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Dispatch from Cannes: "Antichrist," "Agora," Keats, Il Duce, Ebert


Lisa Nesselson, our guest correspondent at this year's Cannes Film Festival, graces this blog with her account of what's transpired so far, including the long awaited appearance of "Antichrist,"the latest opus from self-confessed "world's greatest filmmaker," Lars Von Trier.

We're, like, five days into the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, and I gotta tell you, "Agora" rocks and "Kinatay" sucks.  Oh, wait -- this isn't that kind of blog.

Five days into the 62nd Festival de Cannes, the lint-free navel around which the cinema revolves much like the earth in its eternal trajectory around the sun, one can only gaze at the screen with thousands of one's fellow acolytes and marvel at being here at the apex and epicenter of cinematic creativity.  Oh, wait, this isn't that kind of blog either.

Since it would be unwieldy for the auditorium's capacity of 1800 international film critics to shout out how many stars they'd give a movie they've just seen, the crowd resorts to applause and/or boos. In the Competition line-up, Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" has gotten the most of the latter to date.

Von Trier confesses in the press kit that this is "the most important film of my entire career!" Although the writer/director/provocateur has always had a knack for self-promotion -- on no fewer than three occasions during the film's Monday press conference he managed to work into the conversation that he's "the best director in the world" -- even he'd have a hard time topping  the wording of the press release  from the Pompidou Center in Paris for the complete retrospective of his work (including films he shot between the ages of 11 and 13) slated  from June 8-22.20 For anyone trying to situate Von Trier's place in the creative firmament, he is described as "a Danish filmmaker both adulated and decried, and heir to Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Fritz Lang and Orson Welles."

Rats.  I was going to drop that very sequence of names to describe myself on a job application. (I know, I know -- it's not all that often you see a classified ad under the heading PRETENTIOUS MYTHOMANIACS WANTED.)

"Antichrist" takes place almost entirely in a remote wooded setting full of tall trees, the better to go out on a limb.  Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, a formerly loving couple afflicted by bottomless, entirely justified, grief, throw themselves into a form of self-prescribed couples therapy such as that dispensed in the environs of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Throw in some talking animals, literally stunning visuals and Mother Nature's most devilish tricks and what's not to like?

Speaking of being anti-Christ, religious opinions create a world of trouble in Alejandro Amenabar's "Agora." Set in the 4th century A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, the film introduces us to one of at least three real-life heroines in this year's line-up who were born far far too soon for their own good.

Rachel Weisz glows with a beautiful mind to match her hardly shoddy exterior as Hypatia, an astronomer and philosopher whose father Theon (Michael Lonsdale) is head librarian at the Library of Alexandria.

(There were two -- who knew?  The first branch was destroyed when Caesar hit town and the second one was sacked by fundamentalist Christians offended by the open stacks of scrolls and intellectual activity.)

Hypatia is pleasantly obsessed with the question of whether or not the earth moves, while her fellow citizens are more and more occupied with dissing each other's gods.  In the lull after the authorities stopped tossing them to the nearest lion, Christians have been fruitful and multiplied.  Once they are permitted to openly profess their beliefs in the title spot, the science-and-reason crowd, made up of pagans, is quickly outnumbered.  The pre-show for the Dark Ages gets underway when Christians not only get the upper hand but take lethal issue with the Jews.

Two men, one well-born, the other a slave, are in love with Hypatia who, interestingly, doesn't see the percentage in giving up her life of free inquiry to be subservient to a man, however much he supports her intellectual pursuits.

Another real-life figure to get the short end of the distaff stick is Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a talented and headstrong young seamstress and clothing designer who, in an English village in 1818, meets the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), to whose name the words "doomed" and "Romantic" are frequently affixed.  They are the protagonists of Jane Campion's sensitive and affecting "Bright Star."

Shortly after meeting Miss Brawne, Mr. Keats calls her a minx.  He may even call her a minxess.

We need to revive this charming and only slightly derogatory term posthaste.  Imagine the cleansing thrill of reading "Miss Britney Spears, the noted minx, is said to possess external reproductive organs of a most fetching contour. This our reporter was able to confirm upon witnessing the minx of the hour's perhaps less than demure egress from a motor-driven conveyance."

Polite English society of less than 200 years ago was so attuned to language and so constrained in its courtship rituals and notions of propriety that a man sending a few lines of prose or verse to a female acquaintance was on a par with buying someone a drink followed by "Your place or mine?" today.  Anyone wondering what it might be like to be lovesick will find as fine a cinematic depiction as possible on screen.

With each utterance an auditory feast and comparative literature the stuff of spirited daily conversation, one can't help wondering how we went from this to Twitter in less than two centuries.

The third real-life heroine is Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), depicted in Marco Bellochio's "Vincere,"  who gave birth to Mussolini's son Benito Albino, who the budding young journalist and politician recognized only to later doctor the documents, deny Ida's claim and have her committed to an insane asylum.

Ida stuck to her guns with heartbreaking results.

Mussolini in 1907 at a public meeting asks to borrow a watch.  Noting the time he declares "If God does not strike me dead in the next 5 minutes, He doesn't exist." God was obviously on his coffee break -- or playing cards with the unemployed pagan gods left over from the old Roman Empire -- and so the wider world as well as Ida Dalser and her unfortunate son got saddled with the original deadbeat dad.

On an infinitely lighter note, on Friday Martin Scorsese helped dedicate the Roger Ebert Conference Center at the American Pavillion with Roger and his wife Chaz in attendance and beaming. Scorsese, the subject of Roger's most recent book, praised Roger for being such a champion of all kinds of films and Roger, using the voice synthesizer on his computer explained that he'd spent 7 years of his life in Cannes "one week at a time." added a few years to Roger's track record, reporting that  "Sisk then introduced the Cannes Festival Director, Thierry Fremaux, who also spoke of Ebert's key involvement with the Festival since its inception." Roger is an extraordinary and prolific writer, but Mr. and Mrs. Ebert hadn't "incepted" Roger yet when the first festival got underway in 1939, only to be called off when Germany invaded Poland. 

This led directly to WWII and Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."

Which the world (or that portion of its population in Cannes) will discover on Wednesday.

-- Lisa Nesselson

  • AW said:

    thanks for the lively post.  good to know what's going on.  I'm jealous -- you make me want to be there.

    May 19, 2009 2:30 PM
  • bluemoon said:

    Lisa Nesselson is the world's best blogger - heiress to Virginia Wolfe, Jane Austen, Maya Deren and Simone de Beauvoir.

    Seriously, Ms. Nesselson is the sketch artist of film critics - able to catch the essence of a scene in a few deft stokes with insight, accuracy and wit.

    I love how she both skewers (delicately and honors (unobsequiously) the "pretentious mythomaniacs" and mythologies of Cannes; like all great humorists, she is clearly fond of her targets.

    Some of whom could clearly benefit from some deflation...

    May 19, 2009 5:34 PM
  • MPB said:

    You somehow make me want to see even the films you make me not want to see! Extraordinary! When I saw "Zentropa" in a theater I had never heard of Lars Von Trier but he was obviously the best director in the world. I am sorry that after that he stopped working.

    May 20, 2009 1:58 AM

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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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