Jewish Sexual Pathology, Islamist Terror, and the Collapse of the West at Cannes
The French film festival goes raw on depictions of incest, murder, DSK, Ukraine, Timbuktu, and stardom
War and its corresponding sexual pathologies were the major themes of this year’s program at Cannes, a connection that seems understandable enough if you glance at the newspapers. The vengeful passions of nationalism are staging an unmistakable comeback, even as solemn preparations for the 100th anniversary of World War I take place across Europe. Having concluded their duty as hosts to the film world’s most cosmopolitan film festival with their usual élan, the French stumbled to the polls the next morning to give 25 percent of their vote to the Front National.
The Palme d’Or went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, a three-hour portrait of the intricate social relations of an Anatolian hotelier providing the beleaguered Turks with some much needed pride and succor. Slated to be this year’s guests of honor in celebration of the centennial of Turkish Cinema, the delegation was forced to call off the lavish parties and receptions after a catastrophic mine collapse in Eastern Turkey buried hundreds of miners alive, plunging the country into spasms of mourning that culminated in a paralyzing political crisis. The flag at the Turkish pavilion flew at half-mast for the duration of the festival.
The Jewish Argentine Damián Szifron’s Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) claimed the honor of being the year’s quirkiest entry. A kaleidoscopic portmanteau of six interwoven tales in the comic-perverse vein of Pedro Almodóvar (the film was produced by the Almodóvar brothers, and Szifron is often described as Pedro’s protégé), Relatos is composed of a series of thematically linked fantasias of violence and revenge. In each of the narrative-tales something snaps in a habitually cheated and wronged protagonist—the provocations run the gamut from infidelity to road rage—triggering a cascade of flailing and anarchic anger. Each of the six segments concludes with baroque forms of retribution. Whimsical catharsis is extracted from careening violence as well as the continually recurring trope of glass being smashed into shards. Windowpanes and mirrors as well as drinking flutes are smashed and shattered with gusto.
Szifron’s film is delectable in its way of wringing populist farce and satire out of very South American forms of physical debasement and chicanery. The denouement of the final segment arrives with a carnivalesque Jewish wedding being torn to shreds by an aggrieved bride who is betrayed on her wedding night. This was the festival’s most radically surprising and most beloved moment. After the film ended the caffeinated crowd of critics at the morning press screening howled their applause.
After several underwhelming films, David Cronenberg, the Billy Wilder of a darker, less heroic America, returned to form with Maps to the Stars, a deeply contemptuous and impeccably sadistic Hollywood satire. Based on a script adapted from Bruce Wagner’s novel, it skewers the vapidity of Hollywood ruthlessness, status anxiety, and superficiality. The Hollywood subversion send-up has morphed into an acutely conventional genre where, as in much of life, execution is everything. A sweetly odd schizophrenic burn victim Agatha Weiss, played by Mia Wasikowska, arrives asleep on a Greyhound bus. Long gloves cover her scorched arms but do not protect her from her dreams. An ingénue amongst the vipers, she does not imbibe the lesson, that no one in this vile town is to be trusted, quickly and thoroughly enough. The handsome limo driver, an aspiring actor who squires her around, is less intrigued than she is but eventually begins sleeping with her for “research.” Mysteriously she eschews his usual celebrity tour, “the map to the stars,” requesting that on her first foray into the city she be taken to the remains of the burned-out house of the Weiss family. Agatha has befriended Carrie Fisher over Twitter; she in turn fobs her off on the aging diva Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore, selected as best actress at Cannes for her performance), a prototypically neurotic Norma Desmond avatar who is frantic to be cast playing the role of her mother, a 1950s film star immolated in a freak fire, in the remake of the film that had earned her mother her fame.
The Weisses are a family of gorgons whose television pop-psychiatrist patriarch, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) hides his malicious persona under a New Age-y façade. Under Weiss’ disturbing ministrations—body massages to channel the “magic child”—Havana recovers long-repressed childhood memories of abuse at the hands of the mother that she is so desperate to inhabit on screen. She also begins experiencing hallucinations. Havana interviews Agatha for the role of her assistant, and, succumbing to the pull of superstition, hires her. Agatha becomes the assistant “chore whore,” which sounds exactly as bad as it is. In one of the most biting images in a film brimming with them, the shy Agatha is forced to discuss her sexual liaisons with the limo-driving actor while Moore’s character defecates on the toilet.
Agatha’s younger brother Benjie is the 13-year-old film star of a lucrative movie franchise called “Bad Babysitter.” The grotesquely spoiled child actor is another Hollywood archetype, but Benjie’s case is salvaged by the impressively nasty wit of the dialogue Wagner provides. His mother Olivia spoils him by satisfying his every whiny desire—whininess will turn out to be the film’s cardinal sin. In the midst of puberty he has internalized the corporate mentality of the culture around him and has already been in and out of rehab. Coerced into a mandatory meeting with studio executives to demonstrate his dependability, he vomits in disgust in the bathroom afterwards. On a Make-A-Wish Foundation hospital visit to a little girl dying of cancer, he is mistakenly told she has AIDS. Leaving the ward Benjie lashes out at his publicist with an expletive-laced anti-Semitic rant. The point being made here is that the publicist’s conditioned obsequiousness is more obscene than the star’s bigoted cursing.
Agatha turns out to be a specter from the past, a harbinger and repository of gruesome family secrets. After having her shipped away as a little girl to a juvenile detention center in Florida—she heeded the voice’s commands and ignited the conflagration of the family home, which scarred her—Olivia and Stafford had long repressed the innate knowledge of her impending return. When they discover that she has returned they take futile precautions to keep her away from Benjie. Benjie and Agatha are drawn to each other by irresistible forces. Sweet Agatha just wants to be reunited with her family. For them she is the recurring symbol of the re-materialization of deeply submerged secrets as well as the supernatural psychosis that binds this family together: the macabre undercurrents and supernatural mysticism that are the authentically dark counterpart to Stafford’s lightly-worn New Age spirituality.
The Cronenbergian culmination of this moral squalor comes through a cleansing cycle of death and salubrious killing. Havana’s rival for the film role of her mother pulls out of filming after her child dies in a freak swimming-pool accident. Upon hearing the news, the exhilarated Havana prances around the room with Agatha chanting “We’re fire, they’re water!” Benjie has a psychotic episode and attempts to choke his 8-year-old co-star to death. Out of the second-floor window of the mansion, a blank-faced Agatha watches the needy and competitive Havana having sex with her actor boyfriend in the back of his limo. When in the next scene Havana begins haranguing the near catatonic Agatha for leaving a trail of menstrual blood along the couch, the girl’s fragile composure shatters. Agatha bludgeons Havana to death with the statuette of a film trophy that Havana covets so badly. Olivia immolates herself and flings herself into the family mansion’s pool. Taking their parents’ wedding bands Benjie and Agatha travel back to the charred site of their old family home to close the circle and symbolically re-enact the wedding of their parents under the moonlight.
The “map to the stars” turns out to be an ancient one; much older than what is implied by the film’s title. The biblical woe of preordained madness that is visited upon Agatha, Benjie, and Havana is a form of higher reckoning with the original sexual sins of the fathers.
Surreally enough, Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars was not even the most disturbing incest-themed film featured at this year’s Cannes. That indelible distinction belongs to Israeli feminist Keren Yedaya’s That Lovely Girl. Set in a claustrophobic Tel Aviv apartment, it is a wrenching realist portrait of 22-year-old Tamia’s incestuous relationship with her father Moishe. A petrifying (several critics have already monopolized the usage of “harrowing”) portrait of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, it is not meant for the weak of heart or stomach. Tamia is completely servile to her father, complicit in her own domination, cooking and cleaning her prison cell while her warden is away at work. Upon his return he subjects her to beatings, harangues her about her weight, and rapes her in frames that are shot at a close distance by a dispassionate camera.
Two new biographical sketches depict the great recluse as agent of growth, emblem of permanent adolescence, and cipher