Cannes Day Two: Tetro
Posted on Thursday May 14, 2009, 15:38 by Damon Wise
Day Two began with a conundrum: Fish Tank or Tetro? That is, the new film from the UK's Andrea Arnold, which I'm told is even better than her debut, Red Road, or the latest from Francis Ford Coppola, his allegedly back-to-basics, intimate masterpiece. In the end, I went for Tetro, figuring I can probably see Fish Tank tomorrow – which leaves me with tomorrow's conundrum – Humpday or Fish Tank? – seeing as it starts very soon after another film on my want-to-see list.
The big story with Tetro is that is would be, no pun intended, one from the heart, a highly personal story of two Italian-American brothers who are reunited in Buenos Aires. I hadn't seen Youth Without Youth, and nothing I heard about it made me want to, but I was keen to see Tetro all the same, largely because it stars the crazy Vincent Gallo, the lovely Maribel Verdu and the imperious Klaus Maria Brandauer. Two hours later I emerged somewhat disappointed. It's not a catastrophe, but neither is it a classic, and a big problem is Coppola's self-penned script, an Oedipal drama that may as well be subtitled An Oedipal Drama, because subtlety is not its strongest suit. I'll start with the pluses, the big one being a proper role for Vincent Gallo at last, who's been in danger of being shunted into Christopher Walken territory lately by lazy casting agents. Here, he plays the title character, a failed writer who has rejected his past to the extent that he has even changed his name, but the sudden arrival of his younger brother brings back some uncomfortable memories. Gallo is charismatic and even sympathetic in the role, a feat aided by a wonderful performance by Verdu. Verdu brings a secondary role, as Tetro's live-in girlfriend, vividly into the foreground, with looks and nuances that add up to a terrific performance. It's not so believable that she was Tetro's nurse in a mental home, but it's thoroughly believable that she's smart and in love with the guy, neuroses and all. As Variety would say, techs specs are aces too: the monochrome cinematography is gorgeous, and with Roman Coppola on second unit and Walter Murch editing, bar the last 15 minutes, it flows as seamlessly as you might expect.
Now the downside. Alden Ehrenreich, as Tetro's little brother Bennie, is making his debut here, and sadly it shows. He's moody and good-looking, but somehow the presence just isn't there, and in scenes where Bennie ought to be wrestling with inner conflicts, he looks more like he's wondering whether or not he left the oven on. But the biggest complaint of all is really the script. It's naivete is acceptable at times, but the film is clumsy in its construction and leans very heavily on coincidence to get by (I wonder how many baroque dance-theatre pieces, with little apparent dialogue, are commissioned by wealthy arts festivals just on the basis of a few typed pages). The twist is a good one, but as soon as the film snaps into focus Coppola goes off on a tangent, raking over the story of Tetro's hate-hate relationship with his father and wheeling in Uncle Alfie (eh?) for a pointless scene in the final stretch. Coming from the writer of The Conversation, it's all a big let-down.
Which is an appalling segue into another letdown: Kore-Eda Hirokazu's Air Doll (pictured... duh!), in which a plastic sex doll comes to life, gets a job in a video store and learns a lot about human frailty. At two hours it feels stretched even for a feature. It would be cruel to say that it's basically a short, but there's an element of truth in that. Still, I was happy to fall in love with the adorable Du-Na Bae, who plays the doll, as I suspect Kore-Eda was. A good 70 per cent of the film rests on her doll-like beauty and terrific command of physical comedy. The twee stuff I didn't like (it's not as bad as Milla Jovovich learning about war in The Fifth Element), but thankfully there wasn't so much of that. Like Coppola's film, Air Doll looks beautiful, and even though it bordered heavily on pretension, I went with it and was happy to give Kore-Eda the benefit of the doubt. His films are slow and thoughtful, with a charming vein of humour, so they're not destined to break out any time soon. However, if you fancy a break from the usual Asian masters, check out 2004's wonderful Nobody Knows.
This bulletin may be all I have time for today. Next up is the short film Together, starring new Dr Who Matt Smith, which is on with the Critics Week opener Huacho. Then at 10pm I'll be going to Thirst, the latest from Park Chan-Wook. When Director Park is on fire, few can touch him, so let's hope his vampire thriller is another winner from the South Korean visionary...