'Fair Game': At Cannes, covert operations get a personal touch

Click through coverage of all the red carpet events and cinema buzz at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 21, 2010

CANNES, FRANCE It's not uncommon for life and art to intersect in the movies, but in the waning days of the Cannes Film Festival, which ends Sunday, they've collided with particular force.

At Thursday's press screening of "Fair Game," Doug Liman's swift, economical adaptation of books by Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, the life-art mix was largely a happy one. The movie, which stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as Plame and Wilson, and re-creates the swirl of events running up to the Iraq war and later when her identity as a CIA covert operations officer was revealed, largely avoids scoring political points in favor of focusing on the episode's impact on their marriage.

Although critical reactions ranged from immediate raves to at least one audible boo, praise was nearly universal for Watts's performance as Plame, who as the movie opens is working as a spy in Kuala Lumpur.

Talking later to reporters, Watts recalled reading the script days after giving birth to her second child in December 2008. When she agreed to make the movie, Liman said, " 'Okay, get yourself into boot camp and toughen up, lady.' " Watts went to the Farm, the Virginia facility where CIA recruits undergo grueling physical training, and where she learned from her superiors to say "ow" only if she had to go to the hospital.

"It was a fascinating two-day period," she recalled. "How many people can say they have breast-fed while [packing] a weapon?"

Liman, whose father, Arthur Liman, led the congressional investigation into the Iran-contra scandal but who as a filmmaker is better known for such romps as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," said that "Fair Game" is just the kind of "entertaining and meaningful" film he's been longing to make.

"I've not succeeded so well in the past," he allowed. "For instance, 'The Bourne Identity' was supposed to be a retelling of Iran-contra. . . . I thought, 'I'm going to couch it in a spy movie and retell the story and Chris Cooper's going to play Oliver North. And nobody got it. Then I did a TV show called 'The O.C.' and said, 'I'm going to hook a bunch of teens in America and then I'm going to start dealing with serious issues like immigration reform. And Fox said, 'No you're not.' "

"Fair Game," scheduled to open in the fall, clocks in at 106 minutes. It felt like a brisk bagatelle for filmgoers who the day before sat through "Carlos," a 5 1/2 -hour movie about international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal. Directed by Olivier Assayas and featuring an astonishing breakout lead performance by Edgar Ramirez, "Carlos" joins such recent biopics as Steven Soderbergh's "Che" and "The Baader Meinhof Complex" in its meticulous attention to period detail and unsparing running time.

Whereas those movies resisted valorizing their protagonists, however, Assayas often lingers on Carlos's physique and sexual exploits, underscoring scenes with a seductive rock soundtrack reminiscent of "Scarface." The result is a film that, rather than critiquing the myth Carlos himself created, winds up perpetuating it in subtle and insidious ways.

"Carlos" will be shown this fall on the Sundance Channel and in theaters, but it's still unknown whether the festival's most fascinating biopic, "The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu," will make it to America. Another audacious experiment in narrative, Andrei Ujica's three-hour documentary is compiled entirely of clips from the Romanian dictator's own propaganda films, resulting in a mesmerizing collage of sound, image and provocative empty spaces.

Clearly "The Autobiography" will be most profitably enjoyed by viewers familiar with Romanian and Cold War history, but Ujica's evocative portrait of a cosmopolitan country reduced to an impoverished wasteland is legible and deeply damning even to the most unstudied eye.

In their different ways, "Fair Game," "Carlos" and "The Autobiography" raise crucial questions about appearance and reality in political contexts, but just as many films here have come at the question as it pertains to personal relationships. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami shocked many of his most ardent fans this week with a film that marks a radical departure from his usual setting (Iran) and style (poetic neo-realism). Set in a photogenic Tuscan village, "Copie Conforme" stars Juliette Binoche and British baritone William Shimell, here making his movie debut, as two strangers drawn together in a mutual exercise in deception.

The film recalls such romantic cinematic interludes as "Brief Encounter" and "Before Sunset" in its depiction of a couple strolling through a picturesque setting and maybe -- or maybe not -- falling in love. Called "Certified Copy" in English, the film engages perennial questions about whether in faking it, a couple just might make it.

The same question propels "Blue Valentine," Derek Cianfrance's bittersweet portrait of an unraveling marriage that premiered at Sundance this year. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling play a couple making one last stab at staying together, and the film toggles between the ragged final days of their characters' marriage and flashbacks of happier times. "Blue Valentine" was a labor of love for Williams, who worked with Cianfrance for six years to get the film made. During production, the actors lived together in their rented fictional home, going shopping for groceries on $100 a week, doing the dishes and even staging "fight days," when they argued non-stop.

"It's really a different way of working," Gosling said of the unconventional shoot. "It's not like acting."

It was hard to know where art had ended and life began, the actors said, or whether they were ever really separate in the first place. And in Cannes, where artifice and reality daily jostle for pride of place, that's somehow exactly as it should be.

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