Historical Oversight


CANNES, FRANCE—The veterans showed their strength this year at Cannes. Still, the toughest movie I saw in competition, David Cronenberg’s droll and ruthless meta-thriller A History of Violence, came away empty-handed—just as Cronenberg’s Spider was ignored by the 2002 jury. What does it take? Beginning with Dead Ringers (1988), or even The Fly(1986), Cronenberg has been, film for film, the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world. But then, Hou Hsiao-hsien—arguably the greatest narrative filmmaker working anywhere over the last 15 years—left Cannes without a prize as well.

Why is A History of Violence, set to open in the fall, so great? Freely adapted from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel (and apparently a work for hire), Cronenberg’s movie manages to have its cake and eat it—impersonating an action flick in its staccato mayhem while questioning these violent attractions every step of the way.

A pair of cartoonishly good-looking normals (Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello), living with their CGI-perfect children in a Disneyland-idyllic small town, are irrationally terrorized by a series of criminals, most impressively Ed Harris’s mutilated gangster. Tense and atmospheric,
A History of Violence is a hyper-real version of an early-’50s B-movie nightmare—albeit one where the narrative delicately blurs dream and reality, the performances slyly merge acting with role-playing, the location feels like a set, and blood always splatters from lovingly contrived prosthetic injuries.

A History of Violence is deeply involving, although with its Hitchcockian “wrong man” theme and continual implication of the viewer, it’s as coolly distanced as its title would suggest. Cronenberg’s tone is too disconcertingly dry to be ironic and too scary to register as absurd. “It’s not tongue-in-cheek,” he remarked at his press conference. “It’s funny.” In a way, it’s a successful version of Michael Haneke’s audience-bash
ing Funny Games, and the overappreciative press screening audience drove one Viennese programmer to shout, “Stop laughing you fucking piece of shit critics and take this film serious!” It’s a movie that could drive you crazy.

That was not the case with Lars von Trier’s Manderlay. The Danish bad boy, who created a stir at his last four Cannes film festivals, failed to provoke even his enemies with this immensely disappointing Dogville sequel. Manderlayfollows Grace, now played by a flustered Bryce Dallas Howard, to an Alabama plantation where slavery is still in effect. The road to hell is paved with good intentions: Grace sets out to right a wrong, using her father’s gangsters for muscle. Manderlay has something (not much) to say about race; more resonant, although soon dropped from the schema, is the parallel between Grace’s enforced lessons in democracy and Bush’s Iraq adventure. Stunt-meister that he is, von Trier shouldn’t repeat himself. The filmmaker uses Dogville‘s formal devices to lesser effect and his boredom is contagious.

Nothing in competition was more warmly received than Jim Jarmusch’s
Broken Flowers. This Bill Murray vehicle proved to be a mini-comeback for Jarmusch, who contained his sentimental hipsterism to produce a work as funny, lively, and sustained as anything in his career, albeit deepened by a new sense of melancholy.

Murray plays an aging and depressed bachelor who has a case of virtual paternity thrust upon him. He ventures out into America and back into his past, looking up his former flames. Each encounter is more grimly comic than the last. (If Murray is our iconic deadpan star, Broken Flowers is his Seven Chances—in reverse.) The star’s obvious indifference served to capsize The Life Aquatic; here the master of the un-reaction shot and the non–double take carries an entire movie.

Jarmusch was the popular favorite. But no film journalist, myself included, could fault the jury too much for anointing Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s
The Child. The streak the brothers began in 1996 with La Promesse
continues. By now, they have a style and set of interests as instantly recognizable as any filmmakers in the world—visceral camerawork, impeccable performances, a concern with Belgium’s dispossessed, an unlikely affinity for Robert Bresson. As Rosetta remade Mouchette, so The Child revisits Pickpocket. An infant is introduced to the world. His parents are homeless teenagers. The father, a hand-to-mouth hustler played by Jérémie Renier—the young son in La Promesse and, it soon becomes evident, the movie’s eponymous child—casually sells the baby and must scramble to recover him.

Typically, The Child is structured as a series of tasks, culminating in a chase that, both metaphoric and intensely physical, is also a descent into the depths. The remarkable thing about the Dardennes is their complex single-mindedness. Each film is an odyssey (toward grace?) in a world that could hardly seem more material.