Friday, May 31, 2013

Pieta (2012)

PIETA             D+                  
South Korea  (104 mi)  2012  d:  Kim Ki-duk

Senselessly appalling and repugnant throughout, this pathetically dreary film features overly brutal, utterly despicable human behavior from start to finish, yet it stupefying won the Venice Film Festival, which makes one wonder what else was in competition?  Actually, this was not the initial choice, as while the speakers were at the podium announcing their awards, they initially awarded Best Film to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).  However, the festivities were interrupted from a live telecast when a festival official whispered something into the ear of the speaker, where Venice rules only allow any given film a maximum of two major awards, and The Master had already been issued Best Director and Best Actor, awarded jointly to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.  So after a brief but embarrassing delay, the Jury, headed by American director Michael Mann, handed out the Golden Lion Best Film to Kim Ki-duk’s PIETA ("Venice Film Festival Jury Yanks Top Prize from 'The Master' (Exclusive)").  Other overlooked films at the fest included the latest from Harmony Korine, Takeshi Kitano, Brilliante Mendoza, also Marco Bellochio’s equally dreadful Dormant Beauty (Bella addormentata) (2012), Ulrich Seidl’s downbeat Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube) (2012), Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012), which had the critics thoroughly confused ("Terrence Malick's To The Wonder confounds Venice press"), but also the near brilliant 2012 Top Ten List #7 Something in the Air (Après mai), Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical account of the political slide after May ’68.  Apparently the Italians held little interest in the French student movement, although in March of ’68 Italian students shut down the University of Rome for 12 days during an anti-war protest.  Kim Ki-duk is one of the few directors to receive more praise abroad on the festival circuit than he does at home, as he’s never been embraced by Korean critics or audiences, and was attacked ferociously in the press by film critic Tony Rayns in a November/December 2004 Film Comment article entitled Sexual Terrorism: The Strange Case of Kim Ki-duk, claiming, among other assertions, that he’s a purveyor of gratuitous violence and misogyny purely for shock and that he “shamelessly plagiarizes,” something Western filmmakers quite commonly do.  Largely self-taught, from a lower class background with no formal training in film, Kim usually focuses on marginalized characters leading morally questionable lives that seem to exist in a universe all their own. 

What apparently captured the attention of the festival was the completely uncompromising aspect of the film, where at least on the surface, the film presents an artificially exaggerated view of a descent into a mercilessly brutal world that only exists in the world of movies, displaying a sadistically crude human quality that has come to be known as torture porn, where the audience is treated to endlessly repetitive sequences of sad and pathetic humans at the bottom of the food chain who are subjected to ruthless cruelty, where Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a collector for underworld loan sharks, and if the money is not there he savagely breaks bones, feeding arms and limbs into industrial machines, or cracking them himself, turning his victims into cripples in order to collect the insurance money needed to repay their debt, subjecting each individual to excruciating pain and a lifetime of dependency on others.  This is shown in such a dispassionate manner, including all the desperate pleading followed by endless screams, that one quickly grows disgusted with having to sit through this nonsense.  The picture of Lee Kang-do is a pathetic wretch of a man, someone with no scruples whatsoever, that trolls the bottom of this Hellish existence by terrorizing weak and thoroughly moronic creatures who would idiotically stoop to borrow money from such an inhumane brute that prowls the neighborhood inflicting nothing but pain.  Out of nowhere, an older woman, Cho Min-soo, arrives at his door claiming to be his long-lost mother, apologizing profusely for abandoning him in childhood.  At first he finds it ridiculous and throws her out, calling her an “Evil bitch!”  But when she persists, he treats her with the same callous disregard he shows everybody else, viciously raping her on the spot.  Despite her prolonged agonizing moans of despair, she doesn’t leave him. 

Somehow this new mother in his life becomes an Angel of Forgiveness, pathetically sobbing her apologies, absolving him of all crimes, cleaning his house, buying him food, and regularly cooking for him.  Her presence suddenly alters his mindset, where he worries about her and begins to depend upon her kindness.  But she is more of an Avenging Angel, a kind of Satan in disguise complete with her own agenda, which sets him in an existential turmoil.  Due to the relentless monotony of neverending brutality, the film bears a similarity to Mel Gibson’s dreadful THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), as both are mindless and nauseating films that are little more than sadistic displays of human torture.  The problem here is the exaggerated tone, where every emotion is so over the top, where characters yell and scream at one another all the time, constantly bickering, calling each other names, making threats, carrying out their threats, screaming in pain, where the film is one long, continuously procrastinated revenge saga, ugly, grotesque, and mercilessly brutal.  Lee Kang-do comes to personify the lowest form of human existence, evil incarnate.  Some have suggested he’s supposed to represent the ruthlessness of capitalism, a heartless economic system that doesn’t care who it destroys, that hears no sympathetic pleas, but simply bulldozes and lays waste to people’s lives in a momentary frenzy of violent, catastrophic destruction, and then moves on to the next person.  Others find meaning in the title, where the Pietà is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo, a subject in Christian art depicting an all-forgiving Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, the first of a number of Michelangelo sculptures with the same theme.  Anyone who’s seen Kim’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING (2003), where the director himself plays the part of a monk, knows his familiarity with Buddhism and reincarnation, where this overly simplistic parable of evil incarnate seems to suggest that even the lowliest, most despised and hateful creatures on earth have redeeming qualities, where their lives can earn redemption, if not in this life, then the next, much of it underscored by the Kyrie eliason (Lord, have mercy) section of a Catholic mass.  The quietly poetic qualities expressed in the final few moments of the film offer a peaceful visual transcendence, completely at odds with the gruesome violence that comes before, where death chants in a state of perpetual darkness bring the film to a close. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Aquí y Allá (Here and There)

AQUÍ Y ALLÁ (Here and There)                    B+                  
Spain  USA  Mexico  (110 mi)  2012  d:  Antonio Méndez Esparsa      Official site

I just want to be humble with real people.     —Pedro De los Santos Juárez, from one of his songs               

This is a small but slowly affecting film, ultimately a tender Mexican family drama that has more than a few missing pieces due to the long absences of the men searching for work in the north, forced to cross the border into America in search of better opportunities, where the family experience is reduced to weekly phone calls and money orders sent in the mail. Told in a social realist style, what’s unique about this film is the perspective of those left behind, both young and old, where the camera never ventures over to the other side, but remains affixed on Mexican ground, where people are forced to endure a different form of hardship, not knowing what lies in store for any of them, on either side, as it remains a continually evolving mystery wondering whether any of these men will ever come back or if they’ll take up with American women and start new lives, where the uncertainty of it all creates an anxiously developing reality.  It’s hard to even define what constitutes success under these circumstances, as it all plays out under continually shifting circumstances.  The film suggests the worldwide financial uncertainty is playing havoc with people’s lives, where this migratory pattern to follow the flow of work opportunities that comes with a seasonal harvesting of crops, for instance, both in Europe and America, lends itself to a nomadic lifestyle of built-in cheap labor, where people will endure the unbearable heat and the unforgiving long hours just to have something in their pockets, as the alternative back home are families that could be thrown out into the streets and left destitute.  This is the new age responsibility, where leaving the family in search of work is the responsible thing to do, but with untold emotional consequences that largely go unspoken. 

Divided into four segments, The Return, Here, Horizon, and There, with the last one being the shortest, becoming an ambiguous tone poem that objectively looks back upon all that has come before, this fictional film documents the hard realities of scraping out a living in some of the poorer regions of the world, where despite Mexico’s close proximity to their wealthy geographical neighbor to the north, once outside the sprawling metropolis of the big cities, the isolated and more rural regions, like this small town in Guerrero, continue to languish in third world poverty.  While economic circumstances stain the lives like a plague, this is not the central focus of the film, which instead examines how distance effects ordinary relations, where Pedro is seen returning to his family after spending a few years abroad.  While his wife Teresa is overjoyed, she holds back her long built-up suspicions about who he's been with, while his two daughters barely recognize him, Lorena and Heidi, and are more concerned with their own age groups, thinking he may leave again, not really trusting him.  Pedro is a singer and guitarist with ambitions of starting a local band called the Copa Kings, having already cut a CD in New York, that generates awkward laughs of giggly affection from his daughters, where he has to restore a sense of trust and camaraderie with each of them, with the sullen and emotionally reticent Lorena giving him the hardest time, as she’s deeply bitter about his being gone.  The quietly developing family interplay between them is among the most heartwarming aspects of the film, as Pedro is a decent and responsible man, whose humble origins have stuck with him, as he’s a completely unpretentious man whose interior character is expressed in the songs he writes and sings, becoming part of the narrative stream of the film. 

But Pedro’s initial optimism is thwarted by the day to day realities, as the men he’d like to play in his band work from sunup to sundown in the fields all day, never having any time for rehearsals and playing on the road.  At one of the few performances we do see, playing guitar and electric piano, it’s a euphoric experience to be singing your own songs, but the debt he owes for renting the musical equipment has come due and it’s a hefty price.  At the same time, Teresa has a difficult pregnancy and seeks immediate help in the nearby town.  The hospital sequence is unlike anything most of us will ever encounter, a life-altering, cataclysmic event where lives are literally hanging by a thread, where he’s required to go searching through town to find the various medicines the hospital doesn’t have in stock, while at the same time he’s expected to provide the needed blood donors to counteract the heavy loss of blood, which only sends him spiraling even more into emotional turmoil and debt, playing out as the central moral dilemma facing families, where the economic reality is stronger than love, and where the circuitous path of his life is once more forced to seek opportunities elsewhere, as there’s nothing he can earn locally that can remotely come close to paying the bills. 

One of the constants in this film is seeing men at work, including Pedro, working in the fields, doing temporary construction work, usually until the money runs out, and then spending days on end looking for more work, even traveling to nearby towns, but the inevitable reality is he’ll have to look elsewhere, where the entire cycle starts all over again.  The director met Pedro after casting him for a student film at New York University, learning about the life he left behind only to struggle to make ends meet in New York, deciding to return to Mexico with Pedro and make a film about his life, using non-professionals except for the newborn baby which is his own.  The final sequence somberly reflects upon this border, almost as a postscript, beautifully shown with a quiet devastation, as on the surface it looks so peaceful and tranquil, belying the underlying dangers associated with its history, where the other side is seen as a promised land, yet so many men die making the attempt, where families are forced into even more dire circumstances.  This is a thoughtful and contemplative film that omits the devastating effects of the headline grabbing, narco drug trade wreaking havoc on the murder rate in Mexico, as seen in Miss Bala (2011), and instead exposes with a delicate simplicity the equally threatening and potentially ruinous effects of poverty.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Moulin Rouge (2001)

MOULIN ROUGE                  A                    
USA  Australia  (126 mi)  2001  ‘Scope  d:  Baz Luhrmann

If ever there were a movie that was created with Blu-ray in mind, this is it, as this is a kaleidoscope fusion of music and color that explodes off the screen, delighting viewers with the scandalous opulence of a tantalizingly seductive musical.  This has all the magnificence of Broadway come to the screen, among the most extravagant visual spectacles ever made, yet it’s all underscored by an old-fashioned love story that also gets the small details right, especially the small snippets of lyrics from popular songs that elevate the dizzyingly emotional love scenes.  Shot by John McAlpine using the brightest, near hallucinogenic use of colors, the Bollywood style stage presence of beautifully choreographed frenzied excess, luxurious costumes with exaggerated use of makeup and wigs, and a set design like none other that you’ve ever seen, so elaborately detailed and wildly expressive.  Set in the bohemian district of Montmarte in Paris in 1900, we zoom into the city with the cutesy style of AMÉLIE (2001), hovering among the rooftops overlooking the Moulin Rouge nightclub where John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec is perched wondering what to present for his next show, but the narration is being described by a man seen inside a window with a typewriter, Ewan McGregor as Christian, a struggling writer who has moved there to be caught up in the spirit of revolution, where all that matters is “truth, beauty, freedom, and most of all, love.”  When Christian stumbles upon Toulouse-Lautrec at a rehearsal session where they are conceptually stuck, he brilliantly resolves the writer’s block by singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music…”  The tone is set, as immediately he is welcomed into the fraternity of fellow bohemians. 

What he discovers is a scandalous burlesque and dance review featuring scantily clad women in neon colored costumes dancing the French Can Can that would rival the Roman Circus for decadence in a show called “Spectacular Spectacular.”  Enter Nicole Kidman dressed only in lingerie and a hat lowered on a trapeze bar singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in her most breathy Marilyn Monroe imitation.  Satine is the star of the show, the sexiest, most alluring woman known as the “sparkling diamond,” the highest paid courtesan in Paris.  To save the show, as the club is going bankrupt, she is urged by the master of ceremony, Jim Broadbent from Mike Leigh’s TOPSY TURVY (1999), to use her feminine charms to get a pompously overdressed rich Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to invest in the show.  But she mistakes the poor starving writer for the aristocratic Duke, which leads to a comedy of errors and misdirection.  His mind grasping in desperation, knowing he’s about to lose the girl, Christian breaks into song, a quietly affecting rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song.”  Like a deer in the headlights, she is struck by the emotional allure of the song, which leads to a spectacular rooftop romance fantasia where they do a tribute to the umbrella sequence from SINGIN IN THE RAIN (1952), only here they dance engulfed in a sea of fog cast in a blue light, which eventually turns animated, dancing under the moon next to the Eiffel Tower in a picture postcard image of Paris.  Like magic, one song and they are in love.  Once she discovers his real identity, confusion ensues as she then has to meet the real Duke, who she now has no interest in and must steal away all waking hours with her new love while lying and concealing this scandalous affair from the Duke.  What follows are more enchanting love songs sung from the rooftop of Satine’s giant elephant shaped bedroom, each using a line from a popular love song to create a surge of emotional fascination with the idea of love, as it is beautifully explored through song lyrics.  This technique would later be used in Julie Taymor’s ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) where the lyrics from Beatles songs actually tell the narrative throughout the entire movie.  Luhrmann brilliantly uses this device throughout the film, using a varied selection of lyrics from Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” to Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from Madonna’s “Material Girl” to the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” to Dolly Parton’s heartfelt “I Will Always Love You,” all to wonderful effect, as he cleverly mixes the mood with the visual enchantment onscreen.  

Once we see where this is heading, right out of French literature or opera, as Satine, like Camille or Mimi in La Bohème, is dying of consumption, so what becomes immediately apparent is not only can the Duke not have her, but no one can, as she’s covering up the fact she is near death.  But the Duke grows fanatical and deliriously enraged when he realizes he’s been made a fool of and insists upon conditions that force the hand of the actors, using threats of violence as well as his insistence of taking over the theater.  Still, making a fool of him is one of the more delicious aspects of the film, filled with humor and cleverness.  Without it, the film drags near the end and runs into a more contrived finale that seems to go on forever, with Luhrmann never finding the right ending, so he keeps throwing more at the audience.  Kidman is sensually vulnerable throughout, yet also a sexual force, so her strength of character is vital to this film, while McGregor is a wide-eyed idealist where love is literally sweeping him off his feet, where from one moment to the next, song lyrics just keep flying out of his head.  The two are positively enchanting together, and with that core of authenticity, all that excessive Bollywood window dressing that’s meant to dazzle the senses with hyper-saturated colors, inventive set designs, and a wonderful neverending energy just leaves the audience overwhelmed yet yearning for more.  This is the film NINE (2009) needed to be but wasn’t, falling flat with its own disinterest.  Luhrmann’s film on the other hand is constantly reinventing itself, finding astonishing ways to continually find the emotional resonance of a simple love story, seemingly simplistic and overdone, but given an entirely new vision here that continually mixes moods from psychedelic to comedic farce to delirious spectacle to rock “n” roll, an unapologetically artificial dreamworld that holds up over time by remaining outrageously inventive and alluringly spectacular.            

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and daughter, Frances (a.k.a. Scottie), celebrate Christmas 1925 in Paris

Australia  USA  (143 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Baz Luhrmann       Official site

No one makes movies of lavish extravagance like Baz Luhrmann, simply no one, which is one of the pleasures of seeing his films.  Perhaps the reincarnate of Ken Russell’s dizzyingly flamboyant films of the 60’s and 70’s, where it often felt like the mad passionate style had overtaken any cinematic value and content, as the director showed less and less restraint, nonetheless he was always an original.  In much the same way, Luhrmann can be counted on for dazzling visual imagery, which some find exaggeratedly overboard, simply too much, where Moulin Rouge (2001) remains the best creative expression of his unique style.  While many find Gatsby unfilmable, as so much of the novel is a description of observances and inner reflections, recounted in narrative form, which may have been best served by the noirish Black and White era of 1949, where bleak lives and a hard-boiled, yet descriptive narration offers a literary feel, where the dark overall mood of criminal intrigue trumps individual character.  That version accentuates the criminality of Gatsby’s underworld lifestyle, while also attractively featuring Shelly Winters as the wronged woman, an ill-fated femme fatale who throws herself in front of a fast-moving automobile with tragic results, all part of the spiraling downturn in Gatsby’s life.  There is a 1926 Silent version, but one wonders how such a contemporary literary classic would hold up in exaggerated looks and gestures alone, lacking much of the description and complexity of the book.  The 1974 version with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy is simply too bland for most people’s tastes, never generating any heat, and never rising to the level of an American classic, while the made-for-TV 2000 version is already forgotten.  One might think an outsider’s view in the form of a brash and exuberant Australian director Baz Luhrmann might do the trick, where he’s not so beholden to the literary material and could openly express his free-wheeling style, as the period reflected is the Roaring Twenties, an era of American jazz and a cultural renaissance, including writers, dancers, and musicians in Harlem, where women in America, Canada, India, and Europe received the right to vote, new abstract modern artforms flourished, like Art Deco and Surrealism, but also the contemporary literary elite were heralded with laudatory reviews while living and treated like royalty in Paris, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the source novel for this film.  But alas, it was not to be, and while entertaining throughout, this is yet another version that fails to connect the intricate power of the work to the movie audience.

Part of the problem with this version is the casting, as Leonardo DiCaprio is out of his element as Gatsby.  Like Redford, another man with a pretty face, he fails to get underneath the mysterious man behind the mask, showing us nothing onscreen that he hasn’t already expressed before, using a really phony accent, as if trying to emulate the Boston inflection of the Kennedy’s, and the film even revives the tragedy of the Chappaquiddick incident, which forever derailed the Presidential ambitions of Ted Kennedy.  Carey Mulligan exudes the pixieish flirtatiousness of Daisy, whose artificiality defines her, along with her reliance upon overcontrolling men, too afraid to ever express her inner self, becoming a tragic lost soul in the process.  Unfortunately, Tobey Maguire as the narrator and writer Nick Carroway is well meaning, but too naïve and passive, not at all reflective of Fitzgerald’s own opulent lifestyle of extravagant wealth and lavish parties, where he and his wife Zelda were renowned New York celebrity socialites, making several excursions to Europe, mostly to Paris, where their faces were all over the magazines and newspapers.  Maguire is simpy too meek of a character to exhibit much insight into the world he is drawn into, kind of blending into the wall for most of the picture, not really affecting much of the action, even though he is the observant eyes and ears of the movie, along with a giant billboard with spectacles seen at the entryway to the road to New York from Long Island, emblematic of the eyes of God watching over all who pass by, becoming an unseen moral conscience.  Surprisingly, the performer who comes across the strongest is fellow Aussie Joel Edgarten in perhaps the most despicable role in the film, Daisy’s unfaithful, double-crossing husband Tom, a man of wealth and social prestige, who flaunts it whenever he can, openly speaking his mind, a man used to getting his way, kind of gruff and rough around the edges, a bit like Howard Duff, becoming domineering and callous to Daisy’s needs, ordering her about like one of the hired help, who are almost exclusively black.  Tom is an East Egg blue blood, a borderline racist who believes people belong in their place, and that includes wives and the would-be nouveau rich living across the bay in the West Egg of Long Island where Gatsby’s mansion sits, people who accumulate wealth by illicit means that he believes are without culture and sophistication. 

The actual story behind the story, unraveling the mystery of Gatsby, doesn’t become apparent until near the end, where prior to that he’s simply seen as an immensely wealthy man with some dubious underworld business connections, probably making his millions on bootleg liquor, much like Joseph Kennedy Sr, though that has always been speculation, as he also made his millions on stock market insider trading, which was not outlawed at the time, becoming one of the richest men in America.  Gatsby is seen as a man who opens his home nightly to hoardes of party revelers, providing them food, drink, and musical entertainment, while he rarely shows himself, preferring his reclusive status until Nick moves in to a tiny cottage next door, quickly becoming fast friends, especially when he discovers Daisy is his cousin.  You’d think these party sequences would be the film’s cinematic extravagance, interestingly pulsating with a hip hop soundtrack, but Luhrmann only shows what’s necessary, never extending the shots to give the viewer the full effect like he does in MOULIN ROUGE.  Instead he accentuates the rekindled secret love affair between Gatsby and the scandalously married Daisy, where the best part of the film is the sudden shift to romantic feelings of optimism and hope, where Gatsby, who otherwise feels much like a weird stalker, building it all for her hoping one day she would walk inside his doors, and finally their lives suddenly come together and resemble his dream.  It can all happen, but Daisy gets cold feet while at the same time Gatsby reveals a more desperately controlling nature, where it’s all so close that he can taste it, seen alone at night at the end of the pier reaching out towards the green light emanating from the end of her pier across the bay, a warning for boats in the dark.  Nick is there to see it all, when in one stiflingly hot summer afternoon, they decide to get everything out in the open, so Gatsby begins to push Daisy into uncomfortable territory, forcing her to commit when she’s not yet ready, manipulating her in much the same way as that cad of a husband, where one’s no better than the other.  While Fitzgerald’s own life story is about the corrosive effects of wealth and the emptiness of the decadent lifestyle, reflected in the waning egoism and dwindling male self-confidence, destroyed by the continuing effects of alcohol, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a stark reminder that “All that glitters is not gold,” which comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, where in each, senseless tragedy awaits those that fail to heed that message.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Cannes 2013 Day 12

French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche poses on stage with French actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos (left) and  Léa Seydoux 

Léa Seydoux, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Adèle Exarchopoulos

Bérénice Bejo

Frédérique Bel

Uma Thurman

Closing ceremony from The Guardian: 

Cannes awards ceremony from The Hollywood Reporter: 

A French site that lists daily galleries of red carpet photos, by date, offering regular or giant sized photos: 

Another large gallery of photos:  
People magazine hits the Cannes red carpet:,,20700799,00.html 

20 Marie Claire Cannes photos:   
Cannes 2013: The Film Festival In 20 Instagram Photos | Marie Claire 

Mike Oleszczyk interviews American director James Gray from the Ebert blog: 

Ben Kenigsberg interviews Cannes Best Actor Bruce Dern from the Ebert blog:

candid photos from our men on the street, Robbie Miller and George the Cyclist, who has his own cycling blog (

Agnès Varda 

Claire Denis at the premiere of Bastards

 Léa Seydoux

Marcel Ophuls    

Roman Polanski and Adrien Brody

Jury press conference watched on big screen television

Spielberg's yacht

Cannes as a Spielberg movie

Todd McCarthy analyzes the awards from The Hollywood Reporter:

CANNES -- Did Steven Spielberg actually dig the lesbian love story? Was Bruce Dern really better than Michael Douglas? What jury members pressed for the ultra-violent Mexican film that no one wanted to think about after it showed on the first day? Was Berenice Bejo really better than Marion Cotillard, who was initially supposed to play her role in The Past? What was presenter Asia Argento on? Was that Agnes Varda’s real hair or a hat?

These were some of the questions people wanted answers to after the awards were presented Sunday night to conclude the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Whether it had won or not, this was already destined to be the year of Blue Is the Warmest Color, given how everyone had to see it just for the unprecedented and protracted realistic sex scenes between Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche’s close-up, three-hour portrait of a female love affair. (Read THR's review here.)

The awards are almost always a strangely stiff, awkward affair, basically conducted in two languages, French and English, and with frequent TV cutaways to unsuspecting audience members caught disdaining or ignoring what’s being said onstage.

This year’s presentation, hosted by a sometimes odd but faintly amusing Audrey Tautou, was particularly snappy. This wasn’t thought of as a particularly Asian-dominated festival, but Asians came on strong at the outset, winning the Cinefondation award and the Camera d’Or for best first film in any category, as well as Jia Zhangke’s screenplay award for A Touch of Sin and the Prix du Jury to Kore-eda Hirokazu for the generally appreciated Like Father, Like Son.

When director Amat Escalante was brought up to accept the directing prize, the first words out of his mouth were, “I wasn’t expecting this.” No one in the audience disagreed with him, as this sometimes unwatchably violent film about contemporary Mexico was not something anyone considered in the mix for awards.

The big standing ovation of the evening went to Kim Novak, who was at the festival to appear with the restored version of Vertigo, which last year was rated best film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound magazine poll.  The star seemed genuinely pleased to be here, as did Inside Llewyn Davis leading man Oscar Isaac when he accepted the Grand Prix from her on behalf of the Coen brothers, who had already returned to the United States.

It was tears and cheers and hugs all around when Spielberg finally announced the Palme d’Or for Blue Is the Warmest Color, with the two stars and director all announced as winners of the prize. This is the second year in a row that the Palme has gone to a French film directed by a foreigner — Austrian Michael Haneke won last year for Amour and Kechiche is Tunisian. The director responded onstage very slowly and seriously while the actresses just gushed, and the win certainly confirmed Blue as the hot film of the moment, no matter the misgivings numerous critics have about it for reasons ranging from length and lack of artistic discipline to feminist issues. Spielberg’s jury made it official: It’s the film of the year so far, not just sexually but artistically.

Excerpts from Justin Chang at Cannes from Variety:

CANNES — “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Abdellatif Kechiche’s sweeping and sexually explicit drama about a French teenage girl’s love affair with another woman, received the Palme d’Or at the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival on Sunday night. In a history-making decision, the Steven Spielberg-led jury opted not only to give the first Palme d’Or to a gay romantic drama, but to present the accolade jointly to three artists: Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche and French actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

With its 175-minute running time (the longest of any film in competition) and graphic lesbian sex scenes, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” dominated festival conversation following its first press screenings on Wednesday night and was swiftly acquired for Stateside distribution by IFC’s Sundance Selects. Still, audiences at the Palais des Festivals were held in some suspense until the final moments of the ceremony, as Exarchopoulos’ presence had led many to assume she had won the actress prize, which would have technically prevented “Blue” from also winning the Palme...

At a press conference following the ceremony, Spielberg described Kechiche’s film as “a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall, to see this story of deep love and deep heartbreak evolve from the beginning. The director didn’t put any constraints on the narrative. He let the scenes play in real life, and we were absolutely spellbound.”

While the presentation of international cinema’s highest honor to this particular film struck a topical note at a time when the gay-marriage debate continues to rage (France just legalized gay marriage last week), Spielberg rejected the idea that politics had influenced the jury’s decision. “As you know, the characters in this film do not get married,” he said. “Politics were never in the room with us.” He also said that the decision to honor thesps Exarchopoulos and Seydoux alongside Kechiche was essential, noting that, “If the casting had been even 3% wrong, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. All of us felt we needed to invite all three artists to the stage together.”

Spielberg added that while he expected the film to play well in the U.S., “I’m not sure it will be allowed to play in every state.”

The jury presented a united front backstage, as Spielberg noted that there had been no behind-the-scenes drama, and that he and his fellow jurors were able to come to a consensus on “at least three of the incredibly important choices.” Juror Nicole Kidman noted that, given their hectic schedule, she asked her jurors to see certain films more than once. In addition to Spielberg and Kidman, the jury included directors Ang Lee, Cristian Mungiu, Lynne Ramsay and Naomi Kawase, and actors Christoph Waltz, Daniel Auteuil and Vidya Balan.

Ben Kenigsberg from the Ebert blog:

CANNES, FRANCE — At the festival's official post-awards press conference, the jury's leader Steven Spielberg spoke at length about the group's surprise decision to award multiple citations for the Palme d'Or, which went to "Blue Is the Warmest Color." In a break with the usual protocol, the prize was given not just to the winning film's director, Abdellatif Kechiche, but also to his lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.

Spielberg said the split, which enabled the jury to give Best Actress to another festival favorite, Bérénice Bejo from "The Past," was a natural choice. Kechiche's film, Spielberg said, "was something that could not have happened had the casting been three percent wrong."

"Blue" centers on Adèle (Exarchopoulos), whom we meet at 15 and follow over several years through her romance with painter Emma (Seydoux), the first woman she loves. Coming from a jury of nine members — four of whom are themselves directors — the Palme d'Or decision was received as a magnanimous gesture, a way of acknowledging how much of the movie's power derives from raw close-ups, silences, and scenes of the characters quietly contemplating each other at meals. 

Inevitably, Spielberg and his colleagues fielded questions about the movie's explicit sex scenes, which are notable for their length and intensity. "For me, the film is a great love story," Spielberg said. "And the fact that it's a great love story made all of us feel like we were privileged, not embarrassed, to be flies on the wall." He also provided what may amount to a boost to the film's marketing, speaking optimistically of the movie's commercial prospects in the U.S. "I think it's going to get a lot of play, and I really feel the film will be quite successful in America," he said.

There had been speculation that an award for "Blue" would effectively function as a shout-out to France's May 18 legalization of gay marriage. But jurors wouldn't go there. "Politics was not a companion in our decisions," Spielberg said. 

As far as the dynamic of the deliberations, there was, according to the jury president, "a very, very unanimous consensus on at least three of the critical choices."

The conference highlight came from "Nebraska" director Alexander Payne, who accepted the Best Actor award for his star, Bruce Dern, who had already left town. (Read our interview with him here.) Did Dern have a comment? Actually, Payne confessed, he hadn't told him yet, having only just texted Dern's daughter Laura to spread the news. She texted back mid–press conference, and Payne shared the message: "AMAZING! Driving to Pasadena now. Can we call you together from there maybe in 30 minutes?"

No word on what the call was like, but Payne and his fellow winners adjourned to Agora, the waterfront festival party space adjacent to the Palais. While Payne and a few other notables like "Michael Koolhaas" star Mads Mikkelsen mingled with festivalgoers, celebrities generally gravitated to a cordoned-off area. It was the kind of occasion for which France reserves its sternest earpieced guards.

As of 11pm, juror Nicole Kidman could be spotted through the partitions chatting with Cinéfondation and short-films jury president Jane Campion (who directed Kidman in "The Portrait of a Lady"). Christoph Waltz gabbed with his "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained" producer Harvey Weinstein, and Spielberg himself worked the room. New winners — Kechiche, Exarchopoulous, Farhadi — also turned up, ready to be welcomed to the inner circle.

Todd McCarthy's wrap up from The Hollywood Reporter: 

The differences between American classicism and and the artsy, sexually explicit Europeans was never more stark.

CANNES--In more ways than one, differences in style and content between high-end American and European films were manifest in the competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

It’s been true for years that French filmmakers, and sometimes other Europeans, have been more upfront with the way they show sex than have Hollywood directors. Still, no one on either side of the Atlantic could remember scenes of such duration and explicitness, and certainly not between two women, in a so-called mainstream film as Tunisian-born, French-based Abdellatif Kechiche serves up repeatedly in the year’s most talked-about film, Blue Is the Warmest Color  (La Vie d’Adele—Chapitre 1 & 2).

Equally bold gay male sex was prominent in Alain Guiraudie’s Un Certain Regard drama Stranger By the Lake, so the ones left to their own devices this year were straights, about whom there was nothing comparable except for Francois Ozon’s non-explicit look at a 17-year-old who prostitutes herself by choice, Young & Beautiful.

These unusual sexual elements were the attention getters, but what was more noticeable throughout the official selection was a different stylistic approach: Most of the Americans tended to adhere to classical storytelling models and a precise visual approach, while some of the Europeans, and most noticeably Kechiche, went for a looser structure and more random images favoring intimacy over formalism.

It should be stressed that the Americans made a very impressive showing this year. The four main U.S. competition entries—the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and James Gray’s The Immigrant—were all strong, and it was gratifying to see these fine directors all step up so well with such diverse, intimate and superbly made work.

In a very different vein (with what is technically a U.K.-German production), Jim Jarmusch delivered his best film in years in Only Lovers Left Alive; James Franco startled many observers with how well he adapted a difficult William Faulkner novel in As I Lay Dying, which was in Un Certain Regard; J.C. Chandor’s one-man sea survival drama All Is Lost was regarded as good enough to have been in the competition, where Robert Redford would have vied strongly for an acting prize, and Jeremy Saulnier’s low-budget suspense drama Blue Ruin was one of the hits of the Directors’ Fortnight. Only Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring came up short on the American side. And, oh yes, The Great Gatsby opened the festival, but that already seems like ancient history.

All these American films were beautifully made, and the four competition titles featured well-drawn screenplays served by confident, exacting visual styles that made you feel you were in excellent hands. Few directors in the world can match the Coens when it comes to creating bold compositions and knowing how to cut and pace a scene—the entire trip-to-Chicago interlude in Inside Llewyn Davis is the most bracing and hypnotic stretch of film I saw in Cannes this year—and the sheer craft of the film was a thrill all by itself.

Similarly, the camera is always in just the right place and shots are held not a beat too long or too short in Nebraska, Payne’s black-and-white road trip that reveals added depth on a second viewing. Soderbergh makes orchestrating comedy, emotion, gaudy spectacle and the acceptance of two big movie stars as gay lovers look easy in Behind the Candelabra, while Gray creates a moving character study against a superbly drawn period setting on a tiny budget in The Immigrant.

Some of us call this approach, which honors the styles developed over decades by the greatest Hollywood directors, classical. Those wishing to disdain it term it old-fashioned or conservative. Most directors would say that one should use an approach that best serves the material, which, in the case of Jarmusch’s dreamy, mood-drenched vampire love story, is something rather looser and atmospheric than the tack taken by the other Americans.

But Kechiche ignores all of this, thrusting the camera as close as he can to his performers, cutting anytime he feels a part of a different take might be better and, in general, caring as much about formal aspects and visual niceties as the Scandinavian Dogme movement did a couple of decades back. What Kechiche is aiming for is intimacy through sustained physical proximity, which he indisputably achieves, both in the sex scenes and the more conventional dialogue exchanges; you’re really close to these women and their characters come vibrantly alive.

To do this is an accomplishment, but that’s all he achieves. His storytelling in all of his films is undisciplined, choppy and sometimes arbitrary. There’s little discernable shape to his narratives, to the point where you don’t have a sense if you’re five minutes or an hour away from the ending (I’d really had enough of Blue after about two hours, when there was still an hour to go). Kechiche justifies himself in advance by having characters talk about great novels that are many hundreds of pages long and, of course, some of the greatest films are extremely lengthy. But they are also paced and modulated accordingly. Virtually all of Kechiche’s scenes are shot with just one thing in mind, getting in there tight with the actors to observe their skin and, in this case, their bodily fluids, particularly snot and tears. It pays dividends at times, but if you begin looking at your watch during explicit sex scenes, something’s amiss. I’d never done that before.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which was one of the four or five films I liked best at Cannes, is similarly marked by a lack of discipline, but more in the realm of traditional dramaturgy. The camera swoops and darts and glides through Rome in very exciting ways that, during the film’s best sequences, make the pulse race and the head swoon. The film is an immersion in Rome and the dissolute life style of a talented writer who has abandoned serious work and devoted himself to fashionable journalism and the social swirl.

Sorrentino’s narrative sin, in my view, lies not in structural deficiencies but in setting up ideas and expectations in the first two-thirds that he then ignores and doesn’t follow through on. When the 65-year-old journalist announces that he no longer intends to waste any time and will only devote himself to things important to him, it seems to suggest a turning point. But the film then swings off in other directions, never to take up the writer’s promise again, which might be the point but doesn’t really feel like it, especially since what’s onscreen instead seems more aimless and esoteric than what’s come before.

Films like those by Kechiche, Sorrentino and several others generate their own qualities, magic and excitement that have little to do with what many of us value in the American films; both schools of filmmaking can be great in their own ways and one is not by definition better or worse than the other. But it seemed to me that most of the Americans at Cannes this year benefitted from their observance of certain time-tested cinematic rules and principles, while the Europeans, while creating some excitement, could have been even better with a bit more narrative discipline and rigor.

The Cannes Criterion Forum is up and running: 

While Les Etoiles de la critiques is now complete, where Blue Is the Warmest Color surpassed The Past (Le Passé) as the highest rated film, followed by the Coens, followed by A Touch of Sin. In Un Certain Regard, it's a tie between Stranger By the Lake and Grand Central.  Without a numerical rating, my quick criteria is counting how many films get 3 or more stars:

With the grid complete at Ioncinema's Critics' Panel 2013, Blue Is the Warmest Color has risen above all others with a 4.3 rating, followed by a tie between The Past and the Coens averaging 3.7, Jarmusch's late entry Only Love left Alive is rated 3.5, followed by A Touch of Sin at 3.3, and now four films tied at 3.1:

Screendaily also has their Jury Grid, actual page 16 (Digital page 18) of the Screen Edition for Day 9 dated May 23, 2013, not updatedin two days now, but check back later in the day. Start on the link provided, click on the bottom right of the image, and there are two sets of multiple photos displayed on the bottom, where what you want is the first group, almost all the way to the right, where page 18 does the trick, click on that page until you display the largest viewable image. However, a new leader alters the standings, where Blue Is the Warmest Color now has the highest rating at 3.6.  Currently only one other film rates above a 3 rating, as the Coen brothers averages 3.3, The Past and Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty are at 2.8, while Like Father, Like Son and Behind the Candelabria are at 2.5:  

Screendaily announces a new leader on the Jury Grid, but then loses interest in completing the rest of the grid:

Neil Young's final predictions from Jigsaw Lounge maintains the odds for projected winners:  

And, of course, George is back at Cannes this year, where he posts his final reviews: 

For the second year in a row the jury awarded the best director award to a Mexican, both times surprising all the prognosticators. The Carlos Reygados win last year was fully deserved, this year's to Amat Escalade for "Heli" not necessarily so, even though I have been one of the lone champions of this film all along, even writing yesterday that I hoped the jury would acknowledge it in some way. This film of contemporary Mexico and the horrible power of the drug forces was most commendable, though no where as extraordinary as last year's "After the Darkness, Light." There was no mistaking the influence of the true Mexican master, Reygados, with lingering shots, the pacing and so forth, on Escalade. It was most heartening that the jury gave "Heli" an award. One can hardly dispute the choice of this director-heavy jury, five of whose nine members are highly accomplished directors, perhaps the best collection of directors ever on a Cannes jury. Certainly so in the ten years I've been attending the festival.

Although "Blue Is the Warmest Color" had become the favorite to win the Palm d'Or, I wasn't so sure after seeing it earlier in the day after standing in line for ninety minutes to make sure I got in. It was a very exciting ninety minutes though, as my anticipation heightened minute by minute knowing I could be in for a great cinema experience based on all the buzz the film had generated. And I knew I shared that feeling with the thousand people in line with me.

Right away I was grabbed by the genuine dialogue of a cluster of high school girls discussing boys. It was clear the script had been written by someone who truly knew these characters and subject. That continued scene by scene. All the buzz on the film centered around the lesbian love scenes. It's at least half an hour into the film before high school junior Adele realizes that she likes girls rather than boys after a brief fling with a guy that her girl friends somewhat goaded her into. Even before that a blue-haired girl, who is a few years older than Adele, catches her eye in the distance as she walks along with her arm clutching another girl. They manage to connect in a gay bar where they have a brief conversation. Their next meeting is outside Adele's high school, alarming Adele's girl friends. Their relationship is slowly and realistically developed. It eventually leads to wildly passionate sex. It is most explicit, but not exploitative in the least.

Several of the bed room scenes go on and on with a non-stop crescendo of blissful, agonized moaning. Their bodies become entangled in every manner. It was truly remarkable film-making and acting. Half-way through this three-hour movie I felt it was a sure Palm d'Or winner. Half an hour later though it began to fizzle out, and I began to fear all its hype was based on the electrifyingly graphic sex scenes. My mind began to wander, more looking forward to meeting my friend Andrew, who had just flown in from Bangkok with his bike to join me for the next few weeks, than the rest of the movie.

This was not a shoe-in for the Palme d'Or as some movies have been over the years. The jury would have some discussion. When I learned the FIPRESCI jury had awarded it its top prize, I thought that might jinx it, as not even half of the time do the two juries agree. But this year they did. In the post-ceremony press conference Spielberg and his fellow jurors emphasized they liked the movie so much because it was just a good love story. It did not matter to them that the lovers were women or that there was explicit sex. Spielberg said, "There was no politics in the room." When another questioner wanted the jury to comment on what statement they were making with awarding this film, juror Christoph Waltz impatiently snapped, speaking for the only time during the press conference, to drop all such talk. It was just a good movie, he reiterated.

It is hard for juries not to have some nationalism influence its choices. Italian films win awards when there is an Italian on the jury. That happened last year with "Reality" and several years before with "Gomorrah" and "Il Divo." There was no Italian on this year's jury, so "The Great Beauty" did not win an award despite predictions all round that it was a contender for the top prize. It being shut out was the biggest surprise of the evening. Nationalism prevailed. The two Hollywood-connected Americans on the jury saw to it that two American films won awards, "Nebraska" with Bruce Dern unexpectedly winning best actor, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" winning the runner-up to the Palm d'Or. Just as last year's jury president Nani Moretti allowed "Reality" to win an award shocking all, Ewen McGregor likewise last year saw to it that fellow Englishman Ken Loach won an award for one of his lesser movies, raising eyebrows all around.

The best actress award was another of this year's surprises, though not necessarily tainted, going to Berenice Bejo for her performance in "The Past." No one was more surprised than herself. Twice in her brief acceptance speech she tearfully commented, "I did not expect this." That is understandable, as she could see the two actresses from "Blue" in the audience and since only winners are called back to the ceremony, she figured it had to be them. She thought she was only there to share in a joint prize for her film, quite possibly the Palme d'Or, but the Spielberg jury pulled a trick and awarded the two actresses a joint Palm d'Or with the film, circumventing the rule that a picture can't get acting awards along with one of the best picture awards. The jury was firm in wanting to award both the film and the actresses, since their uninhibited performances were so extraordinary.

Both "A Touch of Sin" and "Like Father, Like Son" were expected award winners, though not necessarily for what they received, best screenplay for the Chinese film and the Jury prize for the Japanese film. It was a jury that might have only gotten one of the awards right, the top one, though it is all so subjective, there is no saying. There were half a dozen worthy winners of both the acting prizes. Those who won them were near the bottom of their lists, but still, they gave commendable performances. I even wrote in my review of "The Past" early in the festival, before many other great performances came along, that both leads could be awarded.

I managed to squeeze in portions of two other Competition films that I hadn't seen and also two that I had seen but liked so much was happy to see again. I began the day with the African film "Grigris," having to leave half-way through to get in line for "Blue." A different jury could have given it an award for its heartfelt portrayal of a young man in a small African town who is a spectacular dancer despite a deformed leg that leaves him with a pronounced limp.

I had no difficulty walking out on Jim Jarmusch 's "Only Lovers Left Alive" half-way through to go to the awards ceremony. This vampire story starring Tilda Swinton was astoundingly lifeless and inert without any of the off-kilter dialogue that are the hallmark of a Jarmusch film.

Polanski's "Venus in Fur" was even better the second time, just 24 hours after my first viewing. Spielberg and gang had to have some prejudice against Polanski not to give it an award. I notice there is a backlash against it, probably by the same people who did not like Abbas Kiorastami's "Certified Copy," as it has a similar sense of mystery to it that offends some. I also saw the first hour of Sorrentino's film a second time. It did not seem to flow as seamlessly and effortlessly as it did the first time, but I was watching it after the awards had been given and was perhaps projecting the jury's rejection of it.

I passed on the closing night film "Zulu" so I could watch the jury press conference on a large television outside the room where the press conference was being held. It only went on for 25 minutes and nothing of real substance was said other than that Spielberg let slip that the jury had full consensus on three of the awards, implying that it was good to have any consensus at all. No one followed up on that. Most of the questions were directed to Spielberg, though at one point he said, "Does anybody else want to answer the question, because I don't want to answer all of them."

Someone asked Nicole Kidman what were the best and worst parts of being on the jury. She just said that it was strange to watch movies sometimes at 8:30 in the morning and also at 10 at night. She said it was an entirely different experience seeing a movie so late. Spielberg said he enjoyed all his fellow jurors so much that he would like to take them all home with him. No one asked about the rumors that the jurors were watching movies on his $28 million yacht.

Let’s let Columbia film student Robbie Miller have the final thoughts on Cannes this year:

By the way, I don't know how much you read about Heli - loathed by the critics and many attendees (excepting some enthusiasts) - but it is an incredibly brave and unexpected choice by the jury considering its brutality.  I give a lot of credit to the jury for this.  It makes me optimistic for the future of cinema that a film so maligned can nevertheless be appreciated and awarded by those in an influential position.