John Powers, Fresh Air's critic-at-large and the movie critic for Vogue, returns from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival to share his thoughts on the films he liked and the films he didn't care for.
Though Powers says 2012 was not the best year at Cannes, the experience once again left him feeling rejuvenated about the movies.
"Day after day, you see things where people are trying something," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "At Cannes, you do have individual visions, you do have people trying to do individual shots that knock you out, and you do have people trying to tell stories in entirely new ways."
Here, an edited overview of Powers' thoughts on the films that won some of the festival's major awards, including the Palme d'Or, as well as some of his other favorites from the festival:
Amour, directed by Michael Haneke
The simple film from a director Powers calls the "most unpleasant filmmaker working anywhere in the world" was the favorite to win Cannes' grand prize from the moment it played, says Powers. "It came along at a time in the festival when people were grumbling that there was nothing good there," he says. Amour's plot couldn't be simpler: Basically, it's about an older, happily married man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) taking care of his dying wife (Emmanuelle Riva).
"Essentially the whole film is a process film about watching this man handle the death of his wife, and manage it, and essentially try not to be overwhelmed by the grief that he feels," says Powers. "The film's called [Amour,] I think, because Haneke's suggesting that the real fact of love is that you have to deal with the loss of your love, as well as dealing with all of the glorious romantic stuff. Most films called 'Love' would take place when the couple meets. This is at the end of life." (Winner: Palme d'Or)
Reality, directed by Matteo Garrone
The Italian satire about the effects of reality television stars Aniello Arena as a fishmonger who becomes obsessed with the idea of appearing on a Big Brother-style reality show. "He essentially goes crazier and crazier because he thinks that as they're preparing to put him on the show, they're testing him," says Powers. "So whenever he meets people, he thinks that they work for the show and are actually trying to see whether he's fit to be on the show." (Winner: Grand Jury Prize)
On the Road, directed by Walter Salles
Powers calls the adaptation of Kerouac's novel both effective and slightly disappointing. "On the Road is more a feeling than a collection of scenes, so it's very hard to know how you dramatize what's going on in it," he says. "It's one of those movies where you feel kind of guilty in not loving it more because it's so admirably well done, it's well acted, it's nicely directed — and yet it's not magical. And the problem with this is that it needs to be magical because this book, for people who love it, is magical."
Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax
Back in the '80s and '90s, Carax became the l'enfant terrible of French cinema after his movie Lovers on the Bridge outgrew its original budget and then flopped at the box office. His latest movie, Holy Motors, which drew equal amounts of boos and cheers at Cannes, is about a guy being driven around town in a stretch limo while meeting various people. "In this particular case, it's what we presume is an actor of some sorts who goes from place to place putting on costumes and then acting the equivalent of movie scenes," says Powers. "The fact is Holy Motors isn't just a movie — it's a movie about movies, or a meta-movie. There's a sci-fi sequence, a Beauty and the Beast sequence, a murder sequence, a deathbed sequence, a musical sequence — and all of it's told in this great, flamboyant style and becomes a reflection on the movies, and on perhaps the loss of the movies, as well."
Antiviral, directed by Brandon Cronenberg
The horror film, directed by the son of David Cronenberg, is set in a dystopian future world in which people obsessed with celebrity culture buy viruses that have been in celebrity bodies to be more like the celebrities themselves. Powers says he didn't care much for the end result. "I've seen many better movies this year on similar topics, but they're not by David Cronenberg's son," he says. "It sounds mean to say it, but one suspects he got in [to Cannes] because he was David Cronenberg's son. And Cronenberg's a great Cannes favorite, so I can imagine they would think it's exciting to have [Brandon] there. If I sound too disdainful, I was at the front of the line to see the movie by David Cronenberg's son. So they were not wrong in thinking this would be a hot ticket."
Paperboy, directed by Lee Daniels
Powers describes Daniels' post-Precious film as a "Southern white trash thriller that's basically like a Jim Thompson novel made by John Waters." It stars Matthew McConaughey as a journalist sent to investigate a creepy guy (played by John Cusack) who may or may not be a murderer. Meanwhile, Cusack's character is involved in a letter-writing romance with a trashy woman (Nicole Kidman) who falls in love with McConaughey's character's brother (Zac Efron). Sound confusing? It's "incredibly fun to watch," says Powers. "What Daniels has done is unhinged [the film] from all the stuff we think of as normal, straight-forward storytelling, and heightened every single thing so that it becomes this crazy meditation on race, the South, on sex. I don't know if I could say it was good, but I can't say there's a single person who saw it who wasn't incredibly entertained."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The Cannes Film Festival is the most important festival in the world. This year's was the 65th. It wrapped up last weekend.
Our critic-at-large John Powers has been to Cannes many times and was there this month. He's going to tell us about the top prizewinners, the most controversial film, and a new adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." John is also film and TV critic for Vogue.
Well, John, welcome back to FRESH AIR and to the United States...
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Yeah.
GROSS: ...from Cannes, and from, actually, a trip to China before that. Let's start with the movie that won the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d'Or. And the movie is directed by Michael Haneke, and it's called "Amour," the French word for love. Tell us about this movie.
POWERS: OK. Well, the interesting thing about this movie was that it came along at a point in the festival when everybody was grumbling that there was nothing good there. And it's a film that could hardly be simpler. Basically, what happens is you have two people in their 80s who've been married for 60 years, and they're a happy bourgeois couple with a nice, comfortable Paris place and a daughter who is married to an artist, and they've just been happy.
Then suddenly, the wife - played by Emmanuelle Riva, who's a famous old actress who starred in "Hiroshima mon amour" back in the '50s - suddenly begins to have memory lapses, and gradually we realize that she's dying. And essentially, the whole film is just a process film of watching her husband - played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, one of the most famous actors of - in the European cinema in the last 50 years - he looks after his wife. And essentially, it's a process film about watching this man handle the death of his wife, and essentially trying not to be overwhelmed by the grief that he feels.
The film's called "Love," I think, because Haneke's suggesting that the real fact of love is that you have to deal with the loss of your love, as well as having all the glorious romantic stuff. Most films called "Love" would take place when the young couple meets. This is at the end of life.
GROSS: So, "Amour," Michael Haneke's film won the Palme d'Or, the top prize. Let's talk about the film that won the Jury Prize, "Reality." What's the difference between those two prizes?
POWERS: Well, basically, the Jury Prize is second place. The Palme d'Or is the big one. And then the Jury Prize is one that's given to something that's either very, very good, or that there's some reason to give it to the person. I mean, I don't know how to put it beyond that. The awards at Cannes are always a weird thing, because the Palme is the one that matters most, and then they spread them around for all sorts of reasons, sometimes political reasons.
The film "Reality" is an interesting film in the abstract, because it's about the effect of reality television on the psyche of ordinary Italians. The story is basically is a very simple one, about a fish dealer who thinks he's going to be on the show "Big Brother" and become famous, and essentially goes crazier and crazier because he thinks that as they're preparing to put him on the show, they're testing him, so that whenever he meets people, he thinks that those people actually work for the show and are actually trying to see whether he's fit to be on the show. And he's so convinced he's going to be on the show that he sells his business, gets alienated from his family, because, in fact, he thinks that "Big Brother" is the thing that will change his life.
The first half of the movie is really great as you build up the excitement of doing it, and then gradually it gets nuttier and nuttier as he loses touch with reality. For me, part of the interest of "Reality" is to link it to another movie made by David Cronenberg's son Brandon, which was about a time in the slightly distant future when human beings buy human viruses that have been in bodies of celebrities in order to be more like celebrities. And this is one of two movies, that is to say, about the process of celebrity culture entering people's psyche so deeply that they deform themselves.
And this is clearly an obsession with current filmmakers, who feel that the movies have been replaced by reality TV and celebrity culture. And so no longer is the world defined by the great iconic movie images, but by people like Kim Kardashian or the winner of "Big Brother."
GROSS: So is Brandon Cronenberg's movie good?
POWERS: No, it's not good at all. It's a peculiar film, because it takes almost all of his father's original ideas - stuff about the body, stuff about bodily fluids - and essentially updates it, but without the freshness and originality. It was kind of sad to see it, and, you know, that I've seen many better movies this year on similar topics, but, in fact, they're not by David Cronenberg's son. I mean, it sounds mean to say it, but one suspects he got in because he was David Cronenberg's son. And traditionally, you know, Cronenberg's a great Cannes favorite, that I can imagine they would just think it's exciting to have him there.
And it must be said, you know, as if - if I sound too disdainful, that I was at the front of the line to see the film by David Cronenberg's son. So they were not wrong in thinking that this would be a hot ticket.
GROSS: So David Cronenberg himself had a new movie there. His most recent movie before that was "A Dangerous Method," a movie about Freud and Jung and one of their patients. What's the new movie like?
POWERS: Well, the new movie's a very talky movie based on a novel by Don DeLillo, "Cosmopolis." And it's - once again, it's a very simple movie. You know, Robert Pattinson - the hunky vampire from the "Twilight" series - plays a financial wiz kid. And essentially, the whole film is watching him get in his white limo at the beginning of the day and try to go across Manhattan to get a haircut. And along the way, he starts losing his money. He meets with his wife a few times, people demonstrate outside his car, people come into his limo and talk philosophically. And then at the end, he meets up with somebody who may or may not want to kill him.
It's a very abstract film based on a very abstract novel, and I was really looking forward to it and was incredibly disappointed by it. It felt very airless and hermetic. And the ideas in it are interesting, but it's so stylized in a kind of deadly way that I wound up being very disappointed.
And I should say this, that I'm a huge Cronenberg fan, and I hadn't much liked the last film, "A Dangerous Method," either. And I have come to believe that with Cronenberg - you know, one of the world's most interesting filmmakers - is that he's never less good than when he's handling material that he thinks of as being highly serious. So I didn't like his adaptation of "Naked Lunch." I didn't much like his dealing with Freud and Jung. And here in dealing with Don DeLillo, one of our major American novelists, he seems to get a little tight, and it always feels hermetic and cold.
But when he's making what he thinks of as junkier material, like "Eastern Promises," or those early movies, you know, where people insert videocassettes into their bellies, then he's almost always great.
GROSS: So if there were an award - which there is not - for the most controversial film at the festival, what would it have gone to?
POWERS: The film, it was called "Holy Motors" by this French director Leos Carax, who, back in the '80s and '90s, was the l'enfant terrible of French cinema. And back in the '90s he made a huge flop called "Lovers on the Pont-Neuf" and somehow his career deflated. He was back with this film "Holy Motors" which is kind of a parallel film to the Cronenberg film "Cosmopolis" which is basically the story of a guy who spends an entire movie being driven around in a stretch limo and meeting people.
In this particular case, it is what we presumed to be an actor of some sorts, who goes from place to place, putting on costumes and then enacting what are the equivalent of movie scenes. So then, in fact, "Holy Motors" isn't just a movie. It's a movie about movies or a meta-movie.
So that there's a sci-fi sequence, there's a "Beauty and the Beast" sequence, there's a murder sequence, there's a deathbed sequence, there's a musical sequence. And all of it's told in this great, gorgeous flamboyant style and becomes a reflection on the nature of the movies and on perhaps the loss of the movies as well. It's about this guy who now has been reduced to the point where he's driving around Paris enacting movie scenes, rather than being able to live them in the big grandiose way that people used to.
GROSS: So did you like it or not? It sounds like it either could be really good or really pretentious.
POWERS: Well, I loved it. It seemed like a jolt of energy, and I think it's the film at the festival, that had the people most revved up in both directions. It had the loudest applause than anything. You know, it got better applause than the prize winner "Amour". And it got louder boos than anything else, as well. It wasn't designed as a provocation but it turned out to be one.
And it's a deeply strange movie that someone has picked up for the U.S. and I would encourage people to see it. I can't promise that you'll like it, yet it's watchable all the way through. For the - the Cannes audience is a great booing audience, and they were really happy to boo it. I think what happens is, you're in a hothouse atmosphere in a place like Cannes, where day after day you're sitting with the same people, all fighting to get into these screenings.
And you see the same faces every single day, watching the same movies. And then the air gets kind of funky and, you know, at about six or seven days in everybody's slightly out of his or her mind. And then you get a movie that is so clearly provocative and controversial and that you could either way on, people just can't stop from applauding wildly or booing to make their point and just to let off steam.
GROSS: So the Jack Kerouac novel "On the Road" was adapted into a new film that was screened at Cannes and it was directed by Walter Salles, who also did "The Motorcycle Diaries." Is it an effective adaptation?
POWERS: It's both an effective and slightly disappointing adaptation. You know, "On the Road" is a very hard thing to adapt. People have been trying to do it for years. Francis Coppola was going to do it at one point. "The Theater" director Peter Sellers was going to do it. And they always back off, in part because really "On the Road" is more a feeling than a collection of scenes.
So it's very hard to know how you dramatize what's going on in it. The Walter Salles version that played at Cannes is a very straightforward, sometimes literal-minded, adaptation of the story between Sal Paradise, who's the Jack Kerouac figure, who meets up with the guy who's essentially the spirit of beat and bebop, Dean Moriarty. He's played by a young actor named Garrett Hedlund, who's going to be a star after this movie.
And essentially they bum around the country, meeting up with the Allen Ginsberg surrogate that's named Carlo Marx, played by a young actor named Tom Sturridge, who's also very good. And then there's the William Burroughs figured played by Viggo Mortensen. And essentially they just go back and forth across the country trying to capture the great it of American life. It's the kind of story that probably needs to be done very quickly and feel as if the people who made it had been popping Benzedrine and listening to bebop the entire time.
It's not a film that can be played stately, because the actual drama isn't very dramatic. The same thing seems to happen over and over again, which is they go someplace, the Kerouac figure watches Dean Moriarty get involved with another woman, then break off with the woman. Then they go out and listen to music. That happens over and over and over again.
So the film in presenting that, becomes a little tiresome and yet moment by moment it's extremely good. It's one of those movies where you feel kind of guilty in not loving it more, because it's so admirably well done. It's so well acted. It's nicely directed. And yet it's not magical. And the problem with this is it needs to be magical, because this is the book that, for people who love it, is magical. It opens a whole new vista of life and the film doesn't do that.
GROSS: My guest is our critic-at-large John Powers. We'll talk more about the Cannes Film Festival after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our critic-at-large John Powers who just got back from the Cannes Film Festival. We're talking about some of the movies that he saw there. Lee Daniels, who directed "Precious" had a movie that was shown at Cannes called "The Paperboy." What did you think of it? I think, you know, with Lee Daniels a lot of people were wondering, OK, so what's the second movie going to be like.
POWERS: Well, what's interesting is he had made a first movie which was an insane movie called "Shadowboxer" in which Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. played mother-son, hit-men lovers - which was like lurid pulp of the highest order. This new movie is lurid pulp of the highest order. It's basically a Jim Thompson plot as played by - or made by John Waters.
The story has to do with a reporter played by Matthew McConaughey who comes back from this big city paper to investigate a guy who may or may not be correctly convicted of murder. He's played by John Cusack as the meanest, nastiest swamp dweller who ever lived. Meanwhile, Cusack has been involved in a letter-writing romance with the trashiest woman imaginable, played by Nicole Kidman in the trashiest possible way, with such exuberant, sleazy brio that, you know, I can only bow to her.
Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman is also in love with the brother of Matthew McConaughey, who's played by Zac Efron in what is clearly the funkiest and weirdest role that he will ever play. So that, you know, you get all sorts of stuff. You have urination - you have all sorts of stuff in this movie. Every scene in the film is kind of nuts. It's based on a novel by this guy Pete Dexter, and if you read the novel it's a rather straightforward, blackly comic, crime novel.
What Daniels has done is unhinged it from all the stuff we think of as sort of normal straightforward storytelling and heightened every single thing so that it becomes this crazy meditation on race, on the South, on sex, and I can't actually say that it's good, but I don't know a single person who saw it who want incredibly entertained and didn't come out talking about it. I mean, it's just one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed.
GROSS: If you see a lot of movies, and I say a lot of movies, you go through periods where you feel just, kind of, disappointed by what you're seeing. And there'll be periods - and I think we're kind of in one now - where there's just a lot of ho hum movies out there where, you want to go to a movie and you go and you think, like, I'm not sorry I saw it, but that's about all you can really say.
My faith was revived seeing "Moonrise Kingdom," it's such a wonderful film. I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time. But did you walk away from the Cannes Film Festival having your faith in movie rejuvenated or feeling kind of bored?
POWERS: Well, actually, almost every time I go to Cannes I feel rejuvenated, you know, because day after day, you see things where people are trying something. So some of the films we haven't talked about, because I didn't think much of them or didn't like them, were actually trying to be the greatest movie ever made. And I think, you know, one of the frustrating things now is that when you see movies, they seem to have been made by committees.
There's no real passion. You're trying to figure out who this was actually made for, because sometimes you don't even see why they're making them for teenagers. At Cannes, you do have individual visions. You do have people trying to do individual shots that knock you out, trying to tell stories in entire new ways. You know, these are the best filmmakers in the world competing, and some years it's better than others.
I think this was the greatest of Cannes years. It wasn't the worst. But when you're there you're actually thinking there is something alive in this medium. I think when you're entering the summer movie season here, if you're a grownup, you may think, oh, the medium is kind of dead, especially compared to what's going on in television.
And the truth of the matter is when you talk to film critics at Cannes, a lot of them will tell you that on the whole they're far more excited about the new season of "Mad Men" than they are by any of the movies that are going to be playing in the next three to four months. So there is a sense that somehow the culture has shifted and that the most interesting and exciting stuff is being done on television.
Cannes is the one antidote in my year to that, where I go and I think, oh, yes, things can really be done great and people all over the world are really trying to do good stuff. You know, and people in Mexico and Romania and Korea are knocking themselves out to do original stuff. And I don't get that feeling the rest of the time.
GROSS: John, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you for telling us about Cannes.
POWERS: OK. Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large and TV critic and film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. You can download Podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.