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Cheer up, you're in Cannes ; This year's movies have lots of things going for them, but a cheery view of humanity is not one of them

May 25, 2013


By Donald Clarke

You couldn't say Cannes film festival wasn't fun. Who wouldn't want to sit in the Lumire Theatre after a screening of Nicolas Winding Refn's flamboyantly violent Only God Forgives - of which I greatly approved - while one half of the auditorium cheers and the other boos? Normally you have to attend professional "wrestling" to encounter that level of audience bifurcation. This doesn't happen at the ballet. (Well it did, I suppose, happen at the Rite of Spring premiere, but it doesn't happen very often at the ballet.)

Still, we have encountered an enormous amount of misery over the past 10 days. The films in the official selection and the sidebars serve to confirm that the body cinema has a very pessimistic view of the human condition. Poetry allows in lyric idylls. Classical music has its Viennese waltzes. Why are the world's grown-up directors so bloody down on life?

Consider those films that are in the running for the Palme d'Or. Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin , in which miners go on shooting sprees and citizens are blown away at ATMs, offers an astonishingly stark message about contemporary China: the cities are awash with corruption, but life in the country is every bit as ghastly.

Asghar Farhadi's The Past is not quite so apocalyptically depressing. Nobody is shot. But the film does concern a couple breaking up miserably while an unfortunate woman lies helpless in a coma. Every revelation brings further bad news about the characters and humanity in general.

This writer's favourite film to date, Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty , is clocking in at second favourite. And that film is, as its title suggests, swollen with gorgeous images of Rome at night. Everybody is dancing. Magnificent colours stain the walls of extravagant ancient buildings. Lovely music swells on the soundtrack. There is hope for the optimist. Right?

Wrong. The Great Beauty , like its unacknowledged model, Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita , is sickened to its stomach by all this decadence and beauty. Far from celebrating the sweet life, it sees that world as an enemy of promise, a seductress of the hitherto faithful. (They talk that way in this very heightened movie.)

The current bookies' favourite for the big prize is a comedy. The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis , a study of life among folk singers in 1960s New York bohemia, bursts with nostalgic shots of Greenwich Village when artists could still afford to live there. The tunes are good. The dialogue fizzes with zingers.

Unfortunately for those seeking sunny moments, the brothers have decided to build their film around a talented failure. Things start badly for Llewyn Davis and get steadily worse until his only option is to embrace disaster. One could see the picture as a companion piece to the Coens' hilariously miserable A Serious Man . You'll laugh. But you won't feel any better about the world.

Squint at the official programme and you will struggle to find a single film that puts forwards a positive view of human affairs. Even those of us who admired Only God Forgives would find it hard to argue that the picture - arguably the most divisive entry since Lars von Trier's Palme d'Or-winning Dancer in the Dark , in 2000 - spreads significant joy. The film does certainly speak of a boy's love for his mother. But the relationship between blood- drenched Ryan Gosling and viscera-soaked Kristin Scott Thomas calls to mind certain worrying lines from Tom Lehrer's Oedipus Rex : "So be sweet and kind to mother, Now and then have a chat / Buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat / But maybe you had better let it go at that!" Oh, and the film is among the most violent I have seen in my entire life. Happy day.

In Behind the Candelabra , Steven Soderbergh reveals the meanness, backbiting and selfishness that characterised the private life of Liberace. Who knew all that sparkle was just a facade? He dies in the end. His former lover ended up going to jail. Nobody feels very fabulous.

This has always been a problem (if you regard it as such) in big, serious cinema. The optimistic work of art is too often unfairly filed away as fluff and not invited to the big party. There is some hope, however. With Steven Spielberg - an enemy of pessimism - heading the jury, the Palme d'Or could go to Hirokazu Koreeda's lovely Like Father, Like Son . The Japanese film deals with a troubling subject: babies swapped at birth and passed to the wrong parents. But it ends up in a surprisingly optimistic place.

We're putting our money on The Great Beauty , however. All will be revealed tomorrow evening.

Originally published by Donald Clarke.

(c) 2013 Irish Times. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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