partner (delightfully played by Korean actress Bae Du-na, the sister in The Host) comes to life and, while her owner is at work, begins to explore her environs — an old quarter of Tokyo — finding work and, in one unforgettable bit of business, love in the local video store. (Even this sweetest of movies features a bloody, if unintentional, sex murder.)
At once sentimental and perverse, Air Doll is a highly resonant offering from the land of Bunraku puppets and pink movies, Mariko Mori and Hello Kitty. One can only imagine how much fun it would have been in 3-D, like Cannes' dearly loved opening-night movie Up, or as directed by a hard-boiled East European black humorist like Jan Svankmajer. There has been, so far as I've seen, only one such movie in Cannes' official sections, the pride of UCR, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective.