2011 Cannes Film Festival Highlights: Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life' Wins Palme d'Or The film critic reports his impressions of this year's Cannes Film Festival. On Powers' list of notable films: Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, about a young boy growing up in 1950s Texas, and an Iranian film by a director who was explicitly told by the Iranian government not to make films.
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John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2011

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John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2011

John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2011

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Some of the best films that just debuted at the Cannes Film Festival will be headed to American theaters in the near future - I hope. Our critic-at-large John Powers, who is also film critic for Vogue, attended the festival as he does most years. So we asked him to tell us about the films that won the top awards. Cannes is the world's most important international film festival and many great films from around the world are first screened there.

Why don't we start with the film that won the top prize at Cannes, "The Tree of Life," which was directed by Terence Malick. Although, it won, it sounds like it really divided the audiences. What's it about?

JOHN POWERS: It's a story at the center of which is the story about a young boy - who grew up to be Sean Penn later - growing up in '50s Texas. His parents are played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. And about 90 minutes of the movie is the story of this kid's life, growing up during his young years in Texas. What makes the film strange is it's surrounded by two other things.

On the one hand, there's a sort of 2001-ish version of the creation of the world, which I think is designed to parallel the creation of the one person's life. That comes complete with the creation of the planet and with dinosaurs and all the rest - which is kind of odd for a film about Texas in the 1950s. And then the film, actually then, builds to yet another non-narrative thing that's kind of a dreamy, searcher almost New Agey sequence - where Sean Penn, dressed in a business suit, walks across Death Valley, and maybe or maybe not I'm not clear from the film, exactly whether he winds up in Heaven meeting all the people he'd known before.

So what you have is a rather poetic and beautiful, normal story, of a family in Texas surrounded by stuff that some people thought visionary and other people thought kitsch.

GROSS: Where did you stand?

POWERS: Well, I actually like the creation of the world, complete with the dinosaurs. But I didn't like the New Age stuff of walking across the desert in a business suit, which I did think tended towards kitsch. What I loved was the middle section about the family, which as almost as a stand-alone film, would have been a great film.

Now I have to admit to a certain sentimentality about this, because I grew up in the 50s in a town very much like this, with a family dynamic that was very much like the family dynamic in the film. So on the one hand, it clearly touched me because it was personal. On the other hand, I'm struck by how accurate and poetically accurate that evocation of that period and that place and that world, really is.

GROSS: It sounds like this kind of, almost New Agey or mystical message from Terrence Malick's film has a counterpart, an opposite, in Lars Von Trier's film "Melancholia," which is all about a kind of cosmic depression from what I've read.

POWERS: Yes, it's very interesting. It is almost as if they were trying to create the world's most diametrically opposed double bill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think that's what they were doing.

POWERS: Yes. And with, you know, with really is with two visionary filmmakers of enormous resources and talent making opposite films. And Lars Von Trier's film is about two things. One a huge planet called "Melancholia" that is racing toward the earth and is probably going to destroy it. And that...

GROSS: Planet depression...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: Like a planet depression, which is equivalent the creation of the world in the Malick film. And then side-by-side with it, you're getting the story of a family, in particular, two sisters - one played by Kirsten Dunst, who won best actress in the festival and it's just great in "Melancholia" - as the depressive melancholic sister whose smile is so radiant you love her and then her sadness is so terrible it annihilates the world. And she has an optimistic sister, who looks after her. She's played by Charlotte Ginsburg.

So, in fact, the film is both a cosmic and psychological portrait of destruction and destructiveness and darkness, and it ends in darkness in the same way that the Malick film deliberately ends in light.

GROSS: Now Lars Von Trier's, who directed "Melancholia," is the founder of - or co-founder - of Dogme, which is an anti-Hollywood style of filmmaking where the filmmaking has to adhere to rigid rules. And some of his films seem to me more like an essay about filmmaking or a deconstruction of a film than an actual film. So was this involving, in a way that some of his films, as far as I'm concerned, are not?

POWERS: No, I think this in some ways, this may be the most involving film he'd ever made. And you could that he actually - I think he thought it was one of his good ones, partly because he acted so badly at the press conference. I mean, he became world-famous by comparing himself to Hitler and saying idiotic stuff about Nazis. And what happens with him is that he loves being a bad boy so much that when he makes a film that he generally likes and thinks is good and the audience might like, he then can't stop himself from acting even worse than he normally acts, which is pretty bad. So in this case, there's a film that he was really proud of, and so naturally he said the most noxious things he'd ever said at the same time he's promoting it.

GROSS: Well, the things that he said became far more famous than his film. So can we just talk about that for a moment?

POWERS: Of course.

GROSS: So I'm sure there's like some backstory I'm missing here in reading about it in the papers. Let me just do a couple of quotes here, which I got from The New York Times. He was asked - or he was talking about the use of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" in the soundtrack of his film. And he described the film as an important work in the German romantic tradition.

A question followed from a journalist about what he had described, in a Danish magazine, as his interest in the Nazi aesthetic and his German roots. And the backstory to this is, his mother on her deathbed told him that her husband was not his real father and her husband was Jewish. But his real father, turns out, was German.

So Lars Von Trier says, I really wanted to be a Jew. And then I found out that I was really a Nazi. And then, referring to Hitler, he said, I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him. I sympathize with him a little bit. Hitler did some wrong things. Yes, absolutely. But I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews. Not even Susanne Bier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And Susanne Bier is another filmmaker from Denmark who tried a Dogme film once and then gave up on Dogme and her latest film is "In A Better World."

So tell us what this was like when you were there at the press conference.

POWERS: I actually didn't see the press conference live, because they're so hard to get into, especially a Lars Von Trier press conference. I mean I saw it in the Internet.

Well, I can tell you what it's like. Everyone goes because he always says provocative things. I mean, one year he, you know, called Roman Polanski a dwarf when Polanski's jury didn't give him the top prize.

GROSS: Nice.

POWERS: You know, every time he acts. In this case what happened was, he got a thought that seemed, started off as a perfectly reasonable thought and then got going - almost like a someone with Tourette's who can't stop himself from going. Cause, in fact, I don't think he was really trying to say the most shocking stuff, but somehow as the audience gets more shocked, he likes doing it more and more. So eventually he pushed on. And I think what he was trying to say, in some way, is that he can actually understand some of the impulses behind someone like Hitler, rather than actually sympathizing with Hitler. But once he gets going he can't stop himself.

The press corps, which I talked to afterwards - who got in - were simultaneously aghast and, of course, delighted because, you know, when someone says stuff like this at Cannes, you know you suddenly get a front page story rather than an arts page story. So there's actually more glamour and glory for the journalists.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Powers, our critic-at-large, and we're talking about films he saw at the Cannes Film Festival.

So the best screenplay went to an Israeli film about father and son Talmudic scholars. And this is a comedy?

POWERS: It's a comedy. You know, it's a marvelous comedy. And what it's about is the father in the story is an old-school scholar, of the vintage old kind, who spent all of his time looking closely at the text in the Talmud in different variations. His son grows up to be a Talmudic scholar, but he's more worldly, more fun work, knows how to work in the political world better. And the problem is, since they're both working in the same field, they're both jealous of one another for different reasons.

And gradually it's about how there's an award going to be given to one of them. And they then have to figure out how to deal with one another's success and what's the correct way to deal with the success of somebody you were supposed to love, but who you also kind of resent. And it's an extremely funny, beautifully observed movie that actually gives you a portrait of the kind of thing you almost never get to see in movies, which is really, really smart people to begin with.

Then the second thing you don't get to see is the world of intellectuals in Israel, because most films about Israel that we get to see tend to have to do with war and the Palestinian problem, and all the rest. Whereas here, the real core of it is patriarchal battle, which is almost a Talmudic battle about the Talmud. The question is: What you do if a loved one is getting an award that you want?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In this movie's called "Footnote."

POWERS: It's called "Footnote."

GROSS: So, a film I'm interested in that I've read a little about is called "The Artist," and it's about a silent film star. And the actor who stars as the silent film star just won the best actor award at Cannes. His name is Jean Dujardin.

POWERS: Yes, Jean Dujardin.

GROSS: So I couldn't tell, from reading about it, whether it's a silent film about a silent film, or whether it's a film about a silent film, but the rest of the film - the body of the film is not silent. So can you explain?

POWERS: Yes. It is both a silent film, shot in the style of an old silent film in black and white, with the timing and rhythm of a silent film with inter-titles, but it's about a silent film star, played by Jean Dujardin. He sort of a Douglas Fairbanks type who's a great, heroic figure, but the problem is, he's a great silent film star - kind of like "Singing in the Rain" - just at the moment when you're going to sound. And so he's having to deal with that issue. So it's about his life doing it. But it's shot with the look, the production style, the acting style in the comic timing of a classical silent film.

GROSS: Does it work?

POWERS: It works like wonders. A had very smart friend of mine went in, saying: I tried hard to resist it, but it's irresistible. And I do think that's sort of what almost everybody felt, is that everyone thought, oh, this is going to be a gimmick idea or a pastiche idea, and yet it plays like gangbusters. It got the biggest applause of any film at the festival. You know, it got bought by Harvey Weinstein, who I know will be pushing it for Oscars. And, in fact, it's an incredibly well directed film by this guy named Michel Hazanavicius, who's made a couple of spoof - James Bond-type spoofs that I've loved with this guy Jean Dujardin.

But it's extremely funny, very clever, totally worked, and it actually -and, you know, maybe there's a five-minute dip in the film. But it's actually one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

GROSS: So the best director award at Cannes so went to a Danish filmmaker named Nicolas Winding Refn?

POWERS: Refn. Yes.

GROSS: Am I saying that right?


GROSS: So this one's very violent, right?

POWERS: It's very violent. You know, this is like the big, trademark shot of this is when the hero, played by of all people, Ryan Gosling, in sort of the Steve McQueen/Clint Eastwood role, you know, smashes peoples' skulls and they crack like an eggshell, which - just to make your mouth water a little bit how violent it is. What's interesting about the film is that it's a film that's almost - an action film that's almost pure style.

If you imagine how you felt when you saw Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," and thought, oh, he's taking something that's old and then refining out a lot of the stuff that was there before, and making it sort of a pure, almost abstract version of some of that.

Nicolas Winding Refn is maybe Tarantino's Tarantino. He's seen the same exploitation movies, the same Hong Kong movies and all the rest, and he boils everything down to almost pure style. There's almost no real emotion in it. The idea of emotion almost doesn't make any sense. It's purely kinetic energy, stylized lightings, stylized motions, stylized everything. And, you know, I personally didn't like it very well.

But I should say that the younger critics at Cannes really loved it. The audience liked it, and I think it won the director's prize because it's purely a pared-down piece of style that, as I say, younger critics liked, perhaps because every generation gets to have somebody who's their exemplar of pared-down, reinvented style.

But it wasn't for me, although I think I'm curious to see what happens when it comes out in September, because it will be coming out in September. All the people were predicting it'll make Ryan Gosling a big star. And I'll be interested to see that, because I'm - really, he seemed kind of - he didn't seem very tough to me.

GROSS: What's the weirdest film you saw at Cannes?

POWERS: The weirdest film I saw at Cannes - and one of the weirdest film I've ever seen - is a film called "This Must Be the Place" by an Italian director named Paolo Sorrentino. And it stars Sean Penn as a 50-year-old, faded and retired Goth rocker living in Ireland with - he looks like - if you ever saw the band The Cure, he looks like the guy Robert Smith. He wears black leather, has black hair down to his shoulders. He wears lipsticks and all the rest.

And anyway, when his father dies, he flies back to America and discovers that his father has a small vendetta against a guy who was his guard at Auschwitz. And so, dressed as a 50-year-old Goth rocker and talking in a voice like this, Sean Penn, pulling his suitcase behind him in virtually every scene, enters a cross-country road trip to track down a Holocaust criminal.

So it's a Holocaust road movie, which, at the same time, his coming-of-age story, because the film is how he comes of age at age 50. And in addition to all of this, it's a comedy. In addition to all of this, there are individual details in it that I won't - I can't describe to you that makes this film even weirder than that makes it sound. You know, Sean Penn with shoulder-length black hair, in black leather and lipstick working with the Simon Wiesenthal kind of guy to track somebody down in a comedy.

GROSS: Is it good?


(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: It's not good. It's not good at all. But what's remarkable is that I didn't meet a single person who thought it was good, and yet everyone stayed. Because when you're sitting there, your jaw is dropping farther and farther, because, I mean, at every single moment, you think: Oh, what could they do that's weirder? Oh, David Byrne is going to come out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: ...and he and his band are going to sing the entire song from which "This Must Be the Place" comes. And you're, like, huh. That's odd. You didn't need to show the whole song. You know - and or that you then go out to the Wild West, and naturally, you instantly find a buffalo. It's kind of a crazy European, self-conscious idea of America, where David Byrne and buffalo are things you see all the time.

GROSS: My guest is John Powers, our critic-at-large, and we're talking about movies that he saw at the Cannes Film Festival.

John, let's take a break here, then we'll talk about some more movies. Okay?

POWERS: Okay. Sure.

GROSS: Okay. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our critic-at-large, John Powers, and we're talking about movies he saw at the Cannes Film Festival.

You know, a lot of filmmakers want to think of their films as, like, edgy and risky. One of the filmmakers whose movie was at Cannes risked his life to make the movie that was shown there. And I'm thinking of the Iranian filmmaker whose name I don't know how to pronounce. So I'll let you handle that. But tell us about the risk he took to make this movie.

POWERS: Yes. His name is Jafar Panahi, and he is probably the person who's been most famous Iranian director over the past 10 or 12 years. He got himself in trouble with the government because, during the troubled election of a couple years ago, he was identified as being not just an opposition person, but a threat to national security.

Various judges declared that he should go to prison for six years, and was banned from filmmaking for 20 years. While he appeals that decision, he's living under house arrest, but not allowed to make films.

So what he's done is he has a set of friends come over, and basically, they shoot a film inside his apartment where he's under house arrest. And what he does is he talks to the camera about his situation. You hear his conversations with his lawyers about how - what the government's going to do to him. He actually, at one point, tapes out the set of his - of a film he'd been making on the floor of his own room - all the rooms of the place, of the film he was making, and begins acting out scenes from the film he was making when he was interrupted and banned from filmmaking.

And gradually, what happens is you start seeing about his life and how he fits into the political situation of things, and essentially what the big insistent point they keep making is that he's not actually making a film. The film is called "This is not a Film," because if he is actually making a film, he's violated the rules under which he's living, in which case he could perhaps go to prison for life. So he's making a film - or a part of making a film - called "This is not a Film," which is all about why he can't make a film.

And it builds to this amazing sequence where there's a guy outside his door who claims to be collecting trash, but neither he nor we can tell whether he really is the janitor of this building or is actually the secret policeman. And it's a really, really marvelous sequence that really rivets the audience.

But what's brave about it is that, unlike most filmmakers who don't take any real risks, except maybe of money, Panahi could, in fact, go to jail for the rest of his life if they decide that "This is not a Film" is a film.

GROSS: It's part of the reason why he can call it "This is not a Film," because it was shot on, you know, like an over-the-counter...


GROSS: ...kind of like little video camera, one of those, like, little fits-in-one-hand video cameras and maybe a cell phone?

POWERS: Yes. No, I think so. I think it's partly that, in literal terms, it is not a film. You know, it was shot on a DV camera and on a cell phone, and was smuggled out of the country inside a flash drive put inside a cake, I believe, and take to Cannes. So on the one hand, it literally is not a film. And then the question is whether or not he directed the film, because part of the law is he's not allowed to direct a film. But he wasn't explicitly banned from being in a film or from writing a film.

So therefore, he can be partly in it, but there are funny moments where his directorial habit is so strong, he will tell the guy who's shooting it to cut. And then the guy behind the camera will say, no, you can't say cut, because if you say cut, you're directing a film...

(Soundbite of laughter)

POWERS: ...and then you're breaking the law.

GROSS: Well, John, should we end by saying a few words about Daniel(ph) Krim, who was the head of Kino Films, who died during the festival at the age of 65 of cancer?

POWERS: Yes. Well, Krim was a man who had done very generous and good things. You know, there was a generation of people who loved cinema in a way that I think younger people never will, because the culture doesn't love it.

And he spent his entire life helping people who might otherwise not have their films show anywhere show in the United States, and taking great old films by, you know, by Chaplin and Keaton and making sure they were preserved, making sure they were copied, put on DVD and made available to everybody. So he's actually one of the great heroes of the film business.

You know, there are a handful of those people around who don't make much money, but who are doing it purely from love. And when you actually talk to people inside the film world, they are revered figures, because everybody knows they were honorable and decent and made the world better.

GROSS: well, John, I want to thank you for talking with us about the Cannes Film Festival. I always look forward to these conversations. And now I have a lot of great films to look forward to seeing. Thank you so much.

POWERS: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large. He writes about films for Vogue and Vogue.com. The Cannes Film Festival wrapped up last weekend.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org.

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