This blog will be, shall we say, interesting, as I intend to go against the grain with two of the competition titles. First up is John Hillcoat's Lawless, which screened on Saturday in the gruelling 8.30am slot and immediately divided critics. They seemed to split into two groups: everyone else and me. On reflection, it was an odd film to place here, and festival director Thierry Fremaux, emboldened by the success last year of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, maybe thought there'd be more room this year for an auteurist genre movie. But if he was thinking that, he was mistaken; the world's press take the competition very seriously, and Lawless was judged and found wanting.
Lawless isn't as self-consciously genre as Drive but, like its hero, it certainly has focus. As with his previous films The Proposition and The Road, this is an excellently assembled movie; leaving aside the performances, it has pace and power in the visuals alone, recreating the rural Prohibition era with a stylised authenticity that feels very modern despite the accent on detail. It takes place in the county of Franklin county, Virginia, where the Bondurant brothers – Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) and Howard (Jason Clarke) – run a moonshine business. It's a successful trade, but another racket comes to town in the form of the corrupt, sadistic Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). In this world, the cops have even fewer scruples than the gangsters, but the Bondurant boys hold firm against his attempts to extort money from them, effectively declaring themselves a war.
The film is narrated by Jack, who's not as tough as his brothers but brighter, and LaBoeuf is really very good in the role, as fashionable as it is to dismiss him. Hardy, too, is impressive as the hulking Forrest, a bear of a man who believes himself to be invincible. Hillcoat's usual themes – family ties and the idea of violence as the crucible of civilisation – are here too, in a beautifully economic form. But the real standout is Nick Cave's script, which plays like a longform lyric at times. As one might expect from the author of Murder Ballads, there's a dark poetry here. Forrest mutters that, “Violence is not what makes a man stand out, it's the distance he's prepared to go,” while Jack observes of his hero, the tommy gun-wielding Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) not that he is a tommy gun-wielding murder but that he has “drive and vision”. Cave really knows this world, these characters, and takes savage delight in a world where the very concept of law has been abandoned. It's telling that all attempts at vengeance only beget more vengeance, and that order is only finally restored by ordinary people who've had enough of the madness that's been raging around them.
Speaking of crucibles, Thomas Vinterberg's excellent Jagten, aka The Hunt, is a riff on Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials. Where Miller's story used a historical event to comment on the present day (the government's persecution of communists), Vinterberg's film is a little more general. It stars Mad Mikkelsen in perhaps a career-defining role as the nice but nerdy Lucas, an assistant at a kindergarten. Lucas is popular with the kids, but when his best friend's little girl shows signs of developing a crush, he tries to put a stop to it. She responds by claiming sulkily that Lucas has shown her “his willy”, a claim that is immediately indulged by Lucas's boss and the girl's parents, even though quickly tries to retract it as just something “silly” that she made up.
Things do not go well for Lucas, and the film brilliantly depicts the aftershock of the allegations. This isn't a case of did-he or didn't-he, since we do get an objective angle on the story and we know he is innocent. So this isn't a film about a pervert, it's about crowd mentality and how much mud sticks: Lucas loses his job, custody of his son, his best friend and his place in the community. Vinterberg's film is perhaps a little Danish in some respects, notably in the way that Lucas seems to give in so easily, but the film's universality is beyond doubt. The rehabilitation of R&B singer Chris Brown demonstrates the double standards of public thinking: while we claim to enjoy democracy, there are some things you can never come back from, and paedophilia remains the last taboo.
Michael Haneke likes a bit of a taboo, and here I make the controversial claim that I didn't much care for his latest, the beautifully made but for me somewhat hollow Amour. Vinterberg's film carried a big emotional punch but lacked a grand theme. Amour has a very grand theme, but for reasons I'm about to explain, it left me cold. As is the norm for Haneke's films, it preys on middle-class fears. This is Paranormal Activity for the bourgeoisie; the fear is not just of becoming paralysed, as one of its leads is, but of ageing and decaying, losing one's free will, independence and marbles. It's The Blair Witch Project for people who think their children hate them usually because they do, and shudder at the fate of Iris Murdoch, instructing their friends, gravely, to shoot them if they “get like that”.
There is humanity here, but for me it was all in the acting. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, a well-to-do Parisian couple whose modest but rather privileged life is rocked when Anne suffers a stroke. Falling in the unlucky five per cent who don't make it through, Anne has surgery that not only doesn't work but seems to make her condition worse. All the while, Georges can only watch as his wife regresses in front of his eyes, to a babbling, helpless state of infancy. Both leads are superb, and Riva is especially awesome, confronting a role that is both tough technically and unflattering aesthetically. For me, though, the film mostly exploits its audience's fears, and what you get out determines what you put in. These are people with cultured tastes – their large apartment is littered with artworks, records and books – but they seem to appreciate life from a distance. With his glass, as ever, half empty, Haneke dwells on the misery, and to me the film had more to do with pride than love. I can see why it's been acclaimed but I couldn't drink the Kool Aid; these weren't, to quote another Michael, my kind of people.
Manfrendshensindshen Posted on Tuesday May 22, 2012, 15:46
That's a very interesting perspective on Haneke's stance. In general I find arthouse movies all too often striking a pose of cold detachment, when the actual intent is bordering on condescending malice.