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A Language Lesson at Cannes

past posterIt's generally a big step when a filmmaker decides to make a film in a language that is not her/his mother tongue. There are many obstacles in addition to a language barrier: let’s face it, even if one is fluent in another language, there are cultural differences going on. But in these days of international co-productions, when money from another country can require shooting in foreign locations, as well as telling another kind of story, it is becoming more and more common. In addition, many filmmakers actually film in other languages and other countries because they don’t see any barriers.

For others, living in a new country with a different culture (and language) becomes a breeding ground for new film ideas that demand they be of that nation. To be clear, we are not talking about performers acting in another language; that’s been happening for years, and is still in evidence in Cannes with examples such as Berenice Bejo in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (last year’s Cannes best actor winner for The Hunt) in the French production of Michael Kohlhaas.

This year at Cannes quite a few filmmakers have bridged that divide, each with a unique result. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has made films in English before – he was last in Cannes in 2011 with Drive which starred Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver – shot his latest film, Only God Forgives, in Thailand. Starring Gosling – again –the film is in English and Thai and it deals with a different culture (that’s the Thai culture, in addition to the culture of violence and revenge that his characters show off in this competition film).

Arnaud Desplechin took a unique approach in his first English language film (and I believe, his first film not in French), Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Based on true events, the competition film is about a native American Blackfoot Indian suffering from post traumatic stress after WWII who is aided, and studied, by a French anthropologist. Benicio Del Toro plays the title character and Mathieu Almaric (who has played his share of English speaking roles) plays Georges Devereux, the anthropologist and psychoanalyst who works with Jimmy Picard. The story itself deals with many different cultures – in addition to native americans, there is the racist culture of the US in the late 1940s, as well as the military and medical cultures that Jimmy has to face. In addition, Devereux makes his living studying Indian cultures, so Desplechin’s film covers many different angles of this language/culture study: he is actually looking at a different culture, not simply shooting in a new language.

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past concerns a woman (Berenice Bejo, who won the best actress award at Cannes) trying to get a divorce from her Iranian husband in order to get on with her life with a new love. She has a daughter by yet another man and they are all temporarily residing in one house in a Parisian suburb (plus the lover’s young son). While one character is Iranian (as is Farhadi), the story is particularly a French one, with some Arabic culture thrown in a subplot. Yet Farhadi doesn’t make it immediately identifiable as French: he has placed the story in a suburban town, not in Paris which would scream French. But there is a western, or European sensibility which could lock horns with Iranian culture.

Stop the Pounding Heart is Roberto Minervini’s third film and the third film that he made in the U.S. (actually, all in Texas). Since Minervini’s been living in Texas, he has used the state as a palette for his art. Stop the Pounding Heart is what we have come to call a hybrid film: he uses non professional actors to tell stories similar to their lives, but not quite. The only one working in a different language here is Minervini himself, and what he has been doing here and in his other two feature films, is to tell American stories. The real yet meditative quality in Stop the Pounding Heart tells us that the filmmaker has become extremely fluent – in the English language, and in the American culture.

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