Cannes Film Festival: Wild and Disturbed vs. neo-Western

With his film about the ugly reality and unreality of Hollywood, director David Cronenberg is competing for the prestigious Palmes d'Or against Tommy Lee Jones and his captivating movie about mid-19th-century Nebraska.

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CANNES – A grotesque family tragedy is combined with a ghost story and a satire on Hollywood in a new film by Canadian director David Cronenberg, called “Maps to the Stars,” which was screened specially for journalists on Sunday at the 67th Cannes International Film Festival.

This combination of disparate genres in one movie could have been disastrous, but Cronenberg, who has been directing films since the mid-1970s, pulled it off successfully. The family saga, ghost story and satire together create a work that is strange and tends toward the hysterical, but is also imbued with delicate feelings and an element of surprise.

“Maps to the Stars” is a contestant for the Palme d’Or prize at the festival. Its title refers to the maps sold to tourists on walking tours of the homes of Hollywood stars. It also refers to an imaginary place beyond the ugly reality that is the setting for the film.

At the center of the movie is the well-to-do Weiss family, whose dark secrets are gradually revealed as the plot unfolds. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the husband and father of the family, is a successful psychologist with best-selling self-help books and a hit television program. His wife, Cristina (Olivia Williams), manages the career of their 13-year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a child star who has just finished a drug-rehab program early on in the film.

Another major character in the film is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress by Hollywood’s standards, who hopes to star in the remake of the film in which her late mother, Clarice – a legendary movie star – had played the leading role. Robert Pattinson, who starred in Cronenberg’s previous effort, "Cosmopolis," portrays Jerome Fontana, a limousine driver who wants to be an actor and screenwriter. Mia Wasikowska plays Agatha, the Weiss’ estranged daughter, who has burn scars all over her face and body – fire and water play a symbolic role in the film. Agatha arrives in Los Angeles early on in the story, and her secret and her connection to the plot become gradually clear as the film progresses.

Cronenberg deals with distortion in almost all of his work, and the human body becomes an object of that distortion. In many of his earlier films, Cronenberg described the sort of deformities caused by diabolical technology run amok. In his recent movies, of which the most prominent is “A History of Violence” (2005), he deals with the problems inherent in human relationships, particularly those in biological and adoptive families.

Incest has become a particularly popular issue in film and television recently and is also a theme here. It is a vehicle for showing the deterioration of the nuclear family and of human experience as a whole, since there is no greater distortion than incest. The movie in question casts the act of incest in a severe light, accompanied by an element of aggressive irony.

Cronenberg's films are often a matter of taste. For me, his wild and disturbed work is often fascinating, since it retains its lucidity even in the most extreme and bizarre moments. This movie is no different.

A tough America

Another contestant for the Palme d’Or is “The Homesman,” the second directing effort by Academy Award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones. A press conference with Jones, who also stars in the film, and his co-star, Hilary Swank, was held after the journalists’ screening. Other of the movie's actors were also in attendance, as was French producer Luc Besson, who is also a director in his own right.

One reporter asked Jones about the relationship between the director and actor inside him. In response, Jones, whose face seems to be overcast with melancholy much of the time but lights up when he smiles, said that as an actor he does whatever the director – himself, in this case – tells him to do, and as a director, he always knows best what the actor – also himself – needs to do in each scene.

“The Homesman” was produced nine years after “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” the first film Jones ever directed; for his role in it, he won the Best Actor Award at the 2005 Cannes festival. Based on a novel by American writer Glendon Swarthout, “The Homesman” takes place in mid-19th-century Nebraska. A neo-Western film, it is different from any other Western ever made. When a reporter at the press conference asked Jones about his use of the genre, Jones said that the concept of genre has never interested him and that he had not even considered it when he made the film. For Jones, this movie is about the history of America and portrays a lesser-known facet of that history.

The film has a captivating plot that displays Jones’ overwhelming talent as a director, a talent that I for one would like to see more often. It tells the story of a strong single woman, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank in a strong performance that could win her an Academy Award for best actress, in addition to the two Oscars she already has), who runs her farm on her own. For reasons I will not reveal here so as to avoid spoilers, Mary is asked to take three local women – who have each been driven insane by the circumstances of their lives – to Iowa. Mary is to bring them to a church there, where the pastor’s wife (Meryl Streep, playing a small part) will care for and heal them with the help of religion.

The journey to Iowa is long and fraught with danger, certainly for a woman traveling with such passengers. So the moment Mary Bee Cuddy meets another traveler, ostensibly named George Briggs (played by Jones) – she makes him accompany her. As the movie unfolds, it portrays a tough, arid and hazardous America. The film has none of the romanticism that is familiar from the classic Western, and that is what enables it to draw us into its story so strongly. Yet for all the toughness with which "The Homesman" describes the American West of the mid-19th century, it still contains humor and delicate, poetic moments. This is a beautiful film of high quality, and it is unlikely that it will leave the competition empty-handed.

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