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Wrapping Up the Seattle International Film Festival

SIFF

From Thursday, April 25 (with an official start date of May 16) to Sunday, June 9, the Seattle International Film Festival has screened 447 films, 31 of which I had a chance to watch. From opening with Joss Whedon's Shakespearean piece Much Ado About Nothing, which I called "a one-and-done modernized adaptation proud to bear its fuzzy flaws," to Sofia Coppola's teens-on-a-tear, The Bling Ring, this festival had diversity and volume on its side more than anything.

Bending between the genres of drama and horror, sci-fi and coming-of-age, thrillers to a wealth of documentaries, hearing stories pulled from France, England, South Africa, Brazil, Australia, America, Paraguay and Denmark from new filmmakers and seasoned veterans alike, we walked the world within these films.

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A Language Lesson at Cannes

past posterIt's generally a big step when a filmmaker decides to make a film in a language that is not her/his mother tongue. There are many obstacles in addition to a language barrier: let’s face it, even if one is fluent in another language, there are cultural differences going on. But in these days of international co-productions, when money from another country can require shooting in foreign locations, as well as telling another kind of story, it is becoming more and more common. In addition, many filmmakers actually film in other languages and other countries because they don’t see any barriers.

For others, living in a new country with a different culture (and language) becomes a breeding ground for new film ideas that demand they be of that nation. To be clear, we are not talking about performers acting in another language; that’s been happening for years, and is still in evidence in Cannes with examples such as Berenice Bejo in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (last year’s Cannes best actor winner for The Hunt) in the French production of Michael Kohlhaas.

This year at Cannes quite a few filmmakers have bridged that divide, each with a unique result. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has made films in English before – he was last in Cannes in 2011 with Drive which starred Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver – shot his latest film, Only God Forgives, in Thailand. Starring Gosling – again –the film is in English and Thai and it deals with a different culture (that’s the Thai culture, in addition to the culture of violence and revenge that his characters show off in this competition film).

Arnaud Desplechin took a unique approach in his first English language film (and I believe, his first film not in French), Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Based on true events, the competition film is about a native American Blackfoot Indian suffering from post traumatic stress after WWII who is aided, and studied, by a French anthropologist. Benicio Del Toro plays the title character and Mathieu Almaric (who has played his share of English speaking roles) plays Georges Devereux, the anthropologist and psychoanalyst who works with Jimmy Picard. The story itself deals with many different cultures – in addition to native americans, there is the racist culture of the US in the late 1940s, as well as the military and medical cultures that Jimmy has to face. In addition, Devereux makes his living studying Indian cultures, so Desplechin’s film covers many different angles of this language/culture study: he is actually looking at a different culture, not simply shooting in a new language.

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past concerns a woman (Berenice Bejo, who won the best actress award at Cannes) trying to get a divorce from her Iranian husband in order to get on with her life with a new love. She has a daughter by yet another man and they are all temporarily residing in one house in a Parisian suburb (plus the lover’s young son). While one character is Iranian (as is Farhadi), the story is particularly a French one, with some Arabic culture thrown in a subplot. Yet Farhadi doesn’t make it immediately identifiable as French: he has placed the story in a suburban town, not in Paris which would scream French. But there is a western, or European sensibility which could lock horns with Iranian culture.

Stop the Pounding Heart is Roberto Minervini’s third film and the third film that he made in the U.S. (actually, all in Texas). Since Minervini’s been living in Texas, he has used the state as a palette for his art. Stop the Pounding Heart is what we have come to call a hybrid film: he uses non professional actors to tell stories similar to their lives, but not quite. The only one working in a different language here is Minervini himself, and what he has been doing here and in his other two feature films, is to tell American stories. The real yet meditative quality in Stop the Pounding Heart tells us that the filmmaker has become extremely fluent – in the English language, and in the American culture.

Gatsby Bling & Baldwin at Cannes

seduced posterWhile the actual opening night of the Festival de Cannes was marred by sheets of rain pouring down, the first few days were disrupted by more headline-worthy events: a guy with a gun (blanks, apparently) who invaded a festival TV talk show with competition jury members Christoph Waltz and Daniel Auteuil (all was put right in mere moments); but a more glittery invasion was the theft, from a hotel room safe, of about a million dollars worth of Chopard jewels. Chopard is a major sponsor of the festival, and designs the Palme d'or award. While officials try to get the loot back, it put me in mind of the glitzy nature of some of the first films screening in the festival.

The Great Gatsby was an over-the-top visual experience: first of all, it was directed by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge fame), a filmmaker known for his ravishing visual style. And the film was presented in 3D, which gave even more pop to the contemporary spin on the excesses of the Jazz Age. Even though it was one of the rare occasions when a film did not make its world premiere at Cannes (the film opened in the U.S. the previous Friday and in France the same day the festival opened, so that thousands of regular français  saw the film hours before the glitterati climbed the red carpet to view it in the Theater Lumiere on the Croisette), it certainly charged up the crowd for the 12 days that lay ahead.

The glitz factor - or in this case, truly the bling factor - was on full view in the opening film for the section know as Un Certain Regard: Sofia Coppola's Bling Ring, based on the Vanity Fair article about valley teens using stars' L.A. homes for freebie shopping sprees while the celebrities were out of town on publicity tours, or just out for the evening at a party (thanks TMZ for making movie and reality starts' whereabout known on a 24 hour basis).

The film literally sparkles with loot (a very different kind of loot that was sought out in last year's Un Certain Regard entry, Gimme the Loot, Adam Leon's debut feature). The movie has the feel of something made very easily by Coppola; you'd think she shot it over a weekend with some well-heeled friends. I doubt that's really the case, but the feel of filmmaking speaks to the crazy ease with which these kids ripped off the stars' homes - and the insanity of celebrities thinking they can leave doors unlocked.

While not about shiny bling, James Toback's wry home movie-like documentary Seduced and Abandoned, does let us in on the big money end of movie-making. In a film that began in Lincoln Center in New York. Toback and his partner in a new film venture, Alec Baldwin, discuss the juncture of art and commerce that is cinema, and about the plot of their new film: a war-zone Last Tango in Paris (yes, I think that's how to describe it). In order to get funds for the new movie, Toback brings Baldwin to mecca - that is, the Cannes Film Festival itself - to talk about this classic merging of movies and money (which is really how it's always been). While there's barely a tiara in sight - and the film is only shot in 2D, thank you very much - you can see a timeline from the simple days of celebrities playing on the beach with the rest of mankind, and the current environment of E! News, and international versions of the same where the ego stakes are raised higher and higher.

Soon enough the films that evoke simplicity and pain will come; in fact, they've started screening them already. But the show that is Cannes has began as a "really big show," in the words of Ed Sullivan!

What Makes a Winner at Cannes?

blue posterWhen all was said and done, the Festival de Cannes closed with awards that were not particularly surprising. Although there had been (and continues to be) debate about the merits of Abdellatif Kechiche’s erotic coming of age story of obsession, La Vie d’Adele – Chapitre 1 & 2/Blue is the Warmest Color), it was not a shock that it came away with the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’or. What was unusual was that the jury – headed by Steven Spielberg and including directors Ang Lee, Lynne Ramsay, Naomi Kawase and Christian Mungiu and actors Nicole Kidman, Daniel Auteuil, Vidya Balan and Christoph Waltz – in fact named not only director Kechiche but both lead actors, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, as winners of the prize. An unusual move, but quite a fitting move, as it is the work of these young women that helps to make this film so powerful.

Two American films in the main competition won awards: Bruce Dern received the Best Actor prize for his work in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska as an old man suffering from dementia who, convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes, tries to walk from Montana to Nebraska to claim his prize. And Joel and Ethan Coen won the Grand Prize (akin to second prize) for their look at the New York folk music scene of the early 1960s through the eyes of a singer on the brink of either stardom or total collapse, Inside Llewyn Davis.

The award for best actress went to Berenice Bejo (she was last seen on the Cannes screen in The Artist, which of course won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2011) for her performance in The Past, a film directed by Asghar Farhadi (whose last film, A Separation, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar).

Other prizes given out on Closing Night include Best Director to Spanish filmmaker Amat Escalante for his third feature film Heli (his first feature, Sangre, was shown in New Directors/New Films in 2006), Best Screenplay to Jia Zhangke for A Touch of Sin, and the Jury Prize to Hirokazu Kore-eda for his touching  story  of young boys switched at birth, Like Father Like Son.

As for making their way to screens in the U.S., some titles already have US distribution, but even without, many of them will certainly appear in other festivals and from there onto screens for theatrical runs in the states. Look to the skies, er, screens in the year to come!

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