An Imperfect Critic

in 56th Cannes Film Festival

by José Carlos Avellar

The camera sees a green field; some trees in the background. A group of students are playing American football. In a certain way, the film here sees without seeing. Just keep there, facing the landscape not really focusing the boys playing, the camera looking around, paying attention to nothing, standing still while the boys came in and go out of the frame. In some moments we have an empty landscape – the boys are running to catch the ball out of the visual field the camera, what happens is happening out of frame. Then a girl jumps into the image, side-walking, definitely not an elegant move. She looks absent from all around, the eyes in some lost point in the sky. As the camera, she looks to be in the wrong place and seeing nothing. She is not interested in the boys or in the camera, nor the camera or the boys are interested in her. She enters, stops for a few seconds, crosses the picture always side-walking, disappears, comes back in the frame still looking to the sky and goes back to the unknown place from where she came from. The shot ends as he started, the camera stands still facing the green field.

This not so special dramatic image of Elephant by Gus Van Sant is the first that came to the memory when (just after the festival) we tried to see and think what we had in Cannes 2003. Maybe because this picture gives at first sight the strange feeling of an imperfect framing (as imperfect as a text in English made by one who does not have the English as his mother tongue). Not perfect as the images that open the new Alexander Sokurov film Father and Son, arms and shoulders and hands and ears, eyes, noses and mouths, a cubist composition with yellow tonalities, some soft light and many shadows. Not perfect as one character of Julio Bressane Filme de amor / A Love Movie presents himself and the film as a whole: “I am wrong but the wrong things are right the right things are wrong”. This picture of Elephant is imperfect in the sense that it does not follow the rules of story telling, as most of the films selected to the festival did (we have had most of the time good stories but told in an academic or bureaucratic way) and also because standing still, as an empty look, not so far nor so close to the characters, it establishes a dialectical relationship with the many big close ups and the many nervous travelling we saw this year in Cannes – including in other moments of Van Sant’s film.

Seeing films side by side in the festivals shows how the repetitions of some cinematographic solutions seem to be a kindly imposition of the production methods or a result of the way we are using new equipments. Cannes 2003 will be remembered as the festival of extreme close-ups, poor light interiors or night shooting, short focus and not so sharp digital video photography films. And, most of all: by long, long, long travellings, the camera following someone running, walking, going by car, train or bicycles, going from nowhere to nowhere. We can think again in Elephant, of the camera following the students, but also of the Japanese Sharasojyu by Naomi Kawase, with various travellings running after the boys; of another Japanese film, Gozu by Takashi Miike; of Sansa by Siegfried; of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Panj é Sar; or even of Raoul Ruiz’ Ce jour-là (not to mention one we should better forget: Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny).

Good and strong stories, as the one Hector Babenco took from the book by Drauzio Varela with the real facts around the massacre of Carandiru; the one Clint Eastwood took from the book of Dennis Lehane in Mystic River; or the one Roger Michel took from the screenplay by Hanif Kureishi in The Mother. Good story tellers, as the Spanish Jaime Rosales who tells in Las horas del dia / The Hours of the day, in a simple, direct almost could and distant way the disturbing story a ordinary man who kills people he finds by chance in the street to keep quiet after a boring day of work; as the Canadian Denys Arcand with his ironic look of day by day in The Barbarian Invasions; and as (maybe the best of all) the Turkish Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who with the slow, economic, sensitive and precisely constructed images of Uzak / Distant shows a photographer living alone in Istanbul after the lost dreams of becoming a filmmaker (as Tarkovski) and the dreams of his cousin who came from the province looking for work in the big city.

But the two real questions that Cannes presented to a critic’s eye were in the enigmatic and thin story line that Alexander Sokurov presents around a dialog line in the middle of the film – something like: “the father who loves crucifies, the son who loves let himself be crucified” – and in the almost no-story that Julio Bressane starts from a dialog line said in the beginning of the film – something like: “there is no organized language to say what I want to say; we do not know to do it but we have to invent this language. A language is a particular way of seeing and understanding the world.” Just because “Father and Son” an “A Love Movie” where the most radical fight to a free invention of a film language to say things not yet said in the cinema, and in doing so presented the most beautiful images of the festival, and at the same time (from a classical point of view) not perfect ones: the wrong being the right thing. That is why looking back to the festival, the first picture that came into mind was that of the young girl tat jump as gracious as an elephant looking for flying saucers in the sky, in Gus Van Sant’s film.