Friday, May 20, 2011

At the Cannes Film Festival: von Trier, Almodovar, Drive

Posted by on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:28 PM

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While many lowlights of this year’s Cannes Film Festival were saddeningly low, including Takashi Miike’s pointless and weirdly maudlin remake of Harakiri, the main competition’s highlights were mostly pretty damn high.

For starters, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was vastly outshone by its director’s typically tactless but kinda funny press conference gaffe. His serene psychodrama about a depressed bride-to-be (Kristen Dunst) and the end of the world has a gorgeous and disturbing first sequence. Only von Trier would think to score the destruction of all life on Earth with a romantic theme from Tristan und Isolde.

After that opening salvo, Melancholia is oddly sedate by von Trier’s standards. Which is pretty weird: what does one do with a straight-forward von Trier film? It’s like Antichrist but this time you get to laugh with von Trier instead of just appreciate being laughed at—while the results are surprisingly easy to take, the film is slight for him. It’s never dreamlike enough to fully take off, but it does feature exceptional performances from Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland, as her golf-obsessed, petty bourgeois brother-in-law.

Speaking of provocative, The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar’s batshit follow-up to the middling Broken Embraces is… pretty schizophrenic, actually. Which is a very good thing. Antonio Banderas stars as a plastic surgeon experimenting with a genetically modified form of skin tissue, using a mysterious woman (Elena Avera) he keeps locked in his house as a guinea pig. After a series of relatively moody and straightforward flashbacks, his captive’s identity is revealed and when it does, the film dives off the deep end. (Kind of a spoiler? Maybe?) The tonal break is fitting if you consider that it's seemingly inspired by a couple of characters' post-rape trauma. Once The Skin I Live In’s wackadoo third act kicks off, Almodovar cuts loose with a hilariously flamboyant denouement that’s equal parts silly and inspired.

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Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis’s novel by the same name, isn’t nearly as thoughtful or unhinged. But that’s ok considering just how good Refn’s no-nonsense homage to Donald Westlake and Michael Mann’s L.A. is. Ryan Gosling stars as a stunt driver who moonlights as a hard-as-nails getaway driver for petty crooks. He falls in love with his next-door neighbor (Carey Mulligan), which in turn gets him involved with a criminal scheme leading right to the door of a crooked Hollywood producer (Albert Brooks, whose tremendous performance blows away the film’s stacked supporting cast).

Too bad Refn still doesn’t know how to shoot characters in motion—the controlled but rather quiet opening chase is pretty charming, but when he films a car chase in broad daytime, the result looks suspiciously like a very surreal car commercial. Good thing much of the film’s purposefully brutal violence has nothing to do with cars or, uh, driving. Still, Drive is Refn’s most accessible film and his best after Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands. There’s no way he can be ignored now.

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