CANNES, France - Like the philosopher (Yogi Berra) said, "It's déjà vu all over again."
The movies at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and Sundance before it, seemed to spin out a similar dynamic: the destruction of the couple, man and woman, buckling under too many pressures and contradictions. And so, watching the films on display for the 63d festival in this Cote d'Azur convention center, there was a recurring image of couples sliding downward, looking for a toehold on a glass mountain.
Unlike last year, when two films at Cannes - Precious, by Philadelphia's Lee Daniels, and Fish Tank from Glaswegian filmmaker Andrea Arnold - took different paths to sketch out strikingly similar stories about two female characters who stubbornly fight their way out of impossible circumstances, this year's recurring theme was that of couples collapsing.
Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, filmed in Scranton and King of Prussia, managed a standing ovation after its red-carpet screening. Like Precious and even Sex, Lies and Videotape before it, it's moving on the Sundance-to-Cannes-to-U.S. path to a Dec. 31 release, to qualify for the Oscars.
Among others at Cannes marking the downward domestic spiral:
Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas. The wheels come off a contemporary marriage after 10 years, when the husband, an affable middle-class guy with a wife and daughter, has an affair with the orthodontist they've consulted to fix the kid's chops. Like that volcano in Iceland, the wife - played with breathtaking ferocity by Romanian actress Mirela Oprisor - smolders and then unforgettably erupts. "Were those the same hands she had in our daughter's mouth that she used to . . ." The wife goes on to finish the sentence. "What's that say about you?"
Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñârritu's Biutiful, set in contemporary Barcelona, and stars Javier Bardem as Uxbal, a fixer negotiating the shady business of brand knockoffs. The film features illegal immigrant workers; Senegalese street hawkers pushing dope along with knockoff purses; police, both straight and on the take; plus Uxbal parenting his two young children, and trying to manage his bipolar wife sleeping with his brother, all set to the furious metronome of a prostate cancer devouring his liver. The same critics who didn't like Iñârritu's Babel here four years ago mostly dissed Biutiful this year. But Bardem won the best actor prize, and Focus plans a U.S. release.
Certified Copy, a somewhat murky meditation on authenticity by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, a past Palme d'Or winner here, who is locked in a struggle back home in Iran with the authorities. Set in Tuscany, Kiarostami's story involves a couple (English opera baritone William Shimell and French megastar Juliette Binoche) who begin as professional strangers but gradually assume the banter of a failing marriage, as they take a drive - a device Kiarostami famously uses to take the pulse of a culture. Binoche had a banner year, literally, winning best actress and gracing the festival's poster. IFC picked up the film for U.S. release.
Woody Allen's London-set You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has marital crack-ups galore, including characters played by Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts and Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones and Hopkins' blond bimbette second wife, played by someone named Judy Punch. The U.S. press was mixed, but the French have a soft spot for film expat Allen. "Woody is better when he's serious than when he's comic," said Wilfrid Exbrayat, the Paris-based correspondent for Reuters News service. "This one is good, maybe honorable, but that's about it."
Mike Leigh's Another Year features regulars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in a rock-solid marriage that serves as the social safety net for an entire coterie of friends whose marriages have collapsed, stranding the survivors in their late 50s with nowhere to go and nothing to show. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for release this year.
Finally, Blue Valentine's story is of a couple played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, struggling to make the rent and rambling through Scranton, trying to keep their marriage alive first for their sake, then for their young daughter's. The film cuts back and forth between their courtship and the present as it rolls toward their moment of decision filmed in a fantasy-themed room on the top floor of the Radisson motel in King of Prussia. Not the Leather and Lace room, mind you, but the room decked out like a space station, pointedly called The Future.
The film bounced around in Cianfrance's computer for a dozen years, picking up a commitment from Williams six years ago, but it kept being postponed for one reason or another - financing, casting, etc. - till it was scheduled for the spring of 2008. Then Heath Ledger, who had fathered a daughter, Matilda, with Williams, died in January '08. Williams dropped out.
"We knew we wouldn't have a lot of funding," said Jamie Patricof, 34, the film's producer. "In the end it was finding the cast that could sell the movie."
Cianfrance had set the movie in Morro Bay, about 20 miles north of L.A., in a beat, oceanfront town.
"When the film came around a second time, and they said we're ready-set-go," Williams recalled, in a chat on a hotel rooftop along the Croisette, Cannes' seaside drag, "and Ryan had a window, I'd made a commitment to take a year off to be home for my daughter. I called Derek, after I'd spent two weeks in tears, agonizing. And I said, 'I'm so sorry I can't do it, I can't be your girl, I can't interrupt the school year. I'm not leaving.' "
"I thought about it overnight," Cianfrance said. "We'd been working on this film for 12 years and I thought the fact that she would choose her daughter over a project she'd been working on for six years is exactly the reason why she's the right person.
"I called her the next day and asked, 'If I can get you home every night, an hour away, so you can get your daughter to school, will you do it?' And she said yes. So we went to Scranton," Cianfrance said, moving the film to within an hour of Williams, who moved out of New York City to a location she wants to keep private.
"Scranton was very similar to Morro Bay. There are a lot of American cities like Scranton - soulful, with a history and ghosts," Cianfrance said. "Maybe it's seen its finest hour, but I never once missed the ocean or the beach. It's the place where Dean and Cindy would live."
The long delay in production made the couple's economic straits - which might have seemed like an affectation in 1998 - seem straight off the front page now.
"Art reflects its time," said Harvey Weinstein, chairman of the Weinstein Company, who is battling to regain his old company, Miramax, from Disney. He said he was mounting an Oscar campaign for the film because "we have two sensational performances."
All said and done, and prizes awarded, the films at Cannes this year generated only moderate heat with critics. Former Variety critic Todd McCarthy, writing in IndieWire, said he saw no film he'd rate higher than a B.
But this year at Cannes, the reflection in the cinema mirror was, as the poet (William Butler Yeats) famously wrote in the aftermath of World War I: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."