Friday, May 23, 2008

Day 8: Three thumbs down

Well, some days are like that.  And more their annoyances prove more than enough, happily, to make one glad for the wonderfulness of "normal" days when things go just fine.

First, there's the matter of the trains.  To save some dough on this trip, as are apparently a number of others, I'm staying in the nearby city of Nice, which is about fifteen miles from Cannes, and between the two runs the very marvelous French train system: on time, comfortable, and quiet (mostly).  Except when the trainmen decide to strike, pretty much unannounced.  With no train headed to Cannes to late afternoon, I headed off to the bus station, a good long stroll through central Nice, which was very nice, and I duly caught the bus, again comfortable and smooth, but with many of the trains still, the roads were jammed, as also the bus, and what was supposed to be an hour ride turned into two plus.  

This part of the French coastline is densely populated in the few miles between the sea and the hedging mountains, apartment buildings upon apartment buildings engulfing the occasional single-family dwelling.  Though many have wonderful views of the sea with but a highway and train tracks between them and the shore, empty it is not.  Through every little town that bus dutifully plied its way, and it was interesting, at least for awhile.  Eventually at Cannes we did arrive, giving just enough time to view the first film on the list for the day.

And this was the second downward thumb, this one actually having to do with movies.  In many ways, La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman) is an artfully done film, and therein lies the problem:  a little too artfully.  Sometimes good ideas in story-telling go too far.  The striking Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl) tells the tale of prosperous middle-aged woman dentist who in a distracted moment while driving in the countryside runs into and over something, a big something.  A glimpse in the sideview mirror shows a dog lying roadside, though whatever it was she struck caused a bigger result than even a good-sized canine.  Dazed and confused, she later tries to figure out exactly what did happen, something that does become sort of clear, seemingly, by the finish of the film.  In trying to both display and delve into the dentist's mental state, the film casts aside most shreds of narrative momentum or clarity.  Scenes follow disjointedly, and the camera is constantly too close, excluding viewers from the very world and people the central character accesses (and we are never quite sure who certain characters really are--friends. lovers, children, grandchildren, servants, spouses?).  The hope is that by the close the randomness of the film will gel and clarify, but instead the film just seems to end as assorted family "take care of" any incriminating evidence that might implicate the protagonist.  That not just a dog died in that mishap of inattention does become apparent.  And so we live our lives apparently, concealing in silent conspiracy inconvenient realities, or that seems to be the point.  Maybe, probably.  Interesting, yes, for this filmmaker knows well how to move a camera and withhold information, but also annoying for having been too stingy and self-conscious and coy. 

Thumb three was lethal, and for the first time in decades I walked out of a film (a somewhat common practice at Cannes; if something's bad, there's always another maybe better one showing somewhere).  In his second feature, Ocean Flame, Hong Kong writer-director Fendou Lui lays out the story of a petty criminal (he runs a call-girl blackmail scheme) who systematically demolishes his new girl friend, an attractive and very decent person, full of modesty and restraint.  The primary means for this is psycho-sexual violence by himself and others to whom he gives sanction.  Perhaps that sort of thing does happen, and perhaps it might provide a topic for exploration in film, but this is not the creature.  The problem is that the predominant point of view belongs to the thug, who's given rather too much machismo cool, inviting rather too much viewer sympathy (all the other thugs in the film are blatantly repulsive personally and physically, making him look pretty good in contrast).  So when he starts pushing the boundaries, one is first alarmed and then, as he goes further still, repulsed, even as our "hero" rather enjoys his stratagems (he reasons all this humiliation and suffering will toughen her up). The film does have some virtues, particularly its lovely camera work (some of this violence takes place in picturesque locales).  Still, its inner dynamic and the pleasure it gives differ little from an ordinary slasher flick, and it never looks very closely at its characters.  If it had, especially beyond the cardboard construction of the female victim, more would have exited.  The blurb says there's redemption for him in the end (after I left)--after he kills the girl, her lovely face above a blood-filled bathtub, as the ads show.  No thanks, though I could use some redemption myself for watching the schlock as long as I did.  

Still, Cannes was beautiful, the sun shining all day long, and today it shines again, the trains run, and I get to see other movies.  Amen.

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