The scent of oleander declares that spring has sprung in Cannes. But on the screens at this year's film festival, it's already late fall – a time of decline, shutting down, movement toward death. Inasmuch as artists are supposed to be the antennae of the species, the art-film directors at Cannes are signalling a grim message: There's a cold front moving in.
While starlets do their last twirls on red carpets as the festival zeroes in on its Sunday-night close, the headlines coming out of Agence France-Presse scream predictions of a more ominous closing: that of the Eurozone. Four years into the economic crisis, an intractable sense of futility has eaten its way onto movie screens.
Given that this year's Cannes roster is mostly drawn from North America and Europe, and that the selection committee chooses films according to its own sensibilities, this year's lineup may not be a statistically valid sampling of the global cinematic mood. But the theme is a strikingly persistent one: More than half of the 22 movies in competition address some kind of catastrophic system failure.
For some problems, like life itself, there is no happy exit strategy. An elderly woman lies half-paralyzed on a bed, repeatedly calling out "Hurt, hurt" in Michael Haneke's Amour. A nurse tries to calm the woman's distressed husband by telling him it's probably just a reflex – her brain is shutting down.
A glamorous young billionaire investor descends from his penthouse to his limo to drive across Manhattan in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. There are assassins and funerals on the streets and in his car; banks of monitors record the collapse of the global money markets.
Sometimes the metaphor of paralysis and decline is didactic and angry: Petty ex-cons in stocking masks hit a Mafia poker game in the Brad Pitt vehicle Killing Them Softly, creating a crisis in the organized-crime world and exposing a power vacuum at the top. The movie is set in the fall of 2008, and politicians on TV are try to convince citizens of the necessity of a Wall Street bailout. "America isn't a country," spits out a morally disgusted hit man. "It's a business."
Can good intentions, at least, save us? Not in the Egyptian film After the Battle, whose scenes are intercut with footage from last year's protests in Tahrir Square, where an idealistic woman makes things worse by trying to make them better. The fall of a dictator is succeeded not by utopia but by a clearer picture of a fundamental national malaise.
According to Northrop Frye's literary taxonomy, the genre that fits with autumn is tragedy, and there are tragic allusions aplenty at this year's festival. A hero of ancient tragedy – the man riding high before the wheel turns – is mirrored in the descent that Robert Pattinson's character makes from his vast sky-high suite at the beginning of Cosmopolis. Tragedy can also be attended by mutilation and torture: A young woman loses her legs in an accident in Jacques Audiard's Rust & Bone; her lover, meanwhile, engages in brutal fights to feel the ecstasy of authenticity.
Although ironic realism is often considered the dominant modern literary mode, many of this year's Cannes movies leapt over logic to plunge us directly into the mythic realm. In Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux ( After Darkness, Light), from the Latin version of the Book of Job), an animated devil enters a Mexican family's home, sowing dissent and violence. In Italian director Matteo Garrone's Reality, an Italian fish vendor becomes mentally ill through his desire to be on reality TV. After attending a mass at St. Peter's, he breaks onto the set of Big Brother. As he lies down on a sofa there, he imagines that God – who, his priest tells him, is the only arbiter of the difference between appearance and reality – is looking directly down on him.
The subjects of age and mythology come together in 89-year-old director Alain Resnais's new drama, mordantly titled You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet. A dead man leaves a will in which he invites a group of several generations of actors to his home. They witness a drama about the Greek myth of the poet-musician Orpheus, who follows his dead wife into the underground.
An old professor makes his own kind of descent, taking a young call girl down into the streets of Tokyo in another story of age and failed heroism: Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love. There, threatened by a young thug, the prof pretends to be the woman's grandfather. His fantasy of playing the heroic rescuer is dashed by reality in a conclusion as abrupt as the series finale of The Sopranos.
Like Someone in Love was one of several films with sharply abrupt endings at this year's festival. As in real life, at a certain point things just stopped – whether resolved or not – in tragedies that sometimes offered a different kind of comfort. Facing the inevitable, as a spectacle, can evoke a clarifying compassion, a preparation for looking squarely at the facts. Still, you might want to button up your overcoat; it's getting cold out there.
The Men of Cosmopolis
"For me, the essence of cinema is a face speaking. If it's a fantastic face saying fantastic dialogue, then you've got real movie-making."
The speaker was David Cronenberg, at Friday morning's Cannes press conference for his new film, Cosmopolis, featuring the fantastic face of Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson, and the dialogue of Don DeLillo, the 75-year-old American literary lion, whose prophetic 2003 book tells the story of billionaire Eric Packer taking a day-long limo ride across Manhattan against a backdrop of financial calamity and angry protests.
DeLillo said he began noticing a prevalence of white stretch limos on the streets of New York at about the turn of the millennium, "and Manhattan is the last place on Earth where such automobiles can move comfortably. … I decided to place a character in such a car, and go from there."
Pattinson seemed uncomfortable with the suggestion that he might identify with Packer's isolation and celebrity. "I'm not the best self-analyst," said the young English actor. "I can't consciously bring anything from my life into my work. I dunno, I guess the world gets small but I wasn't that much of a social person anyway, so I don't really care."
In the film, the limo ride is stopped for sexual encounters, a funeral procession, an attack of an angry mob – but Cosmopolis was knocked in early reviews Friday for being too talky and too static.
Cronenberg anticipated some of that criticism when discussing the final scene, between Paul Giamatti, as a deluded stalker, and Pattinson: "We know that the last 22 minutes of the film is Paul and Rob is one set; it's a couple of rooms. I knew in advance people would say this is very 'theatrical,' what they call theatrical. In fact, you could do that as a short play but it wouldn't be a movie.…
"The difference is the camera, what lens, the effect of the lighting, the effect of camera movement, how close you are, how far away, with each shot. For me, that last 22 minutes is essential cinema; it is the essence of cinema."
Said Giamatti, "It was just me and Rob and I just gazed in his eyes. Just the two of us. And I'm in love with him. …"