In Cannes, I have always wondered what “Un Certain Regard” means, especially in comparison with the official competition, which steals its critical thunder — all the “regards”, in fact. My first impression was that this section is usually more interesting than the main one for the simple reason that it is more radical and offers the possibility of discovering new names, new tendencies, and ultimately new cinemas. That is why this time I chose to watch “Un Certain Regard”, desperately looking for the confirmation of my thesis.
On paper my guess appeared correct: There were seven first films in “Un Certain Regard” and only one in the main competition, signed by cult scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman. Geographically, the “Regard” section included several curiosities: African conflicts seen by French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire in Johnny Mad Dog; Thai sex, violence, and corruption discovered by British director Thomas Clay in Soi Cowboy; and multifaceted Tokyo!, in an omnibus film by French filmmakers Michel Gondry and Léos Carax with Korean director Bong Joon Ho, as well as in Tokyo Sonata, by Japanese filmmaker Kyoshi Kurosawa. In truth, however, most of the films, especially the two Chinese entries, seemed meant to compensate for the absence of an important national cinema in competition.
My principal misreading of “Un Certain Regard” stemmed from the aesthetic conformism that dominated a program that was at least promoted to be free of prejudices. Politically correct stories told in a decent mainstream manner colored this so-called “non-conformist” part of the official selection. I understand the importance of Middle East conflicts (Palestine, Lebanon against Israel), I was touched for deeply personal reasons by love and sex between elderly people in Germany (Cloud 9, Wolke 9, by Andreas Dresen) as well as by the difficulties of being jobless and homeless in France (Versailles, by Pierre Schoeller), but still I missed the genuine artistic shock that makes the festival experience worthwhile.
Having clarified that, now I can point out the few films made by those who attempt to innovate film language, even if the results are far from perfect.
Clay in Soi Cowboy divides the story into two aesthetically opposed halves. The first part is in black and white and describes the monotonous life together of a fat Englishman and a pregnant Thai girl (whom we later discover to be a prostitute). The second section is more a bloody, Hollywood-like action movie that explores the hideous reality behind the dull romance. The conflict between two ways of seeing the same Thai world, one from the outside, through a foreigner’s eyes (“regards”), makes all the difference.
In Afterschool, by the young, New York-based Brazilian-American director Antonio Campos, we discover various ways of viewing the world by combining different technological media: a regular professional image to indicate film reality, a video camera given to teenagers to master the new media, Internet porno sites, and mobile phone images, as we discover new angles and tragedies in after-school drugs, sex, and violence.
A different kind of socially determined violence dominates Los Bastardos, by Mexican director Amat Escalante, which was, like his first feature, Sangre, made in 2005 under the powerful influence of Carlos Reygadas. Bloodthirsty random killings dominate this universe of extremes in poverty and hard feelings.
The most powerful shock, in an almost perfect manner, was from Hunger, by the British video artist Steve McQueen. This brilliant exercise, based upon a real drama, opened hell on the screen for both prisoners and guards in the Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981. Maybe it was a tactical mistake to start “Un Certain Regard” at its highest with a screening that would have been equally effective and not out of place at the Tate Gallery, or during a political rally.
After seeing it, we could not help but repeat about most other “Un Certain Regard” entries, “Dull, but nice!”