There’s a moment during Cannes – and every film festival – when a sneaking sense of hopelessness sets in, the feeling that one has spent dozens of hours in dark rooms waiting to be astonished, and yet cinematic lift-off has yet to be achieved.
At these times it’s important to remember that it’s been only three days (two, if you don’t count the opening night film “The Great Gatsby”), and seven films – hardly enough to succumb to defeatist ennui.
Still, Cannes has yet to produce a real stunner, that coup de coeur that touches eye, ear, mind and spirit in a way that re-defines the cinematic experience itself. There have been plenty of estimable efforts, no doubt: Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” was a stylish kick in the couture pants. (As “The Bling Ring” was making its Un Certain Regard debut Thursday night, a real-life heist was taking place at a nearby hotel, where $1 million worth of Chopard jewelry was taken from a safe in an employee’s room.) And Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger By the Lake,” also playing in the Un Certain Regard section, possesses a pleine aire formal beauty, even as it explicitly explores hardcore images of gay sexuality at its most pathological and promiscuous – which is either bravely subversive or alarmingly retrograde at a time when gay discourse has more to do with marriage equality than sexual liberation.
Several critics went gaga over Francois Ozon’s “Jeune et Jolie” (one male writer explained to me that he simply couldn’t be expected to see the film’s leering depiction of a beautiful 17-year-old prostitute through from a woman’s perspective; must be nice). And Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” – a follow-up to his 2009 hit “A Separation” – has received respectful-to-rapturous early word, with Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells calling it “riveting from start to finish…Intricately plotted, onion layers peeled.”
I didn’t concur. Like “A Separation,” the French-language drama “The Past” is beautifully acted (in this case by “The Artist’s” Berenice Bejo, “A Prophet’s” Tahar Rahim and Iranian actor Ali Mousaffa) and ingeniously staged. But unlike “A Separation,” which took a couple’s troubled marriage, as well as satellite relationships and misunderstandings, to the razor’s edge of anxiety, “The Past” feels like artily contrived melodrama, with all the bombshells and reversals of more lurid material, just deployed with less high-pitched emotionalism.
In fact, the best films to be shown at Cannes so far have been from newcomers: Ryan Coogler’s shattering “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 killing of Oakland resident Oscar Grant III in a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, stars Michael B. Jordan as Grant during his final 24 hours, when he’s doggedly trying to get his life back together despite a series of unwise choices (which resulted in prison time, among other things). The film marks a strikingly assured debut by Coogler, who leaves viewers not just questioning Grant’s needless death, but the deeper philosophical issue of what lives we deem worthy of memorializing.
“Salvo,” by Italian filmmaking team Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza, centers around a cinematic trope long past its sell-by date: the lone hit man longing for connection. But Grassadonia and Piazza nonetheless make even that tired cliché improbably compelling in a technically flawless movie that is formally elegant — both in its visual and sound design — and features two galvanizing lead performances from Saleh Bakri and Sara Serraiocco. Both “Fruitvale Station” and “Salvo” are playing out of main competition at Cannes, suggesting that sometimes the best place to look for astonishment is on the edge – literally and figuratively.