(Originally published at FilmCatcher.com, 5/27/08)
Cannes Wrap-Up: Cruel Stories of Youth (and How They Haunt their Parents)
By Anthony Kaufman
Kids these days. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Missing kids, dead kids, wayward kids—they haunted the frames, drove the plots, and without necessarily ever taking center stage at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, stood out as a recurrent presence at this year's prestigious world movie showcase: a collective symbol of lost innocence, perhaps, or a looming dread about the future of the human species. At film festivals, where risqué subject matter is de rigueur, attendees frequently get treated to provocative depictions of sex and violence: All I saw was the ravages of parenthood and the pains of youth.
With hundreds of movies playing in Cannes—and therefore hundreds of varying ways to experience the festival—every moviegoer is likely to see their own unique themes. Early on, there was a dominant sense of political atrocity, with the dark visions of "Blindness," about the world's population losing its sight, the animated Israeli film "Waltz with Bashir," which recounts the Lebanon War and the infamous 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the festival's best first feature winner "Hunger," a British film about the ill-fated hunger strike of imprisoned IRA member Bobby Sands.
But after the festival's early days, trenchant commentaries about contemporary China (Jia Zhang-ke's industrialist nostalgia docu-drama "24 City") and Tokyo (the multi-faceted omnibus "Tokyo!", featuring the absurd, strange and beautiful) seemed to have far less resonance than the simple travails of parents and children. Fittingly enough, Sunday was "Fetes des Meres," a.k.a. Mother's Day, in France.
As different as French auteur Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" is from Turkish stylist Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys," both films share an eerie attachment to a long dead child. Exuberant, literate and witty, Desplechin's two-and-a-half-hour and never-dull-for-a-moment family drama concerns Catherine Deneueve's leukemia-stricken matriarch, and the multiple generations who have circled back to support her and offer up their bone marrow, so she can "take back what's hers," as she says. The film overflows with emotion, both upbeat and down, but what sets the tone is a whimsical puppet-theater prologue which outlines the family's tragic past and its legacy: a first-born son who died at age six and whose mysterious disease finally comes back to haunt them.
There's little of that lighter touch in "Three Monkeys," Ceylan's tale of family combustion in a Turkish seaside town, which garnered him the best director prize. When the father goes to jail for six months to take the wrap for an accidental hit-and-run killing committed by his boss, he gets out from prison to find his wife and adult son embroiled in a state of further betrayals, secrets and lies. However, the film's love triangles and film-noir intrigue pales in comparison to the family's barely mentioned tragedy: When the phantom child reemerges in two, brief spectacular, ghostly moments, the film takes on a greater dimension of suffering and meaning than anything in the surface story.
That child apparition also appears in Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel's masterfully moody "The Headless Woman," a hallucinatory journey about guilt and accountability that follows a middle-aged woman in the days following a hit-and-run car accident. (Cannes might also have boosted concern about irresponsible drivers.) While Vero, the protagonist of "The Headless Woman," may have just hit a dog, the film insidiously cultivates growing suspicions that it could have been a young boy. Screened back to back with "Three Monkeys," such worries only gain further resonance, along with the Cannes-repeated notion that people are unwilling to face-up to the consequences of their actions.
In the Dardenne brothers' "The Silence of Lorna," which won the prize for best screenplay, Lorna, the young Albanian émigré at the center of the Belgian film, eventually faces up to her responsibilities, but her atonement comes too late. Without giving too much away about the film's surprising plot shifts, suffice it to say that the film felt right at home with the festival's other stories of mothers and their determination to see their children through to survival.
Take Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' Brazilian drama "Linha de Passe," which follows a poor mother (Cannes best-actress winner Sandra Corveloni) in futbol-obsessed Sao Paolo struggling to raise her four children, with a fifth on the way. The film skillfully and elegantly interweaves the story of the woman's children: There's the dark-skinned youngest in search of his father among Sao Paolo’s bus drivers; the two middle children, one devoted to the church, the other to attaining enough money to support his girlfriends and the mother of his own child; and the oldest, an aspiring soccer player already past his prime. Without giving in to melodramatic excess, the film smartly shows the everyday struggles of the poor, but in its subtlety, it never exactly feels piercing or gripping, either. Similarly, Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero's "Leonora," also known as "Lion's Den," examines a poverty-stricken pregnant mother, who gives birth in prison and struggles to carve out a sustainable existence under impossible conditions for herself and her young son.
Unlike such hard-hitting dramas of social conscience, Italian director Matteo Garrone's "Gomorra" – winner of the runner-up Grand Jury Prize -- doesn't yield sympathy, nor does it try to, for its insane mob-wannebe teens in this sprawling tale of southern Italy's criminal society. Garrone focuses on several different characters within the Camorra – Napoli's mafia – from an old accountant to a pint-sized delivery boy who joins in with the gangs. But the film's major revelation are a pair of aspiring Tony Montanas—one lanky and skinny, like a walking rubberband, the other a raspy-voiced budding Robert De Niro—who steal a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers and give them a go along a desolate river bank, wearing only their underwear. The scene is as ludicrous as it is somehow entirely credible—much like the entire film. And what it says about the moral compass of youth today shocks, appalls, and even incites a bit of nervous laughter.
The drug over-dosing young adults that form the center of the intriguing "Afterschool" and the beautifully photographed "Better Things," idiosyncratic and challenging visions from, respectively, first-time directors Antonio Campos and Duane Hopkins, also evoke an array of reactions about the profoundly difficult—even deadly—process of coming-of-age.
A personal disclosure: My obsession with youth at this year's festival may have to do with my own recent journey into fatherhood. When your 10-month-old awaits you across the Atlantic, there's nothing like a melodrama about a young boy's kidnapping (Clint Eastwood's "The Exchange") to stir up your parental hormones. (That, and the fact that I missed "Che," Steven Soderbergh's epic starring Cannes best actor winner Benecio del Toro as the infamous guerilla leader, which to my knowledge, has little do with children and everything to do with politics).
Then again, the Palme d'Or winner, Laurent Cantet's "Entre Les Murs" ("Between the Walls"), has everything to do with children and politics. Though the film played on the final Saturday of the festival, so several early departing journalists missed it (including myself), based on reports, the film's story about a teacher and his relationship with his complicated young students seems a fitting winner for a festival rife with the tribulations of youth and the responsibilities of their caretakers.