So-So So Far

By Todd McCarthy | Todd McCarthy's Deep Focus May 14, 2010 at 11:32AM

The first 24 hours of Cannes have yielded pictures strictly in the middle range; not bad, but hopefully a warm-up for better films over the weekend.
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The first 24 hours of Cannes have yielded pictures strictly in the middle range; not bad, but hopefully a warm-up for better films over the weekend.

"On Tour"

The first competition title unveiled was Mathieu Amalric's "On Tour," a busy, unstructured, piece-meal, moderately lively look at a desperate French promoter shepherding a bunch of brassy American practitioners of New Burlesque on gigs around the coast of France. Amalric, a live-wire actor best known in the States as the weasely villain in "Quantum of Solace," who must one day play Roman Polanski--or be cast as his doppelganger--simply because he so startlingly resembles him, is the sweaty, chain-smoking hustler who evidently hopes these ample, mostly middle-aged babes will put him back in the game, despite the abundance of people around the periphery of his life to whom he owes debts, financial and emotional.

Amalric recruited his cast from the world of New Burlesque, which one of the gals defines as stripping created "by women." The acts themselves, gradually revealed during the course of the tour, possess some novelty compared to the conventional stripteases of the last century aimed at dirty old men; the audiences in towns such as Le Havre, Nantes, La Rochelle and Bordeaux seem entirely mixed, middle-class and enthusiastic. But, while the film has some exotic value, the women reveal themselves only physically, never as full-fledged characters; their pasts, family histories and self-reflective sides remain unexplored, and it's never even mentioned how their current boss found them in the first place. Similarly scarce is real humor, something one suspects would have been present in an American treatment of similar material, be it campy or otherwise. It's a not disagreeable time-killer, but hardly a film that will be remembered by festival's end.

"Draquila, Italy Trembles"

A dark strain of humor is the hallmark of the documentary "Draquila, Italy Trembles," a mordant analysis of the corrupt ties between government and the private sector in Italy that stem from the head and find full expression in the way the nation dealt the with the deadly L'Aquila earthquake of April 6, 2009. The film, which just opened to strong box-office in Italy last week, is the work of Sabina Guzzanti, who gained fame for her satirical late-night TV show "RaiOt" a decade ago but was kicked off the air in 2003 for an impudence not appreciated by the Berlusconi regime. Politically, comedically and politically (but not physically-she's gorgeous), Guzzanti is the Italian Michael Moore (they are friends), and her playfully pointed animation, jabs at the Italian leader's gaffes, boasts and shameless hypocrisy, and stick-it-to-them attitude toward authority puts her in the same attitudinal ballpark.

As an on-camera presence, however, she's much more subdued and less in-your-face than Moore, most often just prompting her subjects with questions and then letting them do the ranting. And there's plenty to rant about. In the wake of the quake, which killed 308 people and left the town's beautiful old city center in ruins, the government quickly took action, evacuating thousands of citizens and putting them in nearby tent camps. Visiting the area more than 20 times and playing the role of beneficent father to the hilt, Berlusconi ordered new, fully-equipped homes be built with extraordinary speed (red tape means little when you hold all the power) and those on the receiving end sing the man's praises and no doubt will vote for him again next time around.

But, there's plenty of dirt beneath the relentless P.R. and Guzzanti digs it up, sometimes cleverly and incisively, yet with increasingly laboriousness. The scandalous connections between government ministers and the private sector, the quasi-prison camp restrictions put on the tent dwellers--they were even forbidden from drinking Coke and coffee, much less alcohol, for fear of disturbances--the corruption-drenched "Civil Protection" arm of the State Department, the laws changed to protect the guilty, the fact that, just as a fraction of the displaced were being installed in new homes, a larger number were being cast out of the tents and left to their own devices--it's all documented in appalling detail and abundance.

As things progress, Guzzanti goes off on too many tangents and allows her subjects to repeat themselves to eventually diminishing returns. So astonished is she at Berlusconi's sheer gall and his ability to bamboozle the public just as he bullies and/or silences his critics, that she can't resist laying it on in equal measure, when it's clear less could have been more, if not Moore.

"Chongqing Blues"

Veteran Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai's "Chongqing Blues," which was bumped up from Un Certain Regard to the competition after the Official Selection entries were announced, is middle-of-the-road fare with just enough going on to keep you on board, if just barely. The story of a long-at-sea ship's captain who returns to his native city and undertakes an investigation of why his wayward son was shot by police during the course of a hostage-taking, the picture proceeds at a measured pace as Mr. Lin (admirably played with insistent humility and restraint by Wang Xueqi) interviews everyone with a knowledge of the case--his still-furious ex-wife, a security guard who was stabbed during the incident, the hostage who was also wounded, the son's ex-girlfriend, his best friend and the cop who killed him.

Moodily drenched in a depressed pall by the low clouds that perpetually envelop the titular city, this is a low-key work with a diverting gallery of supporting characters but an ending seemingly contrived to provide a tad of uplift to a tale that otherwise offers little emotional catharsis.

"The Housemaid"

An Asian competition entry of a distinctly different nature is Im Sang-soo's sexually juicy, stylistically sleek, dramatically over-the-top melodrama "The Housemaid." Officially a remake of a 1960 South Korean picture of the same name, this update reportedly bears little resemblance to the original, with two central characters having been added. But it does carry some crippling baggage of another era in its reliance on what feel like dated notions of extreme class warfare, with lower-stationed people bowing and scraping and otherwise allowing themselves to be completely trampled by their economic betters.

All the same, Im directs the hell out of the story, which has a comely woman (Jeon Do-youn, who won the best actress prize in Cannes three years ago for "Secret Sunshine") hired as a maid by an insanely wealthy family living in a house that would strike envy into the hearts of most residents of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Overseen by a forbidding Mrs. Danvers-type older housekeeper, Jeon's Eun-yi is specifically assigned to cater to the spoiled and vastly pregnant wife, who will soon give birth to twins, and her agreeable young daughter.

But, the member of the household Eun-yi will soon most importantly be servicing is the husband, a handsome, arrogant man of privilege who secretly exercises his presumed droit de seigneur with the help in a couple of particularly lubricious scenes, the first of which comes immediately after he's engaged in an unexpected session with his about-to-drop wife. Nothing, including Eun-yi's eventual pregnancy, escapes the attention of the older maid, while the master manipulator of all is the wife's cunning and glamorous mother, who knows how to play everyone.

Ultra-attentive to everything from the characters' specific sexual quirks to the extravagant, Western-aping lifestyle of a certain strata of the Korean ultra-rich, Im, whose best-known previous film was "The President's Last Bang," doesn't miss a trick in portraying the gamesmanship at play, and the film's look is positively voluptuous. It was also a provocative and smart decision to reverse the situation from the 1960 film and have the wife played by a younger and hotter actress than the one cast as the maid. The performances are on the money all around.

Finally, a major aspect of the violent conclusion is confusing to the point of bafflement and the importance attached by the upper class to keeping everyone beneath in their place, and the willingness of the victims to take all the abuse dished out, feels somewhat antiquated, redolent of an earlier time. There's a "Fatal Attraction" air to the proceedings that could easily cue an American version, but some thematic re-balancing would be required.