Cannes Mid-Festival Report: Sleeping Beauties, Hallucinations, and a Queen of Dance in 3-D

Fresh Face: Emily Browning stars in director Julia Leigh's stunning debut "Sleeping Beauty"

The 2011 Cannes Film Festival is about halfway done and many of the festival’s biggest titles have yet to screen, including Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Takashi Miike’s Ichimei. That having been said, I’ve now seen 19 films at the festival and several of them have greatly impressed me.

First, there’s Sleeping Beauty, Australian novelist turned writer/director Julia Leigh’s first film. Sleeping Beauty is competing both for the Palme d’Or, the biggest prize at the festival and for the Camera d’Or, the prize reserved for first-time filmmakers. The film follows Lucy (Sucker Punch’s Emily Browning), a self-possessed teenage girl that becomes a prostitute for a group of very rich patrons that have very particular tastes.

Sleeping Beauty is an incredibly precise provocation whose intelligence and nuance is unparalleled at the festival (so far). In it, Leigh examines the self-destructive impulse inherent in sex without showing or even implying that Lucy engages in a single act of penetration. Here’s hoping the judges remember to to honor Leigh, as well as Browning, whose nervy, lithe performance effectively grounds Sleeping Beauty.

The last film exploring the world of prostitution to win the Camera d’Or Award at Cannes is Or (My Treasure) – Watch it on Fandor:

Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to Shotgun Stories, just screened at the festival’s Critic’s Week sidebar and boy is it good. The film is a harrowing psychodrama about Curtis (played by the characteristically excellent Michael Shannon), a working class father that becomes overwhelmed by apocalyptic hallucinations and nightmares. Nichols’s painterly mise en scene takes cues from Terrence Malick and features several of the most stunningly singular images I’ve seen at the festival so far. The ferocity of Shannon’s sweat-drenched performance is matched both by co-star Jessica Castain’s turn as Curtis’s wife and David Wingo’s evocative score. It’s a shame that Nichols’s film isn’t competing in the main competition because its conclusion is searing.

Wim Wenders’s Pina screened in the festival’s marketplace and was met with a very warm response (the room full of distributors erupted into applause during the end, a rare occurrence at marketplace screenings). Pina, Wenders’s first film shot and exhibited in 3-D, is a dance documentary dedicated to the work of late choreographer Pina Bausch’s.

Wenders has a knack for staging and filming several of Bausch’s routines. He films her dance troupe in and around various outdoor locations and makes full use of 3-D photography without forcing the dancers to throw themselves at the camera. Wenders’s lively and incredibly moving film may single-handedly settle the current argument about whether or not 3-D technology is a worthwhile way to immerse viewers into a film without seeming gimmicky.

Watch the films of Maya Deren, a pioneer of dance cinema, on Fandor.

Faye Dunaway in "Puzzle of a Downfall Child"

Finally, there’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park director Jerry Schatzberg’s 1970 debut feature and the film that inspired this year’s festival’s poster. A pristine, newly restored print of the film just screened as part of the festival’s Cannes Classics slate. Faye Dunaway stars as a reclusive fashion model that recounts her career to Barry Primus’s former colleague and paramour. Roy Scheider co-stars as one of Dunaway’s lovers, a sour and mercurial man that eventually Funaway’s character pushes away. Like Panic in Needle Park, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a beautiful still life of 1970s America. Here’s hoping American arthouses can get a hold of a copy of this new print immediately.

Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.

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