On Monday, the Cannes Film Festival will unveil the latest work from one of the acknowledged masters of contemporary world cinema, 72-year-old Abbas Kiarostami.
Kiarostami is a central figure in the celebrated poetic-realist school of Iranian cinema, putting a human face on life in the fundamentalist regime of his homeland. There's a twist though: His latest film, Like Someone in Love, is set in Japan. And it's in Japanese.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, Brazilian director Walter Salles will offer his adaptation of the quintessentially American novel, Jack Kerouac's Beat classic On the Road, which features relatively unknown American actors Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as well as Twilight's Kristen Stewart.
These two films are the year's most prominent examples of a progressive trend in art-house films, in which directors famed in one national cinema jump languages and cultural barriers to make "foreign" films.
Though Kiarostami, increasingly frustrated by Iranian censors, has good reason to travel, he is turning necessity into a form of homage. His first out-of-country feature, 2010's Certified Copy, starred William Shimell and Juliette Binoche (more on her later), either as a couple meeting for the first time and play-acting at having had a divorce or a divorced couple play-acting at meeting for the first time. Embedded in the narrative trickery is a tribute to Roberto Rosselini's Journey to Italy (1954). Kiarostami has often cited his debt to Rossellini – though more to the stripped-down, neo-realistic period of Rome, Open City (1945) than his later dramas.
As for Kiarostami's new film – about the relationship between an older academic and a young student who is also a prostitute – it's tempting to wonder if he is working this time under the influence of transgressive Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, who made 1976's In the Realm of the Senses.
Such cross-cultural homages have successful precedents. Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose influence over the past 20 years is on par with Kiarostami's, has twice made acclaimed films in foreign languages, both tributes to directors he admired. Café Lumière (2003) was an homage to Japan's Yasujiro Ozu and his 1953 film Tokyo Story.
His other non-Chinese film, Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), depicts a French family through the eyes of a Chinese film student and nanny. It pays homage to Albert Lamorisse's 1956 French short The Red Balloon. As in Certified Copy, Juliette Binoche is also a star (all world cinema directors – Krzysztof Kieslowski, Amos Gitai, Michael Haneke, Anthony Minghella and David Cronenberg in the upcoming Cosmopolis – seem happy to cross borders for the chance to shoot a movie with Binoche).
Though American directors frequently work abroad (Woody Allen has set several of his films in Europe), rarely do they work in languages other than English. One recent exception is Joshua Marston, a former journalist whose Maria Full of Grace (Colombia) and The Forgiveness of Blood (Albania) were shot outside the United States in other tongues.
Through history, the gravitational pull has gone the other way. Hollywood has lured directors from elsewhere ranging from F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Curtiz, Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, on through John Woo, James Cameron and Guillermo del Toro. This year, four Cannes films set in the United States are from non-Americans, including David Cronenberg, whose Cosmopolis closes the festival next week.
On the Road is a special case, a quintessentially American story about individualism and the pursuit of freedom, which for some reason Americans have had a difficult time getting made. Executive producer Coppola has been trying to do it since 1979, with various directors and casts. It wasn't until he saw Salles's 2004 The Motorcycle Diaries that Coppola felt he had found the right director.
There are precedents in the choice of a non-native to direct an American road movie, though most of them get the real place badly wrong. (Danish director Lars von Trier insists he has the right to set movies in the United States, which he has never visited, because U.S. media saturation has made him 50-per-cent American.) Last year, for example, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino followed up his dazzling Italian political film, Il Divo, with the painfully off-kilter American road movie, This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as an aging rock star in search of his father.
Back in 2007, Cannes opened with My Blueberry Nights, the English-language debut of the revered Wong Kar-Wai ( In the Mood for Love), a listless, syrupy road movie starring singer Norah Jones that was easily the worst film of his career.
If the foreign-directed American road film is by now a sub-genre, Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas (1984) is the model. Yet even Wenders couldn't repeat the trick, as he tried to with the justly forgotten 2005 Cannes entry, Don't Come Knocking, which starred Sam Shepard as a fed-up cowboy movie star who rides into the sunset of an unconvincing "real" America.
The America of Kerouac's travels is, in a sense, another country, and Salles might be the right director for this story (though much of it was shot in Quebec and Calgary). As he said in Cannes in 2008, Salles sees On the Road as a story about characters "trying to break into a society that's impermeable." That's the kind of challenge a border-hopping artist should appreciate.