Big Jew-Off at Cannes
European cineastes clash with American ironists and shlock-meisters at the film-world’s biggest hoedown
The South of France is concerned. Besides the sogginess, a few severe entanglements with the corporeal world also served to blur any escapist distinctions between life and art. The red-carpet premiere of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, an adaptation of a real-life tale of Hollywood teenagers breaking into celebrities homes to steal jewels and luxury clothes, was immediately followed by a real-life cinematic million-dollar jewel heist from a hotel facing the Palais de Festival. (It was perhaps almost too cinematic, some cynics noted; word spread among the town’s natives that the break-in was staged by the hotel to lend publicity to Coppola’s film.) Midway through the festival a man carrying dummy grenades opened fire at the French news pavilion with a gun full of blanks, causing Christoph Waltz and the audience assembled to watch his interview to stampede. On the last Sunday Tunisian-born Frenchman Abdellatif Kechiche’s naturalistic and carnal 3-hour-long lesbian romance La Vie d’Adèle was being awarded the Palme d’Or just as a massive anti-gay-marriage demonstration completely occupied the center of Paris.
This year’s festival also offered a preponderance of films by both American and European Jewish filmmakers, including offerings from the Coen Brothers, Roman Polanski, Claude Lanzmann, and, yes, Jerry Lewis. Other than the Coen Brothers’ Grand Prix-winning Inside Llewyn Davis, the film that brought forth the most ebullient effusions of joy from the crowd of cinephiles was Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a perfectly paced and crafted documentary recrudescence of the Chilean born cinema guru Alejandro Jodorowsky’s early 1970s quest to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Long awaited by salivating and twitching science-fiction fans and tucked securely out of the main competition into the director’s guild curated series “Quinzaine des Réalisateurs,” the film recounts the exhilarating and hilarious tale of the greatest sci-fi movie never made and the cunning maneuvering and promises made by Jodorowsky to secure the participation of the greatest cast ever assembled: David Carradine in the lead (a jar of vitamin D pills), Mick Jagger (no coaxing was needed), Orson Welles (a personal chef), and Salvador Dalí (a burning giraffe, $100,000 a minute). When he was unable to find the necessary funds to finish the film—no Hollywood studio wanted to entrust him with money—the project was handed over to David Lynch. Jodorowsky’s career was derailed for at least a decade, leaving deep psychological and metaphysical scars, which are still keenly visible now. The documentary’s conceit is that the film would have changed popular film history if it had been made and that its influence and ideas instead trickled down through the provenance of pop cinematic history from Aliens to Prometheus.
The white-haired sage had his own film in the festival, his first in 23 years, with this year’s La Danza de la Realidad (The Dance of Reality), in which he returns to his hometown of Tocopilla in the Chilean desert to weave a surrealistic reminiscence of his unhappy childhood as the child of communist Jewish immigrants from Ukraine with a severe Stalinist streak. The film’s blithe interplay of cadenced irony, luminous asperity, and subtle referencing of the tradition of high modernist European cinema from Švankmajer to Bergman, makes it a poised representative of European cinema. Compared to Jodorowsky’s hallucinogenic 1970 Western El Topo, it is a relatively subdued and burnished production.
A radically different form of ribaldry was on offer from the radioactive-horror-zombie-porno shlockmeisters at Troma entertainment, whose black-garbed, pun-inflected, and grungy representatives were picketing the festival and causing minor mayhem all along La Croisette—when they were not being ignored. America’s premier purveyors of gloppy grotesque and puerile maximalism, Troma has bequeathed the world such B-movie classics as Surf Nazis Must Die and The Toxic Avenger series. This year they were in the process of filming Occupy Cannes, a paean to independent filmmaking and a howl of protest against corporate consolidation in the film industry. On the occupied Rue d’Antibes, Troma’s founder and philosophical guru Lloyd Kaufman was surrounded by his cadre of howling and yodeling followers. Dressed in a blue seersucker suit, pink shirt, and a yellow tie along with two-toned tennis shoes, he possessed an uncanny resemblance to Mel Brooks. Kaufman gave an interview into a French journalist’s camcorder in impressively idiomatic French (“beaucoup de sexe! Beaucoup des lesbiennes!”) The screening of the film that followed, with its fart jokes, juvenile jocularity, and comic-book zombies was a pure distillation of Kitsch Americana, exactly as bad or as good as one imagines it to be.
The Coen Brothers’ wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis is, needless to say, infinitely more nuanced and charming, but it springs from a similarity folkish impulse. Set nostalgically in the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk-revival scene of 1961, it follows a talented never-will-be working-class folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, a singer who was not a musical magpie, did not reinvent himself to fit the times, or change the history of music. The movie opens with Davis performing a smoky rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the long-gone Gaslight nightclub. The song and the character are inspired by the posthumously completed memoirs of Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, signaling the Coen Brothers’ return to a hermetic musical micro-universe analogous to the blues world of O Brother, Where Art Thou? After he finishes the song, Davis is asked to step out back into the alley where a mysterious stranger thrashes him and leaves him bleeding—a metaphor for the continuous humiliation he will endure for the next several hours before the reasons he earned it are revealed. The morose and disillusioned Davis oscillates between a particularly late-1950s sort of existential commitment to the values of artistic authenticity and the struggle and yearning for success. His album—of the film’s title—was a dud, and his singing partner has committed suicide, leaving him rudderless. The molten volcano of grief does not stay dormant for very long.
Davis’ world is one of the shaggy bohemia, and he scrapes and sponges through his friends, money, couches, good will, and women: He sleeps with Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his best friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) of a folk duo named “Jim and Jean,” with whom he collaborates occasionally when critically strapped for cash. Jim calls him into the studio to work as a backup singer on a chintzy and vacuous but believable period song “Please Please Mr. Kennedy,” (sung with Adam Driver), after which Davis forgoes his share of the royalties to get the money up front. The sappy jingle will naturally hit the top of the charts.