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
However sickening, it is nonetheless a romance of sorts: She is as attached to him as much as she loathes him. The bulimic, isolated Tamia inflicts self-mutilation and purgation on herself and the scenes of her binging and cutting herself are repetitive and nauseating. The accretion of pain and humiliation is intended to serve the unhurried narrative, as she begins tentatively groping for a way out of her dependence. Eventually, the monstrous father begins spending time with another woman and flaunting the fact to a despairing Tamia, who finally begins taking furtive movements toward escape.
A decade ago Yedaya won the Caméra d’Or in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) section for her equally grim Or (My Treasure), which was a disparaging depiction of a prostitute and her teenage daughter in the grip of poverty and (self-imposed) sexual brutality. Some critics took issue with what they saw as the film’s ideological stance overpowering the responsibility to compose a nuanced portrayal of its protagonist’s motives. The rendering of protracted violence unleashed upon the female body skirted along the edge of extracting pleasure from physiological cruelty. This was a mechanistic reduction of the female subject to the level of a symptom, a cipher of victimhood lacking all agency. To some, the gratuitousness seemed more like a moralizing reprimand of the women’s criminal self-debasement than a sincere (or humane) attempt to appraise (or understand) the effects of sinister social forces. If true, that would mean that on occasion the heralded “female gaze” can be far chillier and less merciful a catalyst of objectification than the male equivalent it was meant to supplant. This would be a manifestation of the purist impulses to revel in the caged entrapment of the weak, to decline pointing out the emancipating gap between the bars, and to declare oneself the whole time a simple expositor of the evils of involuntary confinement. In short, a good working definition of sadism. I cannot say for sure if this is also the case of That Lovely Girl, as I could not force myself to watch the film to the very end.
Of course, no dispatch on the theme of sexual pathology at Cannes would be complete sans a guest appearance by disgraced finance minister and former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Readers with a long memory might recall that it was during the midst of the festival’s 2011 iteration that the world learned of the rape allegations leveled against Strauss-Kahn by a New York City Sofitel maid. DSK, as he came to be known, then chose a red-carpet premiere at last year’s festival, Jim Jarmuch’s stylized vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, as the backdrop of a fiendishly dramatic return to French public life.
The hotel incident that quashed Strauss-Kahn’s presidential ambitions may have been far too Greek in titanic hubris to avoid cinematic rendition. Three years later we find ourselves proffered Bronx-born Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, a tragic-comedy of botched execution. The film stars formerly French Gérard Depardieu, now a Russian citizen and patriot, as a wealthy and powerful central banker with a penchant for orgies. The preternaturally sly euphemism “lightly fictionalized account” has been much used in describing the proceedings, and Welcome to New York was not selected by the jury for screening in any of the festival’s myriad programs. The premiere in (rather than at) Cannes took place outside of the festival strictures in a private screening at a cinema along the Rue d’Antibes.
The producers’ insinuating allegations of a campaign of politicized censorship directed at the film by an insular cabal of elites surrounding Strauss-Kahn begin to look somewhat forced if one takes into account the trifling issue of the film’s quality. (It was simultaneously released online via an unorthodox video-on-demand scheme throughout Europe and is allegedly set for a limited American theatrical release later this year.) Invites to the suitably decadent post-premiere beach party were the festival’s most coveted commodity. Reportedly (this critic did not attend), sexual paraphernalia, Viagra, and monogrammed bathrobes were given out as party favors while dancers dressed as nurses squirted alcohol out of syringes down people’s throats.
All the smart French critics and savvy media types I spoke to about the film dismissed it out of hand on artistic grounds, but most were impressed with the artistry of its marketing campaign. The same thing cannot be said on behalf of Strauss-Kahn, who promptly sued for libel and defamation. This was to be his second lawsuit since March, when he sued novelist Régis Jauffret for the novel The Ballad of Rikers Island, which featured a wealthy and powerful central banker with a penchant for orgies.
The allegations of anti-Semitism in the profane, grubby, and lecherous portrayal of “Mr. Devereaux” are plausible enough. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer during a radio appearance compared the film to a “dog turd, that one would ordinarily sidestep.” Yet even that expurgation was to be topped by the acid judgments of Strauss-Kahn’s ex-wife, the heiress and prominent French TV journalist Anne Sinclair. Sinclair concluded her brief article on the affair with “Je n’attaque pas la saleté, je la vomis”—“I don’t attack filth, I vomit it.” On Sunday after the festival, the New York Times would lecture us on the finer points of “Why DSK won’t go away.”
Half the globe away from the narcissistic and petty skirmishing among competing factions of the French élite, the world was aflame with more consequential cases of pathological frenzy. A global orgy of violence and communal intolerance threatened the annihilation of civilization in the places where it was oldest and most fragile, a development that was noted here in an unprecedented number of war films and documentaries. That many are set in the Islamic world shows us how quickly globalization has sanctioned the production of world-class cinema in places where cameras are new, as well as how the aggressive impulses of the discontented to make war, and the revulsion and backlash to it, are being rapidly globalized. The Mauritanian-born (he was raised in Mali, educated at Moscow’s fabled VGIK film school and residing in France) director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is particularly masterful and subtle. It is an indictment of the spiritual and physical destruction of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage by sinister and occasionally hapless outsiders. It was an early favorite for the Palme d’Or and that it received no festival prizes borders on the criminal.
Set in the ancient citadel during the early days of the 2012 invasion of the mellow capital by Islamic fundamentalists (hints are scattered throughout that this was an unexpected outcome of the collapse of Qaddafi’s Libya), the film opens with a desert scene of jihadists riding in a flatbed truck while taking potshots at traditional masks and religious artifacts with a machine gun. The newly arrived jihadists do not speak the local languages but are ruthless in enforcing prohibitions against traditional music, sports, and women’s rights. The local imam, representing the benevolent and enlightened Islam of the locals, can explain nothing to the dogmatic invaders, but he does shame them into departing from his Mosque while armed.
It is partly the jihadist’s sexual repression, the film intimates, that leads to the fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia law—women are lashed for sitting unchaperoned with men, and an unmarried couple is buried up to their necks and stoned to death. After being spurned by a potential bride’s family, the jihadist returns to take her by force, and a justificatory bit of Quranic scripture is readily found as pretext. When the jihadist leader Abdelkrim arrives at the tent of a family of Tuareg nomads to try to convince autonomous Satima to cover her head, his gaze betrays his longing and she points out that “she is a married woman and that he should not come around when her husband Kidane is gone.”
Kidane, a nomadic cattle herder, loses a cow named “GPS”—Mali too is drifting. The cow is caught in the fisherman Amadou’s nets, and he kills it with a graceful toss of his spear. Kidane arrives to discuss the matter and when the two begin to wrestle in the shallow waters, the pistol in his pocket discharges, accidentally killing the fisherman. The ochre-hued palette and iridescent glimmer of the fisherman’s death scene are shot from afar with a wide lens, and it is unforgettable. The innocent Kidane’s punishment by Sharia law will be pronounced promptly by a foreign judge who needs an interpreter when he dispenses judgment.
Two new biographical sketches depict the great recluse as agent of growth, emblem of permanent adolescence, and cipher