Sex, blood and Cannes
By Gautaman Bhaskaran/Cannes
Great auteurs make great films, so I am told. But even masters do not make masterpieces every time they step behind the camera. Yet, the Cannes Film Festival, which rolled its 62nd edition on May 13, has seldom missed out on great names.
The festival's dashing general dele-gate, Thierry Fremaux, who has now been at the helm of the annual event for eight years, once told me that they would never ignore a great helmer. Toeing this line, Fremaux packed this year's top competition slot with some of the biggest names in the world of cinema. But the works of many of them were disastrously disappointing and, worse, sickeningly sadistic. Heading this list was Danish director Lars Von Trier, whose Antichrist turned out to be pornographic, and a bad one at that, and a scandalous shame for the festival. The drama, starring American actor Willem Dafoe and Anglo-French actor Charlotte Gainsbourg, highlights the grief of a married couple who lost their baby son in an accident and retire to a forest house for solace. There they inflict unimaginable torture and pain on each other.
The work features graphic scenes of sex, extreme cruelty and genital self-mutilation. It stunned critics and audiences. Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere declared: "Antichrist represented easily one of the biggest debacles in Cannes Film Festival history and the complete meltdown of a major film artiste in a way that invites comparisons to the sinking of the Titanic."
There was more blood to soil the red carpet, which bore the imprints of hundreds of feet every evening. Jacques Audaird gives a blade to his young convict-protagonist in his A Prophet and pushes him towards the jugular of a political prisoner.
Hong Kong's Johnnie To turns his Vengeance hero into a modern-day western cowboy and, in the bargain, litters the screen with bullet-ridden bodies. South Korea's Park Chan-wook settles for intimate violence in Thirst. His young Christian priest becomes a vampire thirsting for blood instead of holy water.
Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay specialises in rape, knife attacks and dismemberment. Lou Ye's Chinese entry, Spring Fever, harps on suicide and disfigurement, and I personally feel that this movie made the cut at Cannes only because the helmer brought along with him a huge controversy. After his 2006 Summer Palace was shown at the festival, Beijing banned him from making films for five years. But this enfant terrible from China was not to be shackled; he made Spring Fever secretly and got it into Cannes. The other auteurs in this section, such as Quentin Tarantino and Gaspar Noe, also use blood and gore to mount their movies and narrate their stories. Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Noe's Enter the Void had a flood of blood.
Somewhere, most of these directors have found it easier to use violence to not just tell a story but also engage audiences. They are held captive through explosive imagery that may include bloody car chases, ugly sexual perversions bordering on misogynic tendencies and murder and mayhem. Much of the cinema that Cannes unspooled this summer had little imagination. The attempt to innovate was sadly missing from Cannes' selections. At least, largely so.
(Published June 7 2009 in The Week)