The Reeler


May 25, 2007

New York in the Cannes

Ferrara, Kalin, Coens and other local auteurs take over on the Croisette

Director Abel Ferrara on the set of Go Go Tales, which premiered out of competition at the 60th Cannes Film Festival (Photo: Bellatrix Media)

Bleary-eyed from jetlag and thrown off by linguistic confusion, The Reeler traveled all the way to Cannes and found itself back in New York.

Or at least it felt that way, with the 60th Cannes Film Festival featuring a number of New York films and locally-based directors earning accolades form an international audience. “The films from New York filmmakers did well this year,” said Tom Kalin, whose long-awaited second effort, Savage Grace, stars Julianne Moore as a deranged housemother who develops an eerie sexual affinity for her son. “Many local communities thrive in Cannes. That’s the great thing: The collision between all parts of the sprawling cinematic beast. Film festivals are reunions for the nomadic film tribe.” And the city isn’t that unfamiliar, after all. Kalin adds: “Where else can you see such a pageant of wildly dressed characters in broad daylight, besides New York?”

To answer that question, start with Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales. The legendary New York director of trashy classics like Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara’s new work centers on a single crazy night at the center of a struggling striptease joint in Chelsea. Starring a terrific Willem Dafoe as the affable club manager, Go Go Tales has genuine energy along with the trademark Ferrara grotesqueries (this time, there’s Asia Argento making out with a dog). The vibe is so New York that you’d never guess Ferrara shot the thing in Italy. Conversely, Wong Kar Wai opened the festival with his first English-language drama My Blueberry Nights, which takes the art-house icon and his films' romantic aura from their Hong Kong roots to the streets of SoHo. The general critical consensus about Nights is that English doesn’t sit well with Wong; conversations (co-scripted by the director with novelist Lawrence Block) feel stilted and obtuse, while the narrative needlessly stretches in too many confusing directions. But even that, too, gives it a sort of New York legitimacy.

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Along the stretch of the Croisette where the festival hugs the shimmering French Riviera, the New York sensibility pulsed in a different fashion. Running concurrently with the festival, the Cannes Film Market offered the opportunity for large scale shopping sprees among buyers, with hundreds of titles eagerly seeking various stages of financing and distribution. It feels sort of like a prettier, more luxurious Chinatown. “Cannes is frantic, frenetic, fun and French,” said Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical releasing for THINKfilm. “My office routine is sometimes fun and frequently frantic, but that’s where the similarities end.”

At least one of the New York filmmakers at the festival, however, wouldn’t exorcise the distinct French qualities of his work. East Village staple Julian Schnabel, the former painter who, in 1998, transitioned into filmmaking with Basquiat, brought his third feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, to the main competition. The director’s first work in French, it recounts the experiences of an Elle editor who managed to publish his poetry in the wake of a debilitating stroke. The Reeler felt that Schanbel made a gorgeous visual spectacle that lacks solid narrative grounding, but most festivalgoers only agreed with the first half of that assessment. Urman called it “superb. His last film was very good, but this one is great.” He wasn’t the only one; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was purchased by Miramax for $4 million and whispers are currently circulating about its strong chances for winning the Palme D’Or.

Also sure candidates for the big prize, New York natives Joel and Ethan Coen brought their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's crime novel No Country for Old Men to Cannes and found the same sort of acclaim they’ve received here for almost two decades. A fascinating neo-Western that serves as a metaphor for the decline of the common man in America, No Country is the brothers’ finest accomplishment to date. With thrilling action scenes and nuanced dialogue (particular when delivered by Tommy Lee Jones as a jaded sheriff), the film feels like classic Coen brothers on an elevated plane of complexity; think Blood Simple written by Ernest Hemingway. Or Cormac McCarthy, for that matter.

(L-R) Chop Stop star Alejandro Polanco and director Ramin Bahrani (Photo: Cannes Film Festival)

Meanwhile, a few blocks from the luxurious Palais des Festivals where most of the main premieres take place, the local Hilton screened a variety of small international fare for the Directors Fortnight sidebar. A little less glamorous and a lot more intimate, the program included the touching and often devastating Chop Shop, the sophomore outing of Ramin Bahrani, whose Man Push Cart was a hit on the festival circuit a couple of years ago.

“The screening was very emotional for me and my team,” Bahrani wrote in an e-mail to The Reeler. “Abbas Kiarostami surprised us by being there and sat right behind me. When the film was finished we received a standing ovation, and Abbas got up and hugged and kissed me and told me how much he loved the film. Then, out of the darkness appeared Atom Egoyan who, to my surprise, had just watched the film, and congratulated me and my cinematographer, Michael Simmonds. Le Monde has called the film the revelation of the Quinzaine. We could not have asked for anything more.” Indeed, the early moments of the credit roll at the end of Chop Shop carried a certain emotional appeal. Although virtually ignored by the American press, the movie is a fantastic riff on neorealism that tells the story of a young boy living at the mercy of his own work in a rundown area of Queens. As the audience roared in approval, Bahrani hoisted his 12-year-old star, Alejandro Polanco, high in the air.

Bahrani said that the European reaction to his distinctly New York setting was revelatory. “They seemed as overwhelmed by the location as I was when I first saw it,” he recalled. “They were shocked that such a place exists in New York and so close to Manhattan. They loved the energy and also how much life and camaraderie was to be found in such a harsh environment.”

Another New York movie at Cannes that used the Queens backdrop was James Grey’s We Own the Night, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as brothers and cops in a tangled gangster plot. Aside from a few strong action scenes, the movie never rises above the minor standards of cop drama, but Grey implements his locations into the story to great success. “I’m from Queens,” Grey told an audience of journalists earlier today. “It’s both my glory and my shame.” Professionally, at least, the film is all glory: Sony picked Night up soon after the festival began for more than $11 million. Leave it to another New Yorker to steal the show.

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