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Cannes: Odes to a beautiful France and austerity in Britain (Int. Herald Tribune)

Cannes: Odes to a beautiful France and austerity in Britain (Int. Herald Tribune)

By Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott
CANNES: It may not seem terribly surprising that the leading French film festival should feature a number of movies that show France in a flattering light, but the cinematic love letters to the country popping up on Cannes screens this year are not self-addressed billets-doux, even though high self-regard is a longstanding French tradition. Given that one of the themes of the recent French presidential election was a perceived national identity crisis, it is possible to imagine the present cluster of pro-French movies by non-French directors as a kind of friendly reassurance. Hey, these filmmakers seem to be saying, don't be so down on yourselves. We love you.
And so Hou Hsiao-Hsien, from Taiwan, paid tribute in "Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge" (The Flight of the Red Balloon) both to a classic French children's movie and to the everyday loveliness of Paris. And Michael Moore, as if saying merci for his Palme d'Or three years ago, turned a paean to the French welfare state into the comic centerpiece of "Sicko," his indictment of the U.S. health care system. So benevolent is the French government, in Moore's knowingly wide-eyed account, that it not only treats its citizens' maladies, but also does their laundry. (Not all the time, of course. Only when there's a new baby in the house. But still.)
And if a Frenchman should undergo a paralyzing stroke, the government will provide two beautiful women to sit at his bedside, one to help him communicate and the other, a physical therapist, to help him regain use of his mouth by blowing kisses and extending her tongue. (These women are supplementary to the mother of the man's children, his mistress, and the lovely amanuensis dispatched by his editor to help him write a book).
Granted, state largesse is not really the theme of "Le Scaphandre et le Papillon" (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Julian Schnabel's moving and gorgeously shot adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Jean-Dominque Bauby, who had been editor of Elle magazine before suffering his stroke at the age of 42. What Bauby had to endure - full consciousness and complete immobility, apart from the ability to open and close one eye - is horrifying under any circumstances.
But the setting of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is not incidental to its spirit, which is exuberant as well as poignant, and remarkably unsentimental given the subject. Even in his frozen state, Bauby (played by the kinetic French actor Mathieu Almaric) remains a sensualist, an ironist, and a bon vivant - very much a Frenchman, you might say. And the matter-of-fact benevolence with which he is treated by most of the people around him also seems, in Schnabel's rendering, to be a reflection of national character as much as individual temperament.
Nor does it seem incidental that France is the only place in Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's "Persépolis" that is shown in color. The film, with dialogue in French (some of it spoken by Catherine Deneuve) is an animated adaptation of Satrapi's memoir, which deals with her and her family's experiences in Iran before and after the 1979 revolution. Both Tehran, where young Marjane struggles with the effects of war and political repression, and Vienna, where she dabbles in adolescent rebellion, are drawn in black and white. France, where Satrapi has lived for much of her adult life, does not figure much in the film's narrative apart from a few framing scenes at a Paris airport. But the full palette of colors makes it clear that in France her heroine can at last be fully herself. - A.O.S.
'The Man From London'
One of the energizing and occasionally enervating consequences of attending an international film festival is that it forces you to face your own impatience. Much of commercial cinema moves at a fairly accelerated clip, with anxious camerawork and nanosecond editing that verges on a flicker-effect. Confronted with longer takes and the languorous pacing of some of the festival's offerings, viewers hooked on speed-cinema rush toward the exit, fall asleep in their seats or try to slow down their biorhythms, way down. Such was the case with "The Man From London," from the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, making his first appearance in the main competition with an austere black-and-white work that had the press fleeing like panicked slaughterhouse cattle.
It isn't bad, not at all. But it moves with Tarr's characteristic deliberation, with leisurely takes that find the camera wending through confined interiors and a few exteriors for minutes at a time without interruption. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon and set in some undefined port town, it involves a night guard who watches over a shipping dock from inside a glassed-in tower. One evening, he witnesses the accidental murder of a man with a suitcase. He retrieves the case, which turns out to be stuffed with enough cash (£60,000) to make at least one Hungarian lose his bearings. An investigation ensues, but mostly there are long takes and long walks and the remarkable transformation of film space into a state of mind.
There are moments when watching one of Tarr's films that it seems as if he doesn't just want you to look at his images, but to somehow enter into them alongside the characters. The unhurried, at times somnolent movement of the camera as it prowls around the guard sitting at home in a pool of shimmering light or hunkered down in the moody shadows of his watchtower, allows you to examine every mote of dust, nick in the wall, groove in his face. This experience with cinematic duration can be transporting, as in Tarr's masterpiece "Satantango," which after 435 trippy minutes makes you feel as if you had broken through to the other side to take up residence inside the film with the mud and lyrical drear.
If anything, at 135 minutes "The Man From London" feels too short. The production began on a tragic note when the producer Humbert Balsan committed suicide after shooting commenced in 2005, leading to financial crises. It's hard to know how his death or the money woes affected the production, but the film feels unfinished, as if a reel or the inspiration for this specific story had gone missing. As always with this filmmaker, there are moments of crystalline beauty, but they remain isolated from one another. And, for all the time you spend with the guard, you never get inside his head. As his wife, the British actress Tilda Swinton (dubbed into Hungarian) proves distracting, but she certainly looks right at home amid the beautiful bleakness. - M.D.