Cannes 2012: Two Docs, The We And The I, Broken
Posted on Saturday May 19, 2012, 13:55 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
It's interesting how themes repeat and overlap in a festival situation; two of the documentaries in the special screening strand both dealt with directors born in the 1930s who built a career with idiosyncratic movies before hitting a public artistic decline and suffering the indignity of an even more public sex scandal. Bob Weide's Woody Allen: A Documentary is the more traditional of the two, painting a detailed portrait of the New Yorker that serves both as a very entertaining refresher course and a reminder of that strange time in the 70s when the likes of Allen and singer Paul Williams became household names just for being funny. The version shown here is the shorter cut and, though he edited him himself, Weide urged us to seek out the longer cut, made, I think for PBS in the US. In accordance with Allen's films, it dips towards the end, but the early, funny vintage clips are superb.
Roman Polanski: A Memoir (even the titles are similar) is basically a character reference for the disgraced master of suspense, paying more attention to such cataclysmic events as his early life in war-torn Poland and the murder of his wife Sharon Tate than his filmography. Built around an interview with longtime friend Andrew Braunsberg, it is excellent on the subject of his boyhood experiences but, being so partisan, doesn't ever quite address the elephant in the room (Polanski is still uncomfortable with taking full responsibility for the rape of a 13-year-old girl). Fans will get a glimpse of the real Roman; casual admirers may need more evidence of his 'genius'.
Then we get to films that are sculpted around non-professional actors. The first was Michel Gondry's lovely but ever-so-slightly too long The We And The I, a one-location drama about a school bus ride from a school in the Bronx on the last day of term. Though it looks improvised, the film is deceptively well structured, playing out like a jazz song. On those terms, all the kids get their little solo routine, from the girls to the guys to the gays. The standout for me is Michael Brodie, who begins as a cocky bully but slowly unravels as the bus gets less and less populated, finally being forced to confront his own insecurities with the handful of teens remaining. Brodie has never acted before, but on this evidence he could easily be a movie star. As for the direction, Gondry's artistic thumbprints are all over it, notably in a brilliant fantasy scene involving Donald Trump. Or rather, in one of his usual flourishes, a very unconvincing Donald Trump lookalike.
This brings us to the wonderful Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which I already reviewed out of Sundance and which, as I only found out today, was also very much tailored to suit its core cast's personalities. Although it has an environmental message, the film is also about a father-daughter relationship, which is similarly at the core of Rufus Norris's Critics' Week entry Broken (pictured). The film has been slightly drowned out in the hubbub of Cannes, since it is, like its director, a quiet, thoughtful film that doesn't shout to make its point. At the heart is newcomer Eloise Laurence as Skunk, an 11-year-old girl who lives in the suburbs with her father, brother and nanny. A series of events involving two sets of neighbours conspire to change Skunk's life altogether, and Norris weaves them together in a poetic, almost experimental way that's more lyrical than narrative.
Events do escalate a little quickly, but Broken is at its best when capturing the calm before the storm. Norris, a first-timer with an indecent amount of theatre experience, excels at nuance, and a superb subplot involving Skunk and her new 'boyfriend' is a little pointillist masterpiece in itself. There are plenty of these touches throughout, like the foul-mouthed neighbouring sisters who throw a wild party that practically reeks of Bacardi Breezers and weed. But although one of its key draws is a chance to see Tim Roth playing a normal dad in a dodgy suit, for me the standout was Cillian Murphy as Skunk's teacher (and also her nanny's boyfriend). Murphy doesn't get a chance to do enough of these kinds of roles, and Norris shows us how expressive those big blue eyes can be when they're not staring flintily with evil aforethought. Broken has suffered mean comparisons with Fish Tank, but I don't think social realism is the intent here – this is much more of character piece, and though the film's layered structure perhaps doesn't give us quite enough of everybody, Norris's debut is an intuitive and intelligent drama that simply bubbles with real life, in the form of the irrepressible Laurence.