Two strong movies at this year’s Cannes Film Festival zoomed in on the state of couplehood and singlehood. Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” featured the kind of marriage that the director himself described as “ideal”. Tom and Gerri are kind, intelligent, cultivated and supportive of each other. They garden and cook together while occasionally fretting over their son, Joe. Enter their single friends, Ken and Mary, both falling apart in ways that range from comic to poignant to pathetic. The stability of Tom and Gerri’s marriage seems only to be buttressed by their frazzled friends. At what point do you have to say “enough!” to your friend’s neuroses? Desperately confronting middle age, Mary hits on the much younger Joe and is rebuffed. When she is openly rude to Joe’s new girlfriend, Gerri finds she must distance herself from her friend.
In a stark contrast to Leigh’s contented old marrieds, “Blue Valentine” is a heartbreaking portrayal of a failed marriage. Played with soul-baring naturalism by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Dean and Cindy are pained and bewildered by their wrecked marriage. Both are “good” people, kind to the elderly, attached to their daughter and their dog. And yet it all goes so horribly wrong. The film intercuts scenes of their courtship and marriage with their current agonies encouraging the viewer to try to pinpoint the fatal flaws that punctured their love. There are no easy answers; maybe there are no answers at all. Maybe they were simply unlucky to have found one another just as Mike Leigh’s couple had the immense good luck to meet their soul mate.
During the first 20 minutes of Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods & Men (Des Hommes et Des Dieux) I thought “Oh no. Another boring Cannes Film Festival auteur special”. Not much happens. A half-dozen monks sing prayers in a rural monastery. They garden and cook. A doctor receives ailing villagers. A young woman wonders whether she’s in love. Ho-hum.
But the film snowballs into a shattering dramatization of the conflict between spirituality and practicality, Christianity and radical Islam and, yes good and evil. Based on a true story of a monastery trying to survive the onslaught of radical Islam as it sweeps through Algeria, the film delves deeply into the predicament of monks trying to decide whether to stay or leave. As violence and terrorism bear down on them, each monk must excavate their souls. What is a good life? How far should their commitment to serve the villagers go? What is the Christian way?
The acting is superb; each monk is highly individualized. With little exposition, we feel as though we know these men intimately and care deeply about them and their fate. Profoundly spiritual and emotionally powerful, this highly intelligent movie is bold enough to ask the big questions and trusts the audience to find their own answers.
Doug Liman’s new film, “Fair Game” continues the Cannes Film Festival‘s trend of politically-themed movies this year. Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame and Sean Penn plays her husband, Joe Wilson, as they become entangled in the infamous lead-up to the Iraq War. Former ambassador Joe Wilson debunked a report that Iraq had purchased “yellowcake” uranium from Niger, thereby incurring the wrath of Dick Cheney’s office. In retaliation, the administration exposed his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative which effectively ended her career.
The most compelling parts of the film deal with the political pressure put upon the CIA to find that Saddam Hussein had WMD. One of the more chilling exchanges occurs when Scooter Libby bullies an analyst into backing down from his own conclusions. Helpful Iraqis were cruelly betrayed; the film hints that the leak of Plame’s identity may have killed some of her sources.
Unfortunately, the director gives at least equal emphasis to how the leak affected the Wilson household. As the film veers into “marital crisis” territory, it loses gravitas.
The casting was another unfortunate decision. Valerie Plame is clearly a complex, fascinating woman but Naomi Watts is simply too lightweight to plumb her depths. For an actress, it’s the role of a lifetime, but Watts doesn’t come up with the goods. Sean Penn also struggled to convey his character’s mixture of bluster and idealism. His performance was passionate but actorly.
Still, the film is worth seeing if only as a reminder of a shameful episode in American history.