I've seen six films over the last two days--two that were excellent, two rather mediocre films, and two that were terrible (including the worst of the festival so far). I'll start with the best films. The best of Friday's offerings was "The Kid With The Bike" (8.5), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Its directors, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, are known for gritty, realistic portraits of people living at the margins of Belgian society. I've admired their other work but particularly connected with this film, about an 11-year-old boy, Cyril, whose father has dumped him into a state home. Its clear to all the adults in Cyril's world that his dad isn't coming back, but the boy's emotional survival depends on that not being true so he turns all his fierce energy into finding his dad and the bike that was last in is dad's care. Along the way, a kind hairdresser takes on the task of fostering the boy, which is quite challenging given the losses this intense boy is forced to absorb and his inability to trust. This film gets just right the child's response to abandonment, the lengths he goes to in order to try to hang onto a relationship with the parent who has failed him, and his utter inability to discern which, if any, adults are worthy of his trust, and of course made me grieve for the children whose cases I review every week. The point here is observation, not entertainment, and if you're up for that, this film is worthy of attention. You can still catch it on Sunday evening.
The best of Saturday's offerings was "Postcard" (8), a richly rewarding film from Japan. It's the work of Kaneto Shindo, a seasoned director who made the film at the age of 99; the film is apparently inspired by his own experiences returning from World War II as one of a very few survivors in his unit. Rather than focusing on the carnage of battle, this film portrays the costs of war more from the standpoint of those left behind, focusing on a woman in a small fishing village who loses her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally their parents. She later meets a man who served with her husband who faced his own losses when he returned--and though she is happy to hear of her husband, the randomness of who survived and who didn't feels unbearable to them both. Told in a simple and sometimes theatrical style that recalls the golden age of Japanese cinema, the film is a wonderful window into Japanese culture that left me curious to inquire of my Japanese American friends (one of whom I caught afterwards). The ceremonies used to mark departures to and returns from war; the purposefully restrained manner of handling deep emotions, puncuated by more dramatic displays of pathos; the deference to custom and family duty and elders; the simplicity and struggle of life in a small fishing village--all are depicted here in a really intriguing and sometimes lightly comic way. This kind of world travel is what makes the film festival so fun. The film's festival run is done but it's worth putting in your Netflix queue, since I don't expect it to get a theatrical release here.
I saw a couple of romances in the past two days which didn't quite fulfill my hopes for them. I've appreciated the emotional resonance of another work by French director Mia Hansen-Love ("The Father of My Children"), but "Goodbye First Love" (5) didn't pan out as well. It's the story of two teenagers who are madly in love, but then the boy goes off to find his fortune in South America, leaving the girl heartbroken. They meet ten years later when she is established in a career and another relationship, but still pines for him. The film is visually lovely and full of thoughtful details depicting the girl's life and development and the drama of adolescent love, but ultimately becomes tiresome because neither character ever attains any real insight; they are just attached to their adolescent idea of love. That may be pretty common, but it doesn't plow any new film ground.
I was attracted to "Kiss Me" (5.5), from Sweden, because of its depiction of a budding lesbian romance. The leads are lovely and well-played and, again, the film is visually beautiful--but it ends up being a very stock romance between two people who are involved in seemingly fine relationships with other people but meet each other and can't resist their sudden, overpowering attraction to each other and then disrupt their other relationships. The fact that the illicit lovers here are lesbians may well be a refreshing change for an audience that doesn't see their loves portrayed often enough on screen, but I found myself wishing for something beyond the juvenile ideas that we so often see in romantic films depicting love as an external force that sometimes even good people can't resist, rather than as a matter of choice and responsibility. That truth holds beyond sexual orientation.
As for the stinkers, one of them, "Headhunters" (3), from Norway, has already been optioned for a Hollywood version, but I expect I've seen enough already. It's the very lame story of an obnoxious personnel recruiter married to a gorgeous blond who, worried about losing her and lacking a soul himself, supplements his income by stealing expensive art from his clients. Predictably, he gets himself in over his head and finds himself up to his eyeballs in shit (literally) as well as subjected to cartoon-level violence and indignities. Of course, the audience loved it and I imagine the Hollywood version will do very well.
The worst film I've seen at the festival this year was "Mr. Tree" (1), a Chinese film that quite clearly means to address the effects of rampant urbanization on ordinary folk. It won a major prize at the Shanghai Film Festival and has garnered a lot of adoring press but, in my opinion, it's a naked emperor. Its depiction of a sort of village idiot who may be a kind of seer reminded me a bit of Keira Knightley's awful performance in "A Dangerous Method"--full of annoying and unbelievable tics and lacking any insight about how mental illness actually works. The development of the story is frequently incoherent and it feels as though, by using an arty approach to depicting someone who's confused and possibly crazy, the director is trying to insulate himself from criticism. I didn't buy it.
Today's fare includes my first documentary of this year's festival, as well as decorated films from Brazil, Israel, and Turkey.