Two days, four films, two fails, two great films... The festival was going well so far. And I had a busy schedule on that day, hoping to finally manage to squeeze in three films in a day, when so many people routinely do five.
First off was La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino, showing at 11am in the official selection in the Palais. Due to the short turnaround between this and the next film, Behind The Candelabra, I took a gamble as there was little chance I would manage to then secure an invitation for the latter, which was due in UK cinemas the following month anyway. Yet again I was lucky enough to find an invitation pretty much straight away for the Italian film.
And as I was waiting in the queue, an impossibly glamorous Lebanese woman got chatting with me, she explained that she was an actress, and that her next film was about a very famous Middle Eastern singer, which she hoped would be at least showing in the Cannes market the following year. We chatted about Lebanon, Middle-Eastern food and London before parting our ways, as we got in yet another of those wonderful chance encounters in Cannes which makes this place so magical.
Paolo Sorrentino has become a bit of an ongoing joke for Cannes regulars, with all of his recent films charming the organisers who always give him a slot in competition, but not so much the press, who has not always warmed up to his talent. I surprised myself when I actually enjoyed This Must Be The Place with Sean Penn, a film that was all over the place but which I found moving and melancholic, and with an unusual but great performance from the rather obnoxious American actor.
And La Grande Bellezza sounded promising, a sprawling, Fellini inspired love letter to Rome. Braving yet again the horrendous queues for a good 90 minutes before getting in, the film turned out to be a crushing disappointment, all the more painful as ongoing rumours of a top prize persisted like a bad smell right until the end of the festival.
How can a film which opens with a party with the Raffaela Scarra/Bob Sinclar "A Far L'Amore Comincia Tu?" blaring out be such a let down? In it, we follow an aging journalist/intellectual as he wanders from party to party, mingling with the elite of the city, musing about life and love. I make it sound a whole lot better than it is. Because we are basically asked to sympathise, or even tolerate a bunch of rich old men who spend their time dancing badly at parties and leering after much younger women. Oh and allegedly philosophising about life.
It basically felt like being the only sober one at a party in which you do not know anybody and where everybody is embarrassing themselves. And for the Fellini connection, oh please... Just because the main protagonist is a journalist who evolves in the high social circles of Italian society does not make the film La Dolce Vita. And just because they are a few grotesque images (mainly involving women), it does not make this a Fellini tribute (although I did enjoy the naked red devil with a big member tremendously, a new arthouse meme after Post Tenebras Lux last year?).
The film is all the more frustrating as the director has an obvious visual talent, with some breathtaking compositions in some shots. And La Grande Bellezza almost threatens to reach a certain emotional connection as the lead meets a woman closer to his age (she is twenty years younger than him still, but in this misogynist world, older women are just condemned to ridicule or oblivion), the start of an unexpected and touching romance, which is only short-lived, sadly. And by the time the laughable character of a hardcore nun who survives on grounded roots and climbs up stairs on her bare knees is introduced, I had long ceased to care. Oh and the cheap swipe at contemporary art, always a sure sign that I cannot take a film seriously. Of course there are some interesting themes being braced here, mainly, the elusive pursuit of happiness, but when the whole cast minus one is so obnoxious, it ruins everything.
I must go back about the misogyny again. When I think about the storm that followed La Vie d'Adele (especially after its Palme d'Or win) and the nauseating, self-serving comments about its perceived misogyny and the misguided gender war agenda that some idiots have pushed through, I cannot believe everybody gave La Grande Bellezza a pass.
Not just a bit angry and bored, I still tried my luck for Behind The Candelabra at the 2pm screening in the Grand Palais, and a kind man offered me his spare invitation, one of the very few with a specific seat number which meant I was guaranteed to get in despite being so close to the start of the film. And as the usherette showed me to my seat, at the front row in the upper section of Theatre Lumiere (best seats in the house!), a whole row of what I can only describe as models, all glamed up despite this being a standard afternoon screening, had to get up to make me pass and did not hide their displeasure, a very surreal experience.
Steven Soderbergh has always been one of those directors who are impossible to pinpoint, despite his evident talent, because of the sheer diversity of his films. And I am sure even his most ardent supporters would be at point to describe his style in a few words, in a way that would be so easy to do for David Lynch or say, Tim Burton.
Inside The Candelabra is actually a made for TV HBO film, simply because, despite the starry cast, no film studios were willing to produce it and release it, being a bit too "gay". But the Cannes Film Festival, being one of the last few champions of cinema, gave him a slot in the official selection like any other proper films.
It has been called a biopic, which is incorrect, as it does not follow the full life of Liberace but the few years he spent with a younger lover and the true love of his life. And it is wonderful. Despite what I said about Soderbergh lacking of a distinctive style, you can still see the mark of a great director. Imagine what some hack like Baz Luhrmann would have made of it, and shiver.
In here, of course the audience is encouraged to marvel at first at the over the top campness of Liberace's universe. But there is where the director's skill comes in, as the growing romance between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) is not just believable, it is also very touching. Steven Soderbergh does not try to negate the more flamboyant aspects of a certain gay lifestyle of this era, nor does it overtly play it for cheap laughs, he just shows us the universality of love, no matter how unusual the world of the two men might come across.
Yes they live in a sort of fairy tale kitsch palace, sleeping under golden satin sheets and wearing costumes that would make Priscilla look demure in comparison. But we also follow them as they negotiate the trials and tribulations of any long term relationship, the dimming of desire after the initial spark, the complacency, the jalousy... And it is something that anybody can connect to. I must admit, I did cry a couple of times, in fact, I have cried a lot at this festival (and not just at the treatment from the security staff in the Palais), with love emerging as the main theme of this edition, in all of its complexities.
It almost goes without saying that the performances are wonderful. I am not very keen on impersonations usually, which I call the karaoke of acting, but here Michael Douglas completely nails it. Quite simply, not once did I think "Oh, this IS Michael Douglas!", he is so fantastic in it and he completely hides behind his complex character, who is not always all that likeable but wholly human. The real surprise however is Matt Damon, who is a fine actor but who could have easily drowned behind the performance of his co-lead. I find him at his most touching and engaging in here, and I will put it out there, this is my favourite performance of his. He also wears the most outrageous and skimpiest underwear with panache. Liberace was Scott's true love, right until the end, and this is what shines through the film and makes it so moving. Also watch out for Rob Lowe in a hilarious cameo, which is spoiled in the trailer so do not watch it if you prefer to avoid it!
I do not like the way the marketing is selling this as Priscilla 2 for the drunken Mancunian hen do brigade, but I guess this was to be expected, it is so much better than that though! Behind The Candelabra was shown on HBO last month, and will be released in cinemas in the UK on the 7th of June.
I knew this would not be any cheap horror remakes unlike the deluge we have suffered through over the last decade, and it became obvious from the first minutes that Jim Mickle, who made the similarly moody indie horror Stake Land, had made a completely different film, with major plot variations right from the start and a completely different setting. Interestingly, Jorge Michel Grau, director of the original film, was sat in the audience with us, I would have loved to hear his thoughts!
Unlike the Mexican film, the social undertone has all but vanished (although you could see a faint link to wacko religious cults if you wished). Here we are not faced with the plight of the underclass. Rather, the American director has gone for a more atmospheric but just as characters driven film. The cannibalism is no longer explained by a sole need to survive, there is a century old mythology attached to it, which I found to be the least interesting aspect of this new version. More rewarding is the way the story is now centered on the two daughters in the family, as they struggle with their family's dark side and condition, and as their senses awaken and their loyalties are tested, an exploration of a more feminine world which was completely absent from the original film and very well handled.
There is much to enjoy in this new film, I particularly liked the moody and pacy tone, with a pervading sadness and inevitability to it, and some great performances by the two young ladies, Odeya Rush and Ambyr Childers (as well as a nice turn by Kelly McGillis, who seem to have reinvented herself as an indie horror queen). And the ending is rather fantastic, which elicited a strong reaction from the audience. But I have to admit, it did not leave me such a lasting impression. Still, the indie world is where it's all about as far as horrors are concerned, and this is more than an honorable and intelligent attempt to a remake, which I still recommend. The audience gave a tremendous reception to the cast and crew in attendance after the screening, with the younger cast visibly moved. Plus at least we got our fix of genre films in Cannes, in a year which was a bit low in this department.