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Thursday, May 13, 2010
Cannes Day 2: Strip tease
Just two days in and I already feel like swimming in a paralell reality, a simulacrum of the world cut off from what's really happening, like the mess back home. If cinema is a religion and the theatre is our temple, then in Cannes I spend hours watching light flicker and praying, quietly. Madness, I believe, is necessary, and hopefully only temporary.
Anyway... So far we've seen three Competition titles, and only one has left a mark (not so much a love mark, but enough to mull over). The first pleasant surprise comes from the first Competition film, in which a plump American stripper pulls out a metre-long white ribbon from her bottomless orifice, spins it around her half-naked torso like a pauper ballerina, then finds something like grace in a deserted hotel in rural France. Mathieu Amalric's Tournee (On Tour) turns the possibly gaudy Las Vegas-style showgirls into a company of proud, lovelorn souls transported from middle Americana to the unglamorous parts of France.
Not that it's flawless -- the film still relies on some cliches about a troubadour in trouble and its desperate promoter -- but Amalric, better known in his capacity as an actor, shows great sensitivity in handling his story. Tournee is Amalric's third film as a director, and the first time he stars in his own film, as Joachim, the impressario who brings a group of American New Burlesque -- a high-concept strip-tease crossed with cabaret -- to feed the fantasies of small-town France. The voluptuous women of his team bear the names like Dirty Martini, Kitten on the Keys, Evie Lovelle, and what the film does is to show that strip-tease can be a form of art if you go at it with dedication and not desperation. In an American film, the material could have come across as a cry of Penthouse feminism, but here Amalric watches these women with the honesty of someone who admires as well as pity them, and their florid vaudeville surprisingly achieves a kind of natural sensuality in the film. At the centre, however, is the story of Joachim's professional mess, and at the end we realise that this is the story of people who get lost, and are happy to remain that way.
Every year (or at least in the past 10 years) Cannes makes it a habit of including at least one Chinese film in the Competition. This time the representative is Wang Xioashuai's Chongqing Blues, which turns out to be one of those well-meaning, uptight, and rather glum portrait of China at the crossroads. A father arrives in a city called Chongqing after learning that the son he left 15 years ago was gunned down by a police. It's the story of the Old vs the New China, especially the role of family -- supposedly the most important institution -- in the face of irredeemable change. In a surreal touch, Chinese superstar Fan Bing Bing plays a good-hearted doctor taken hostage by a half-deranged kid. Oh well. For the meditation on China in metamorphosis, I prefer the work of Jia Zhangke (who has a film in the Un Certain Regard sidebar) or even Lou Ye.
X -- that's what people expected after seeing the poster of Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid, one of the two Korean films in the Competition, showing a naked woman on her knees facing a standing naked man. Urghh, the Koreans really know how to sell their movies. Last year Korea gave Cannes spectators the outlandish copulation between a vampire priest and his victim in Thirst (which I'm no big fan); but this year it's not so much kinky sex as it is a black satire on class and the mental corruption of wealthy people. In The Housemaid, a remake of a 1960 film, a young nanny working in the mansion of an obscenely rich family becomes the lover of her master, a risky adventure that brings about her downfall. The film flaunts its cynicism like a badge of honour; its comedy is as black as night (not as hell), and the stylish theatricality is carefully choreographed. Only that the whole affair feels slight at the end, and the fatal attraction proves to be just the whimsy of weak humans.
A brief note on a great film, which is not in the Competition. The Strange Case of Angelica is the new film by Manoel de Oliveira, a 102-year-old Portuguese master, and it's the opening film of the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Touching on the theme of memory, death, photography, and the preservation of magic in the face of constant change, the movie tells the story of a photographer who's asked to take photos of a dead girl -- and falls madly in love with her. The film is spry, witty, timeless, and it's a small wonder that it comes from a director who was born 102 years ago. Manoel, we salute you.
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