John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010 The film critic reports his impressions of this year's Cannes Film Festival. On Powers' list of notable films: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or-winning movie about a dying farmer, and a French film about Cistercian monks debating whether to stay put in a community full of terrorists.
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John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010

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John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010

John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to hear about some of the movies that were shown at the 63rd annual Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. Held on the French Riviera, Cannes mixes movie star glamour with films from around the world.

Our critic-at-large, John Powers, who is also film critic for Vogue, has been to the festival many times. Yesterday, shortly after he returned, I spoke with him about the festival and some of the winning films he thinks we should watch out for. The jury was headed by Tim Burton.

Hi, John. Thanks for coming to talk with us about the Cannes Film Festival. Why don't we start with the film that won the top prize, the Palme d'Or? Tell us about the film.

JOHN POWERS: Yes. The film's by a Thai director with the hard-to-pronounce name of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And like many Thais, he mercifully goes by a short name, which in this case is Joe. Internationally around the world, everybody talks about Joe's films.

The film that he made was one of my very favorite ones of the competition, and probably most critics would love the film a lot. It's called "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," and it is a Buddhist animist tale of a small village guy named Uncle Boonmee - he actually is a farmer - who's dying.

And he brings his family together as he dies, and in the process of watching him die, we meet the ghost of his ex-wife. We meet his son, who is now a monkey. We actually have a dream sequence where a princess has sex with a catfish, and we meet various animals along the way.

And we're never quite sure which of them is his past lives, but what the story is about is the movement away from life and death, about the borderline between spirit and material life. And what's great about the film is that when you're watching it, you just don't know what's going to happen.

It's lovely to look at it. It's funny. It's not boastfully self-conscious. It's not shrieking that it's an art movie. It's sort of a dream of a movie that when it finished, it got the biggest applause of the festival. And this was interesting to me because this same director, five years ago, had made a film called "Tropical Malady" that I remember getting huge amounts of boos.

And over the last six years, people have begun to get what he does and realize he's this interesting guy who makes movies unlike anybody else in the world.

GROSS: So what are the odds that we'll get to see this movie in American theaters? Even though it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is it likely to play here?

POWERS: Well, I think what's nice about it is that I think it's likely to play because it won the Cannes Film Festival. It's one of the things about awards, that they can elevate the profile of something.

In this particular case, you might add that this film won when the jury was headed by Tim Burton. And through much of the week, people kept saying, you know, Tim Burton might actually like this, this Buddhist animist movie, because it's got these furry critters and it's got ghosts, and it's got this weird stuff in it.

And as it worked out, you know, a very mainstream Hollywood director chose what was, I think, the oddest film in the festival - or his jury chose the oddest film in the festival for the top prize.

GROSS: The grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival went to a movie called "Of Gods and Men." Tell us about that one, John.

POWERS: "Of Gods and Men" is a more traditional movie than some of the ones -it's a straightforward narrative, but it's on a really interesting and moving theme.

The story is about Cistercian monks in the 1990s who are living in Algeria, and they've been living there among the Muslim community, providing health care and just being the support for that local community.

All of a sudden, Islamic terrorists began to kill Westerners in the area, and the whole film turns on whether or not they should stay. I guess you would call that the ticking bomb of the story. But what the film is all about is more or less the conflict between the timeless life of the Cistercians - who pray, who chant, who sing, who grow their own honey - with the intrusion of history in a country where history is very difficult, where both the terrorists and the government aren't very likeable.

And gradually, over the course of the thing, you watch the debates about whether or not you should stay and maybe risk your life to stay with the local community, or whether you should go, and if you're a Christian, what it means to stay or go.

And it's a very quietly gripping, very beautiful film with a sense of spirit. I kept joking to people that if I were the Vatican, I would probably buy 100 million DVDs of this movie and distribute it, because I think it's maybe the warmest, kindest, most thoughtfully positive presentation of Catholicism I've seen on the media in years.

GROSS: From what I've read from what you emailed, it sounds like this wasn't the only film that is about terrorism in one way or another. But before we get to some of the other films on the same theme, I want to hear about the best actor and best actress at the Cannes Festival. Best actor, that award was shared with - between Javier Bardem and an Italian actor named Elio Germano. Am I saying that right?

POWERS: Yes, you are. It's one of the funny things that, you know, there are some awards you just don't agree with. And in this particular case, both Javier Bardem and Elio Germano are in two - were in two of the worst films of the competition. And part of what makes them bad is that they're so dependent on the brooding, charismatic overacting of the lead performance.

But traditionally, in these award ceremonies, often the people who are giving the biggest, broadest, most obviously dynamic performances win the acting prize. So in this particular case, to my mind, Javier Bardem - who's a wonderful actor and incredibly charismatic - is quite bad in a film called "Beautiful," where he plays the most improbably circumstanced man you could ever think of. Which is to say, he's a man who's dying of cancer, who's married to a bipolar wife, who has two jobs.

One of his jobs is that he helps Africans sell black-market goods. The other one is to provide illegal Chinese laborers to construction sites. And he's poor. And then you add that this is the starting point, where the movie's happy, and it goes downhill from there. It's kind of bleak chic, a bad film.

The Italian film that Elio Germano is in is called "Our Life," and it's about a construction worker whose wife dies and then who tries to go corrupt in order to make money for his kids. Once again, it's a hammy performance.

Weirdly enough, the monks film contained the actor who should've probably won, a guy by the name of Lambert Wilson, who people might remember from "The Matrix" movies, who plays the head monk in that film and also had another big role in a Bertrand Tavernier movie about the religious wars of the 17th century in France. And he was great in both films. But his weren't flashy performances, and generally, people like flashy performances.

GROSS: Did you like the actress who got the Best Actress award, Juliette Binoche, any better than you liked the best actors?

POWERS: Yes, well, actually Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance in a film by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

GROSS: And he's somebody who you've spoken about before. You really like his film "A Taste of Cherry."

POWERS: "A Taste of Cherry." Yes. You know, Kiarostami is considered by many people to be the great Iranian director. And what he's done here is, for the first time ever, made more or less a version of a Western art movie. It's shot in Tuscany, and it stars Juliette Binoche and an English opera singer. It's basically a two-hander about this couple that...

GROSS: What does that mean, John?

POWERS: A two-hander?

GROSS: Yeah.

POWERS: Oh, it means that more or less, there are two people who are really the whole film.


POWERS: And he's a writer who she meets, and she's showing him around Tuscany. And gradually, over the course of a day, they go from being strangers to role-playing as if they were married, which is a very precious conceit. And about half the people who saw the film thought it was the worst thing they'd ever seen, and the other half really liked it. It was almost evenly split between cheers and boos.

The one thing that I think that everyone agreed on was that Juliette Binoche, as the woman, is unbelievably good. You know, she's funny. She's - her emotions are transparent. She provides an energy to the film that keeps it going when it's sometimes too precious for its own good. You know, you just aren't buying what's going on. Would two strangers meet and actually, over lunch, start pretending that they had been married 15 years ago?

But she's so good that no one, I think, would feel cheated by her winning. And, in fact, it was made all the easier because she was on the official poster for Cannes this year. So when you walked through the city, Juliette Binoche's face was everywhere. You know, she was inescapable. She probably would've had to give one of the worst performances not to win, because she was just so there.

GROSS: It's understandable, I suppose, that Kiarostami would decide to make a film outside of Iran, considering what's happening in Iran now. And there's an Iranian filmmaker - correct my pronunciation if it's wrong here - named Jafar Panahi...

POWERS: Panahi. Yes.

GROSS: ...who was supposed to be on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, except for the fact that he's in prison in Iran. And he's been on a hunger strike because his request to contact his family and speak with his lawyer has been denied. So he sent a message to the film festival, saying: I swear upon what I believe in, the cinema, I will not cease my hunger strike until my wishes are satisfied. My final wish is that my remains be returned to my family so that they may bury me in the place they choose. What reaction did that get when that message was read?

POWERS: Yes, well, you know, many people broke into tears, I mean, because the interesting thing that's going on is that there are - as in every place in the world - there's a huge range of reaction to what's going on in Iran, so that -Jafar Panahi is considered to be one of the most daring of the Iranian directors, and he is a protege of Abbas Kiarostami, whose film was in Cannes.

And Kiarostami has, in general, been thought to be relatively mild in his criticism of the government. He's received lots of criticism. Whereas Panahi is considered to be probably the bravest of the international ones in that he speaks out. His films are clearly critical of what's going on in Iran. And to my mind, he's probably the best and most interesting person now working in Iranian cinema.

And to have him in prison, essentially for backing things that, you know, millions of Iranians believe is a very, very powerful thing. And it's all the more powerful because he is someone with an international reputation.

GROSS: We're talking about the Cannes Film Festival with our critic-at-large, John Powers. We recorded the interview yesterday, right after John returned from the festival. Today, Jafar Panahi was released on bail from prison in Tehran. He'd been held in custody since the beginning of March. The comments at the Cannes Film Festival were just one example of the international campaign to free him. He supports the opposition in Iran. Some of his films are banned there. Panahi's indictment will be sent to a revolutionary court for future action.

We'll continue my interview with John about the Cannes Film Festival after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Powers, our critic-at-large, and we're talking about what he saw at the Cannes Film Festival. The festival wrapped up over the weekend.

John, were there themes at the festival that emerged, themes from the movies?

POWERS: Yes, there were. I think the great theme is that now we're getting lots of movies about terrorism, and not of the dreary kind that came immediately after 9/11, where everybody felt they had to do something.

At this year's festival, there were a bunch of films about it. Perhaps the most interesting of them and certainly the most exciting was one of the great events of the festival, which was a five-and-a-half hour screening of a film about the terrorist career of Carlos the Jackal, who terrorism groupies may remember as one of the great terrorists of the '70s and '80s.

And it was made by Olivier Assayas, who made a radically different movie that came out in the U.S. last called "Summer Hours," which was about a country house in France and the family dividing it up.

This is a vivid, exciting, often thrilling portrait of this unlikeable guy, Carlos the Jackal. And we follow his career from him more or less entering the terrorist business in a big way, through the peak of his career - you know, kind of his Super Bowl triumph - which was kidnapping all the ministers of OPEC and getting a ransom of $20 million.

We get all of that. He becomes a rock-star terrorist. And then we then follow him dwindling as the world changes and his terrorist skills have been replaced by a different kind of terrorist skills. So it's this epic sweep story of a guy who's a terrorist. And it's vivid, it's fascinating. It's really fun to watch.

It's going to be on Sundance Channel, and IFC's going to be releasing it this fall. So everyone will have a chance to see it. It's in five languages. The lead actor, a guy by the name of Edgar Ramirez, who's a Venezuelan, is great in all five languages. It's a real movie-star-making performance for him. And I urge people to see it. I think they'll really, really like it. It's just an exciting movie.

GROSS: It sounds like this movie will do for him what Quentin Tarantino's movie last year did for - I love this actor, and I'm forgetting his name.

POWERS: Christoph Waltz.

GROSS: Christoph Waltz - exactly, yeah.

POWERS: Yes. It's interesting when you watch somebody, and he's just, because of the people he's dealing with, flipping from English to French to Spanish to Arabic and keeping his performance going, and also being very virile and charismatic. Because part of the Carlos thing is that when he's not kidnapping people or blowing up innocent civilians, he's drinking lots of scotch and sleeping with German feminists.

GROSS: Hm. Okay. It sounds like a very interesting film.

POWERS: Oh, no. It's a very interesting film. And what it does, if I could point this out, is it actually explains how the Middle East worked in terrorism terms, like who's funding who and how it all works.

GROSS: I was reading about another film whose theme is also terrorism called "Outside the Law." This is a French film?

POWERS: Yes. "Outside the Law" is about three Algerian brothers who are fighting for Algerian independence from France in the '50s, in the post-war era. And the story takes place largely in France, where they are what would now be called terrorists, or at least two of them were.

And it's very much an old Hollywood movie, in which you have three brothers, you have the shifty, energetic one, you have the brainy ideologue, and then you have the fighter who's really honorable. And each of them has a particular skill, and they put it to work for the freeing of Algeria from France.

But it's a Warner Brothers movie because it's corny and filled with big emotions, and it's a kind of big-hearted movie that you could imagine having Spencer Tracy as one of the people in - except that in the current climate, it's about people who actually are shooting policemen, blowing up cafes and all the rest.

GROSS: So the French right, apparently, really doesn't like the film. Even though they hadn't seen it, they were protesting it. So what were the protests like at the Cannes Film Festival?

POWERS: I think I have never seen a protest with more old people in it. It was outside the festival, and there were...

GROSS: What do you mean when you say the word old?

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: I mean 80.

GROSS: Really?

POWERS: I mean - yes, because the South of France is one of the places where a lot of the French colonists from Algeria moved after Algerian independence, when they left Algeria. And so the South of France is very National Front territory. There's a politician named Le Pen who's there, and this is a stronghold for him.

But a lot of the feeling of anger about how history is being represented in the film "Outside the Law" was felt by people who are a lot older than usual, because these were events that did happen 55 years ago.

And so outside the festival, you had all these gray-haired people with protest signs, and then you had the National Guard around. And because these days, right-wing terror is as scary to people as Islamic terror, in some cases, when we went into the movie theater, you couldn't take in bottles of water. Every single bag you had was thoroughly scrutinized.

Normally, they're kind of half-hearted about looking at it, but all of this was checked. And, you know, for me it was kind of exciting because as, you know, a - you know, as a middle-aged white guy, I'm normally not part of the target group for terrorist screening. They may screen me, but that's only to seem fair. But, in fact, in this case, I was the kind of person who they were worried was going to blow the place up.

GROSS: Because they were worried about the French right?

POWERS: Yes. They're worried about the French right. They're worried about middle-aged, angry white guys. And for all they knew, I could have been one of those middle-aged, angry white guys. You know, they went through my bag with incredible care. You know, they examined my cell phone to make sure that it actually wasn't some sort of detonating device.

You know, my friends, you know, had their water bottle confiscated, or little gels - little tiny bottles of moisturizing cream were taken away. In fact, nothing did happen. You know, and, of course, the great comedy of all these things is that the people who were so furious hadn't seen the film, and that they were sort of preemptively furious rather than actually being furious on the basis of what they'd seen.

GROSS: So do you think if they'd seen the film, they'd be as furious?

POWERS: I think they would probably still be furious, but maybe a little less furious because the film is - it's not a particularly ideological film. It's more a Warner Brothers movie. As I say, it's melodramatic and filled with big emotions. They probably would be furious, because these people wanted to be furious about it.

And, you know, like so many things in this country, films that tend to draw lots of fury are attached to issues so much bigger than the film that the film just becomes a pretext for the discussion rather than being the real cause of anything.

GROSS: So there was an American film that also has a terrorist kind of theme, and I'm thinking of the film about Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, Joe Wilson being the former ambassador to Iraq who wrote a New York Times op-ed saying that he found no evidence that Iraq attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium in Niger, and he accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the Iraqi threat. And then his wife, Valerie Plame, was subsequently outed as a CIA agent, which many people interpreted as payback for Joe Wilson's New York Times op-ed. And Sean Penn is Joe Wilson. Naomi Watts is Valerie Plame. Is this a good film?

POWERS: It's half a good film. You know, for someone who's lived through, you know, the last 10 years, there's a kind of golden-oldies quality to seeing Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame coming back again because, you know, that was a different administration.

What the film does is it takes you inside the story in a slightly different way, and for the opening half-hour or 45 minutes, it's really wonderful because you actually get to see Valerie Plame doing some spy work. And for me, that's a really interesting thing, because somehow, she was always just this shadowy figure. But in this movie, you suddenly see her off in Malaysia, you know, bullying people into giving information, or being in Jordan arranging special ops. So that's, you know, that's a very exciting thing.

Over the course of the film, as Valerie Plame gets outed, the film becomes a comparatively obvious movie about how the government shouldn't lie and how it's wrong to out CIA agents. And most of the complicated issues of this story get lost along the way in a kind of obvious morality play and a story about their marriage, because we're made to think it was incredibly hard on their marriage to have the media talking about this all the time.

But given what's at stake - which is to say war and peace and life and death -the trouble with their marriage doesn't seem important enough, yet the movie moves in that direction.

I would just say in passing that if Sean Penn ever had a role that would be his dream role, it's Joe Wilson - which is to say that he gets to be outraged, embattled, opinionated, angry with the media, liberal and always right. You know, I can imagine when they called him and said Sean, we'd like you to play Joseph Wilson, he must have said I am so there, because he is having such fun getting to be that guy.

I mean, it was interesting because at the festival, he didn't show up for the film - not because he didn't support the film, but because he was busy in Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress. You know, so Sean Penn, his dream is to be Joseph Wilson.

GROSS: My guest, John Powers, will talk more about the Cannes Film Festival in the second half of the show. John is our critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with John Powers about the Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. John is our critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. We've been talking about some of the prize winners at the festival. I asked him if any American films won a prize.

POWERS: No American film has won a prize. But it must be said that there were only a couple of them in competition. You know, this was one of those years where there were movies that Cannes I'm sure would've liked to have. There's a new Terrence Malick film coming up and they just weren't done. And so the American presence was incredibly low this year. There were fewer stars than I ever remember being. There were fewer of the groovy lunches where you go and sit with stars out by the beach and talk to them about their movies, that it was in some ways the least star-studded and Americanized festival I can ever remember.

You know, in America we actually like our people to win, whereas when you're in Cannes, you're reminded of the fact that really all over Asia people are making movies. All over Europe people are making movies, and a lot of those moves are good. And that in those countries their stars don't get much attention because the American stars sort of suck up all the oxygen, or a movie like "Avatar" is just everywhere. So for them it's really exciting to go and realize how much good stuff there is in the rest of the world. And actually for me, that's the excitement, is that it's a big world.

GROSS: Okay, so if the excitement is that it's a global film festival and there's films from Chad and Thailand and, you know, places that we don't usually get to see movies from, why did the festival open with "Robin Hood"?

POWERS: Oh, because it's one of the peculiarities of every festival that they want to open with something big and splashy that will gets lots of attention. And in this particular case I think Cannes, which does like having stars, and has always liked having stars - I mean I remember pictures of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant on the red carpet when I was a kid. You know, Cannes has always liked having stars. This year I think they knew their competition didn't have many stars, so they were so delighted to be able to grab "Robin Hood," which is not a good film, to begin with, and to then on the opening Friday show the "Wall Street" movie that Oliver Stone has made as what he refuses to call a sequel to the original "Wall Street" back in the 1980s.

GROSS: Well, speaking of "Wall Street," how did the economic crisis affect the festival, especially considering what's happening to the euro and how that's affecting European countries?

POWERS: Well, I think the economic crisis affected the festival in two ways: First, there were fewer films for the festival to choose from. You know, the festival director, Thierry Fremaux, pointed out that a lot of things that might have been - films that might have been done somehow hadn't gotten funding. If you recall that when the economy went really bad internationally in 2008, in the fall, that by then a lot of the films that showed in 2009 had already been financed. It's now 2010 and now is where you feel the year-later effect of the loss of money. So there were just fewer films to choose from, which is like one reason why many people felt it was a weak competition year at the festival. There just weren't as many great films.

The second thing is, you know, there were fewer people at the screenings. Each year I feel like someone who is watching, you know, his friends die off almost or fade away or move away, because there seem to be fewer Americans there every year. There seem to be fewer people in the screenings. There are fewer big parties. There are fewer big lunches. The glamour is down. I don't think it's an eternal thing, but at the moment you can actually feel that there's an austerity there, that everyone's worried a bit about money.

GROSS: In the United States, a lot of movie industry executives are saying 3D is the direction movies are heading in. Everybody's going to go 3D. Did you hear 3D talk at Cannes?

POWERS: 3D is on the one hand the great mantra for Hollywood. On the other hand it's like the Freddie Krueger for people around the rest of the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: You know, because, you know, we already live in a position where - at a time where five percent of movies that are made occupying 95 percent of the screens, and with the growth of 3D, it seems likely to shift that so that an even smaller percentage of films will get even more screen space. You know, because part of the problem with the 3D technology that now exists is that, one, it cost a lot of money to make, and two, it limits the kind of stories you can tell. Because, you know, what really is the point of having a small scale but beautiful film about monks if you're just shooting it in 3D and there's no real action sequence in it? So that 3D in its very technological nature seems to provoke a certain kind of storytelling, which is antithetical too much of what the storytelling is around the world.

And at the festival you either heard people being really excited, because we can now do 3D animation of "The Moomins," which is Finnish fantasy series -that's the excited side, which is the money people. And the artistic people are all freaking out, thinking that 3D is just going to gobble up all the screens and art movies are going to be even more endangered.

GROSS: Sure, because if the theaters are equipped for 3D, they're going to want to show movies that are in 3D.

POWERS: Yes. And I think also what happens is because you get to charge more money for a 3D film, the industry really automatically wants to do it. But then the other thing that happens is once people get more and more used to the look of 3D, then the 2D thing starts seeming slightly dingier to people in the way that black and white started seeming less appealing to people once they got color. So the technology drives a certain perception of what film is. And as 3D technology gets more and more that way, it's then harder to seem like a real film to lots of younger people in particular if you aren't in 3D, and everyone seems to think that's the future, which is 3D will drive everything.

And then meager 2D films, of the kind that I've spent my entire life watching, will have less and less luck and will have a harder time doing it because 3D is very expensive. So I mean it remains to be seen. You know, the world's not ending. The sky is not falling. Still, you can actually see how people can be worried.

GROSS: John, is there a film that we didn't get to that you'd like to talk about before we have to wrap up so that we can keep our eyes open for it either in the theaters or on DVD?

POWERS: Yes. A film I really loved was a film called "Poetry" from South Korea by a director by the name of Lee Changdong, and it has a very simple-seeming premise. It's about a woman in her 60s who is retired and on a pension, who works as a maid to help support her grandson. And because her life is slightly boring and looking for something, she decides to take a poetry-writing workshop. And the poetry professor tells her - she learns to need to see life as it is. And what gradually happens over the next two hours is she starts to see that. Her grandson gets involved in a scandal. The way that the parents try to deal with the scandal is kind of nasty. And in fact, she reveals herself over the course of the film to be - have a much deeper, richer and bigger inner life than you would have imagined from seeing it.

You know, and along the way she learns to see things that she hadn't seen before - for example, how sexist Korean culture is. How in Korea people try to cover things up using money. And she actually comes to see that maybe her grandson isn't the great kid she thought he was. So it's a movie centered on people writing poetry or trying to write poetry that uses the idea of poetry to take you into a way of seeing the world in a richer and more profound way. I think it was probably one of the two or three most admired films there. It won the screenwriting prize and it was the best written film of the festival by miles.

GROSS: John, thank you so much for talking with us. It's always great to talk with you.

POWERS: Okay. It was my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: John Powers is our critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue magazine.

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