This article first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 1st July 2012
Despite torrential downpours peppered with deceitful sunny spells, there has been great excitement since the New Zealand International Film Festival programme was announced this week. Film-buffs can be found brandishing highlighter pens and screening guides in cafés all over town, and are counting down until our respite from dark, cold winter commences on 19th July.
We can thank the excellent Festival programming team for bringing home no fewer than 15 films from Cannes less than a month after the closing ceremony. Of these, eight won prizes. All have something that will entertain, provoke or thrill a keen Kiwi audience.
Top honours at Canneswent to Michael Haneke’s Amour. It played early in the fortnight, and critics were prematurely (though correctly) hailing it as the likely Palme d’Or winner even as they left the cinema. Kinder than his recent work, but no less challenging, Amour follows the deterioration of an elderly woman whose devoted husband lives alongside and through her ill-health. This sounds grim, and is no doubt an experience that will resonate uncomfortably with many viewers. But Haneke seems to have no agenda or desire to upset us, beyond drawing us into a perfectly pitched exploration of love and loss. Though unsurprising when it won, I didn’t meet a single critic who thought it undeserved.
Mild dissent, however, when second place went to Matteo Garrone’s Reality. There were grumblings that Jury president, Nanni Moretti, had unfairly favoured a compatriot, but I must disagree. Garrone has said he wanted to try his hand at something lighter following the violent Gomorrah, and indeed Reality starts off with a great deal of whimsy and subtly-played humour. It concerns a family man from Naples whose children convince him to try out for Big Brother (Grande Fratello) and who becomes obsessed with the prospect of admission into the house and, by extension, a life of fame and fortune. The result is an incredibly clever fairytale, stylistically gorgeous yet documentary-like in its naturalism, and the lead performances are so real you feel you are ensconced in true Neopolitan life. But clearly Garrone cannot help himself in terms of having it descend into a tale of desperation that leaves you feeling sombre. Fascinating, too, is the film’s backstory: lead actor Aniello Arena is currently serving a 19-year prison term, and was let out during the day to shoot his debut film, back to his cell each evening. The irony of an imprisoned person playing someone who aches to be admitted into the captivity of the Grande Fratello house cannot be ignored.
One impressive film, while not in the main competition, displayed such restraint and power that it would have been worthy. Our Children (the French title more appropriately translating to something like Losing Reason) sees a superb Tahar Rahim and Best Actress winner Emilie Dequenne as a young couple, madly in love, who marry and start a family. Living under the wing/thumb of the fatherly Niels Arestrup (who played opposite Rahim in A Prophet), their existence becomes suffocating, leading to a tragedy of unthinkable proportion. Much is made of its being based on a true story, but what makes the film a compelling and breathtaking watch is Dequenne’s brilliant rendition of a mother gradually losing her grasp, and the subtle ambiguity of the men’s performances. This realistic, unhysterical yet utterly devastating film was in my Cannes Top Three.
It wasn’t all darkness in the South of France, however. Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road showcases Sam Riley (brilliant in Control), Garrett Hedlund (better in this than in Tron) and Kristen Stewart (Twilight. She still pouts a lot). Perhaps it’s the nature of the roadtrip source novel, but while this starts with great promise – plunging us into the young Beats’ world of smokin’, boozin’, shaggin’ and druggin’, with the odd burst of poetic writing – once you’ve seen their shenanigans several times, you hanker for your pyjamas and a quiet night in. It’s the energetic performances that make this engaging, sometimes delightful viewing. Hedlund sports an intense stare and has charisma to burn, while supporting actor Tom Sturridge makes an impressive debut as Carlo Marx.
For The Hunt, Mads Mikkelsen won the Best Actor prize as a kindergarten assistant who is falsely accused by a friend’s child. This delicate subject is handled in an interesting way, upending our assumptions of how a closeknit community might respond, but delivering a film replete with superb acting and realistic dialogue. This thriller had me seething with outrage, still grappling with it the following day. Considerably slower is the Russian “war film” In the Fog. Eschewing battle scenes and melodrama, it focuses instead on the relationship between three resistance fighters whose distrust of one another creates an allegory on moral decision-making. Beautifully photographed and in no hurry whatsoever, the film is composed of long, well-choreographed scenes, designed by the director to give the viewer pause for thought.
Short, and perfectly formed, I felt a patriotic frisson as the New Zealand Film Commission logo swam across the screen before Zia Mandviwalla’s nominated short, Night Shift.New Zealand’s only film in competition this year, it is a true gem, subtle and devastating, and unofficially short-listed by the jury in their deliberations.
And finally, if you have any interest at all in Kubrick’s seminal work The Shining, then conspiracy-documentary Room 237 is a must-see. Five interviewees, who would reject the term “fan” but have no leg to stand on against “obsessive”, put forward their obscure but strangely compelling arguments for what the director “really meant”. Is it a diatribe against the plight of the Native American Indian? Proof that the moon landings were staged? You’ll never watch The Shining the same way again.