John Powers: On The Ground At Cannes

Critic-at-large John Powers reports on the scene at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

The 62nd Cannes Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday. Cannes is the most important festival showcase for new films from around the world. The festival's held in the South of France. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, who is also film critic for Vogue, just got home from Cannes and he's going to tell us about some of the award-winning films he saw there, films that we'll get the chance to see in the U.S. within the next few months.

Hi, John. Tell us what made this year's Cannes Film Festival different from all the others you've been to.

JOHN POWERS: Yes. Well, Cannes differs from year to year in attitude and tone. You know, a few years ago, during, you know, at the beginning of the Iraq War, you could actually feel the hostility to Americans because Europeans in particular didn't like the war. What was striking this year was what I would call the existence of austerity Cannes. And you know, that may sound like a contradiction in terms because during the festival Cannes actually is home to the greatest concentration of wealth in the world, you know, because of all those people out in yachts are worth billions of dollars.

But was striking this year was, first of all, from an American point of view, how many fewer Americans were there. And that ranged from everything from movie stars - there were just far fewer big stars this year - to far fewer American journalists. I mean when I used to come, you were just packed with Americans fighting against one another for the stories. Whereas this year, you know, lots of papers didn't send critics. You know, lots of magazines that used to send teams are now sending one person. And although the festival was still crowded, it wasn't insanely crowded this year.

GROSS: Are European newspapers going through the same kind of cutbacks that American newspapers are? Are European newspapers folding at the rate American newspapers are?

POWERS: Well, European newspapers are suffering in the way American newspapers are, but not to the same extent. And what you dont have in Europe in the same way is, you know, the steady drumbeat of papers actually going under. At the same time, you - I think film criticism is taken more seriously in Europe than it is in the U.S. Whereas here I think at many papers the film critic is now thought to be a luxury, and so all across the country newspapers and magazines have just gotten rid of the film critics. Whereas you know, in France, you know, I think you'd probably get rid almost anything before you'd get rid of the film critic for your paper.

GROSS: So let's talk about some of the winners at the Cannes Film Festival. The film that won the festival's top prize is "The White Ribbon." Tell us about the film. What'd you think of it?

POWERS: Well, its a film by the Austrian director Michael Haneke, who is sort of known in America. He made the movie "The Piano Teacher" and a film called "Cache." But he's a huge directorial star in Europe, and he's an Austrian director whos a bit of a moralist. His films are a bit like castor oil because he's always trying to teach you a lesson. And I've liked some of his films and haven't liked some of others. I like this one. It's set in a German village before World War I. And in this German village some strange and unpleasant things are happening. Someone sets up a wire and trips a horse as it goes by. A little boy is beaten up. And the whole question is, why is this happening? Who's doing this? That's the thriller aspect of the story.

Over the course of the next two hours and 20 minutes what you gradually get is a picture of the culture of this seemingly idyllic village, where you realize that all the authority figures and particular the fathers are imposing a particular idea of what a good child is like, and that this idea is finally going to be the roots of what gives you fascism. So that there is this sense that all children should be innocent and good and that parents are particularly sadistic and brutal both psychologically and physically in enforcing this idea.

So if a young boy - if you fear that your son is going to be masturbating, you literally tie him to the bed. If your daughter's behaving badly, you make her wear a white ribbon all the time, which is where the film gets its title, reminding her that youre supposed to be innocent and pure. And so gradually what you get in this investigation of this village is a view of Germany before, just before World War I, creating the generation that will ultimately lead to the creation of Nazi Germany.

GROSS: Now, the head of the jury which selected this film was the actress Isabella Huppert, who starred in one of Haneke's earlier films, "The Piano Teacher." Does she have to recuse herself?

POWERS: Oh, no. There's no such thing as recusing in film festivals. I think, you know, that Wall Street people would be thrilled to have the rules of insider trading that film...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: ...festivals have. You know, so that going into the final weekend, because when people are discussing what what's going to win, all the people at Cannes become like criminologists or Vatican followers trying to figure out whats really going on. And most people who knew what was going on thought that the Haneke film, "The White Ribbon," would probably win.

GROSS: Okay, second prize at Cannes Film Festival went to a French film called "A Prophet." It's a prison movie. Tell us about this one.

POWER: Yes. The second prize winner, winner of the Grande Prix, was called "A Prophet" by Jacques Audiard, and it was probably my favorite film in the festival. And it was all the more surprising to me because I kind of dreaded seeing it. The little blurb when you went in said it's about a young French Arab who's sent to prison. And I thought, that doesn't sound very good. I hate prison movies. But what happens in this one, which runs two and a half hours, is that this young French Arab guy starts off a pure victim and over the course of the next two and a half hours gradually learns the ropes of the prison, how to negotiate the power struggle between the local Corsican gangsters and the Islamists.

And over the course of two and a half hours transforms himself into some sort of crime boss, so that he starts off this loser guy who is a teenager and winds up a bit maybe like Michael Corleone - in fact the final images of the film have a real hint of "The Godfather" about them. And whats great about the film is not only that the lead actor is really terrific. His name is Tahar Rahim. He is a new discovery, but that you watch step by step how the prison works, how power is arranged, how you make your way in this world. And you watch the guy grow bit by bit from being this bit of a loser to being this extremely powerful guy. Its a really, really terrific film, incredibly gripping.

GROSS: What was the most controversial film at Cannes?

POWERS: The film that people fought to get in to see and then couldnt wait to boo in many cases was a film called "Antichrist" by the Danish director Lars von Trier. Now, people here will know him for "Breaking the Waves" and "Dogville" among other films, and hes a provocateur. This film starts off - it looks like a family film in a way, or a domestic psychological drama. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a couple whose child dies and the Gainsbourg character goes into a great period of grief. And to help cure her grief, Dafoe takes her to their cottage in the woods in the American Northwest.

So far, so good. But then what happens about halfway through is the film goes berserk and Dafoe starts meeting foxes that actually talk to him. You get rains of - the house is pounded by falling acorns and the Gainsbourg character eventually gets crazier and crazier until youre entering the world where the suggestion is that Gainsbourg is herself, as an expression of femininity, the Antichrist.

GROSS: Very nice.

POWERS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: A very nice, and...

GROSS: A woman as the Antichrist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: The woman as Antichrist, you know. And its a kind of film where she -where, you know, who plays on male paranoia. So she wants to make love all the time and then when you refuse, she thinks youre going to leave her. So she actually drills a hole in your leg, and actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: ...and puts a spike through it to keep you there. Its an incredibly entertaining, very crazy movie, filled with jokes and violent imagery. And the Cannes audience, I think, was expecting something much more serious from Von Trier, whose - many of whose films are, you know, weighty in a spiritual or psychological way or making some important point, whereas this one seemed like a joke in lots of ways. It has hugely booed Cannes. And you know, one of those great Cannes experiences is having to literally fight your way into a screening because everybody is dying to see it. And then at the end of the film listening to huge parts of the crowd boo the film.

GROSS: So, Im not sure if you liked it or not, I cant tell.

POWERS: I didnt like it but I really enjoyed watching it because Von Trier is one of those art film directors who never will ever bore you. Its such a strange and crazy movie filled with stuff I cant describe on the radio that you sit there rapt. And whats funny to me is that every year there is a film or two like this thats clearly designed to get attention and shake people up, to be deliberately provocative. And whats startling to me is how every year a huge number of critics fall for it and then become outraged and get all moralistic when it was clear that the whole point of the movie was to somehow -was to wind people up and to be a bit of a lark or a provocation.

You know, its not unimportant that this film was going to open in France, I think, next week in 130 theaters. So to have the entire world being outraged and talking about this movie at the Cannes Film Festival is a great piece of marketing. And you know, in lots of ways thats what this film is. Im trying -there is no comparable American version of this, of some film thats just there to get you. You know, probably the closest thing if you can imagine this would be something like "Snakes on a Plane," where the concept seems so vivid people want to see it. In this case, to have an art film called "Antichrist" with a tremendous trailer that seems very exciting and you think, oh heres this art film director making a horror movie. You know, thats such a juicy package that people just couldnt wait to see it. And then of course having seen it, most of them were outraged.

GROSS: My guest is our critic-at-large John Powers. Well talk more about the Cannes Film Festival after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

My guest is our critic-at-large John Powers. He just returned from the Cannes Film Festival. When we left off, we were talking about controversial films at this years festival. Now, I understand there is one film so controversial...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and so maybe distasteful at the Cannes Film Festival, you didnt even go.

POWERS: I didnt even go. Its a Filipino film called "Kinatay," by a talented director named Brillante Mendoza. And what its about is basically a young guy gets - you know, who is going to be - who is sort of, a young police cadet gets told to go along with some friends on this job. And basically the job is basically grabbing a prostitute, beating her up, sexually assaulting her and then dismembering her.

And the entire film is just that. It runs about 110 minutes and features a 25 minute sequence, shot almost in the dark, of them driving the prostitute along in a van. You know, Roger Ebert when it - you know, wrote at the time, it was the worst film ever in competition at Cannes. And, you know, even one of the jurors who gave it a prize, because it did get the best director prize amazingly enough, said he never wanted to see it again. And the festival is divided between people who more or less saw it and hated it. And those who heard about it from the first screening, and thought, I dont want to spend a 110 minutes watching some prostitute being abused and then chopped to pieces.

So I was one of those people. And, you know, I feel no regret at missing it, you know. Theres an intellectual argument that I heard from some very smart friends to defend the film. And I shouldnt believe it. I thought there was nothing that film could show me that I didnt already grasp. You know, are you trying to prove the point that its wrong to grab people and chop them into pieces? I already know most of the things the film would have, so why would I subject myself to that? I mean it was no fun at all, just brutal nastiness. And it won one of the top prizes, you know, go figure.

GROSS: Well, since it won one of the top prizes, did you regret it at all that you didnt see it? Did you feel any responsibility to see it, so that you could inform your readers from a position of having witnessed the film, as opposed to from the position of having refused to go?

POWERS: I do and I dont. I mean I probably now will have to go because it won this award, you know. And, you know, I saw things at this festival, Terry, you know, that you wouldnt otherwise see. There is, in one of the films - a long, long film - there is a scene they shot from the inside of a womans womb. And you watch the penis come towards you during a lovemaking sequence, you know. Im prepared to go with that. I watched, you know, I watched people bite one anothers throats. I watched people shoot peoples heads off. I watched people being scalped. I mean its not as if Im squeamish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My God, it sounds like such an endurance test.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: You know, this year was, I think in some ways, the nastiest festival ever. And I...

GROSS: What is going on?

POWERS: I think its probably just happenstance. I guess its the first thing, that theyre all there this year. I think the second thing is that the worlds film audience is slightly more jaded than it used to be and is after a bit more sensation. You know, in the U.S., you know, many of the most popular foreign films now dont come from Europe, but are very violent films out of Japan and Asia. And some of thats carried over I think also to Europe. I think also violence has become a way of getting attention at a time when international art movies dont get the attention they used to.

I think the other part of it that makes it striking is that this year, because Isabelle Huppert was heading the jury and she has a taste for extreme things, is that all the films that got honored were films that were in one way or another very intense, very violent, either psychologically or physically, often highly sexual. You know, this must - this expresses her taste. And because her taste then defines what wins that then carries over to everybodys sense of the entire festival.

GROSS: I know there are some films that you really liked at the Cannes Film Festival that didnt win any prizes. Tell us about one of those, one of the films that you expect well get to see in the United States.

POWERS: Well, one of the most acclaimed films in the festival, the film I liked, is a Jane Campion film called "Bright Star," which is about the romantic relationship between the poet John Keats and a young woman named Fanny Brawne, who is an early designer of clothes. And its basically about their love affair - very, very muted love affair - during the last two and a half years of Keatss life. Its a very beautiful, elegant movie, maybe a little staid. But it normally would win if - wouldve won something at Cannes, I think.

But this was a year of extremity. And so all of its virtues - beauty, elegance, restraint - countered against it in a film festival where films were cutting peoples heads off and winning awards. Another film very much like it was this Palestinian film that I loved called "The Time That Remains" by a guy by the name of Elia Suleiman. And what it is, is it shows four, five, you know, four and - four or five different periods of Palestinian history, from 1948 to the present day.

But it doesnt do all the stuff that one fears that a Palestinian film would do, which is essentially talk about grievance and be angry. Instead, the Suleiman film shows these - shows the transformation of Palestinian life in his hometown of Nazareth, through a series of comic and sentimental vignettes. And as you watch you get sense of, oh this is what the actual life of Palestinian people is like, where politics is the backdrop to things that are going on, rather than everybody being some sort of mad bomber or angry person.

Suleiman himself lives in Paris and you can tell that he is agonized at being cut off from his past life because somehow, if youre in Palestine, you have to care too much about all the politics. Yet hes a tender, funny, gentle filmmaker who is more concerned with you know, how his father changed over the year. Hes watching his mother get older - the way his friends hang out in a cafe and make jokes of one another. Thats what he is interested in. And so you get that world.

And then in the background, you just see how Palestinian life has gotten harder and harder over the last 60 years. Its a film that makes all the points you would want to make about what its like to be a Palestinian Israeli. And yet at the same time, it does it so delicately you dont feel youre being hectored. Its a really good film.

GROSS: John Powers, will tell us about more films from Cannes including Quentin Tarantinos new World War II movie tomorrow. John is FRESH AIRs critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. Im Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.