Round-up by Eftihia Stefanidi
Closing on 22 May, Cannes 2011 was one to remember and though Cannes’ milieu may appear frivolous, tasteless and absurd from its exterior, the real treasures lie behind its theatrical doors, where, each year, the vocabulary of cinema awaits to be enriched by innovative filmmakers. Marking its 64th manifestation, this year’s festival was one of the greatest of recent times. After two weeks of truly inspiring films, one way to treat symptoms of Stendhal syndrome is by reflecting on the ones that were a true delight.
Lynne Ramsay’s family-centred drama We Need to Talk About Kevin set the bar high. A flawless Tilda Swinton plays a mother struggling to cope with her vicious son, Kevin, and the aftermath of his actions. Tackling the intriguing subject of evilness in children, the question is left to linger as to how much of Kevin’s condition is a result of parental negligence or simply pure chance. An unusual and intelligent story, its use of intricate flashbacks and exquisitely manipulated colour and framing keeps you on your toes, wondering where Kevin’s vice comes from.
Described by the director as a horror film without screams or frights, The Skin I Live In is a brilliant suspense thriller that cements Pedro Almodovar’s proficiency in turning soap operas into formidable ambient dramas. The Spanish director’s self-referential aesthetics, choreographed in perfect tune, are absolutely thrilling. Set in contemporary Madrid, a plastic surgeon has imprisoned a young woman, using her as guinea pig for his enigmatic experiments. At the same time, he seeks revenge against the man who raped his daughter. Almodovar’s surrogate muse, Elena Anaya, shimmers with indulgent passion, while Banderas perfectly balances his character’s obsession, eroticism and vengeance. As the genre dictates, there are moments of excruciating loiter, similar to the ones in the variously received Broken Embraces. This might disappoint the impatient viewer, but should they hang on, they will be rewarded with a gripping twist.
Palm d’Or winner and also the most anticipated film of the festival, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, was a transcendental experience in its own unclassified category. The genesis of cosmos, the history of the universe, the era of dinosaurs, all provided the cosmological tapestry for a father-and-son story to unfold. Narrated largely by a spellbinding voice-over, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a businessman lost in a modern city, recounts his childhood memories of growing up in the 50s, where the majority of the film takes place. A stream of consciousness on how to come to terms with the loss of a younger brother and the traumas from a militant father (Brad Pitt) gives way to the more existential questions of what, when, where and how we humans got here, but also where we are going. Despite the overly archetypal characters involved in under-developed storylines, Malick creates an intergalactic world of impeccable imagery that dissolves fluidly into the deep subconscious. Jack’s inner voice may ring bells with one’s owns inquisitions and can be intimately resonant, yet, due to the film’s opaqueness, whether it all makes sense is a subjective call.
What better way to compliment a treatise on the birth of the world than an overture about the end of it all? Lars Von Trier’s discharge note from depression is Melancholia, a stunning audiovisual experience of over-dramatised vignettes inspired by German Romanticism and dressed with Wagnerian grandeur. Trier stretches the anticipation of an upcoming abyss as planet Melancholia is meant to hit the Earth, dichotomising the story between the points of view of two fundamentally different sisters. The Danish provocateur’s slick visual style has matured; his themes apparently more mainstream, and his female leads are in excess of dominance. Accepting the minor flaws of Melancholia as a work that may not make any literal sense, is a prerequisite, it’s the visceral aesthetic quality that makes it haunting.
To summarise this year without word of some of the festival’s other wonders, would be an injustice. Drive by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn was the critics’ guilty pleasure. Affectively balanced with a feminine 80s soundtrack and a wonderfully contained performance by Ryan Gosling, Drive’s raw adrenaline, stylised violence and, of course, romance carried the audience away. Another healthy pause from the highbrowed existentialism that dominated the line-up was Ali Kaursimaki’s Le Havre. Seeing life’s hardships from a lighter prism, the director returns to social realism – casually downplayed by proverbial deadpan performances – offering a sharp and humorous critical commentary on immigration behind the film’s nonchalant demeanour. Familiar atmospheric set designs, with their astounding colours add an otherworldly touch that seems to exist only in Kuarismaki’s universe. Dardenne brother’s latest, The Kid with a Bike, verified an evolution of the duo’s signature style: rhythmically elegant camera work and a dramatic soundtrack were introduced, marking the first time the Belgian duo used imposed musical themes in a film. Lastly, Michael Hazavanicus’ The Artist, a silent film that recreates the Hollywood era of the 1920s, blossomed amongst the most uncomplicated and heart-warming of all. Two hours of cinematic bliss, like in the old times.