In the best cases, comedy can act as a great unifier on par with music or dance. The simple joys of chuckling at a good bit of physical humor transcend cultural divides, bringing disparate audiences together under the binding forces of laughter. Charlie Chaplin’s legendary dinner-roll ballet, Buster Keaton narrowly avoiding a falling house, even a pudgy cartoon panda sailing into a bamboo stalk face-first; these jokes read no matter who you are because comedy, specifically physical comedy, often shoots for the basest targets in audience response. A viewer doesn’t carefully weigh whether a moment worked and then choose to laugh. It either happens or it doesn’t, a knee-jerk reflex that comes from the most primal parts of the human brain.
But the two selections that screened In Competition on a less-spooky-than-usual Friday the 13th handily illustrated the flip side of this principle. Two films, one German and one French, both exemplified senses of humor a bit more kooky or daring than anything the Hollywood studio system would allow through their gates. When comedies make it to Cannes, they’ve generally got something a little sharper up their sleeve than banana-peel slippage or fart jokes. (Though there’s plenty of room for those, too — the French love a good fart.)
Today’s viewing brought strangeness and familiarity, some welcome and some frustrating. There’s a comforting sort of recognition in getting a good belly laugh while living as a stranger in a strange land, but then again, nobody flies halfway around the world just to eat McDonald’s.
National humor-politics aside, Bruno Dumont has a bizarro comedic sensibility all his own. The French cineaste gets his kicks from grotesquerie, displeasure, and violence, usually contrasted with formal elegance for maximum impact, and he’s true to form in his latest picture, the demented Slack Bay. (If you’re my kind of weirdo and that sentence piqued your curiosity, his miniseries-length film Li’l Quinquin is waiting for you on Netflix.)
The title refers to a location on the northern coast of France where the English Channel meets a small inlet, creating a picturesque marshland popular with bourgeois city-folk eager for a scenic vacation in the country. Near the dawn of the 20th century, a family of mussel-diggers make ends meet by carrying the moneyed tourists across a watery patch, wedding-day-style, and then murdering and eating them. “The family that ravenously devours human flesh together stays together” is unfortunately not needlepointed on a pillow at any point during the film, but there’s still no shortage of laughs to be had, most of them fittingly dark.
Dumont keeps the class critique right on the surface where viewers can get at it, realizing the old “eat the rich” adage in gruesome detail. This airing of social grievances stays feather-light with frequent flights of fancy, some literal, as in a rotund police inspector that inflates like a balloon and nearly flies away while investigating all the mysterious disappearances. Dumont’s jokes fly all over the tonal spectrum, from brutal deadpan to fatty-fall-down-go-boom gags. This makes for a scattershot overall experience, with “ha-ha funny” and satisfied smirks in equal measure.
The only occasionally charming messiness extends to the performances as well, with Euro-icon Juliette Binoche relishing the opportunity to ham it up even as her fellow cast members affect a bone-dry dourness. This may go back to the class-based chip on Dumont’s shoulder, characterizing the wealthy appetizers-to-be as frivolous people, while the working-class cast maintains a stony intensity (particularly Brandon Lavieville as Ma Loute, a wiry teen enamored of a cross-dressing young woman staying on the tony estate near the bay) even as they indulge in depravity. It’s a odd synthesis of comedic styles and ideas, but for Bruno Dumont, it’s just film number nine — more of the same from someone unlike anyone else.
If Slack Bay shows French tastes as filtered through the off-kilter sensibility of one artist, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann works Germany’s sense of humor through the wringer of Hollywood formula. Chuck Klosterman exhaustively documented the German sense of humor in his essay “Ha ha,” he said. “Ha ha.”, noting how the nation’s laughs mostly come from the misfortune of others. (Is there any word more profoundly German than schadenfreude?) Toni Erdmann provides compelling support for his theory, rolling out a series of comical circumstances that embarrass, shame, and otherwise mortify well-to-do businesswoman Ines (Sandra Hüller).
The architect of her constant foibles is none other than her father (Peter Simonischek), an incurable prankster named Winfried who adopts the alter ego that lends the film its title when he dons a pair of ersatz buck-teeth and a shaggy wig. He worries that his workaholic daughter has her priorities crossed, as she spends her time calculating how best to get her consulting firm’s big client to cut 200 workers instead of pondering the meaning of life. She, conversely, would like her father to stop tormenting her with his disastrous practical jokes everywhere she goes, endangering her job and personal life with each new corny gag.
The crowd at La Salle Debussy was hooting and hollering for the film, not only bursting into roaring laughter but full-on applauding during a mid-scene set piece in which Ines sings a pitchy rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love Of All,” and rave reviews have already begun to trickle in. While it’s certainly not unfunny — I’d be lying if I said I didn’t crack up at a surreal party scene that finds Ines and her guests ass-naked with a mystery guest clad in a seven-foot-tall Hungarian spirit costume — it is almost unbearably typical.
Perhaps the film’s proponents were distracted by the lovely lensing and the fact that it’s a European film, but this story has been told a dozen times over by factory-assembled American comedy vehicles. “Corporate stooge realizes importance of family following hi-lar-ious misunderstandings” has probably financed two summer homes apiece for Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy, and though her film never reaches the depths of unpleasantness in the Adam Sandler/Andy Samberg comedy That’s My Boy, director Maren Ade might as well owe that movie an “inspired by” credit. She moves through these paces with slightly less conventional comedic set-ups than the scores of identical films, but after the curtain draws, there’s nothing left to chew on but the tired moral of “family first.”
Today’s outlier was Exil, a Cambodian picture from Rithy Panh, director of The Missing Picture, I went into blind on a total lark to break up the afternoon. Less of a documentary than a visual essay on the inhumanities of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge death squads, there were decidedly fewer laughs than in the two films discussed above. Of course it’s an essential story in dire need of telling, but at the same time, documentaries chronicling genocide have a way of sucking the soul right out of you with their ceaseless albeit called-for misery. Exil sets itself out from the usual issue-doc with passages of gorgeous lyricism, leaving reality behind to show our narrator tranquil in a dimension of overgrown natural beauty. His most effective formal technique inserts Cambodia’s serene forests into a small hut owned by our narrator, powerfully contrasting the fragile wonder of life with the unspeakable horrors perpetrated on the locals. The eye candy doesn’t sweeten the bitter taste of war crime, but complements it, resulting in a solemn yet hopeful prayer for a kinder tomorrow.
Tomorrow: The day starts with a two-and-a-half-hour erotic drama from Park Chan-wook of Oldboy and Stoker fame, or in film-dork terms, paradise. The afternoon holds the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s B.F.G. adaptation, a epidemic-thriller set on a Korean bus, and then the latest from Cannes mainstay Andrea Arnold. I predicted yesterday that I’d finally get some shut-eye, which has since been revealed as wishful thinking. Maybe tomorrow?