Caught At Cannes: Jafar Panahi, Ulrich Köhler, A ‘Kaaka Muttai’ From Lebanon

Thoughts on the Iranian director's 3 Faces, a German drama that turns Hollywood’s survival formula on its head, and Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm
Caught At Cannes: Jafar Panahi, Ulrich Köhler, A ‘Kaaka Muttai’ From Lebanon

From its opening scene of a girl's (possible) suicide, Jafar Panahi's Se Rokh (3 Faces, in Farsi and Azeri) is filled with women. A young girl named Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) wants to pursue acting, but her family won't let her — hence this drastic step, which she captures on video, which finds its way to the popular actress Behnaz Jafari (playing herself). The director (playing himself) is found with his phone, being chided by his mother. His daughter comes up in conversation. His assistant — the one who screams at him for taking off with Behnaz Jafari to Marziyeh's village in search of her (they suspect she's alive, else who sent the video?) — is a woman. And in the village, it's a woman who gives them a taste of what death really is: she sleeps in a grave, "her final resting place."

These women negotiate a film — and a world — filled with masculine symbols (carefully preserved foreskin, a stud bull's "magnificent testicles"). The locals surround Behnaz Jafari when she arrives in their midst, clicking selfies and jostling for a chance to chat with her, and yet they dismiss Marziyeh as an "empty-headed brat." (Her brother yells that she brings dishonour to the family.) The profession is apparently fine as long as it's not one of their own who's seen "dancing in films." That's the reason they have exiled an older actress, who returned home. She, defiantly, continues to pursue art — she paints. Panahi probably identifies with this woman the most, given that his travel ban has exiled him from the rest of the world.

Se Rokh begins like a mystery (is Marziyeh alive?) and slowly transforms into an observational portrait. (What does it say about the mayor of the village who exiled the former actress but sends a few men to make sure a male director — Panahi — feels at home?) Panahi worked as Kiarostami's assistant. He echoes not just his mentor's work (the suicide angle and the driving around from Taste of Cherry, the 'city people scrambling to get cell phone reception' gag from The Wind Will Carry Us), but also the delicateness with which things are laid out, without pushing a message. One part made me smile. When confronted with a family conflict in the village, Panahi is content to stand back and let Behnaz Jafari take charge, "because women know how to handle these (domestic) situations better." The casual stereotyping made me smile. Panahi doesn't just indict the patriarchal villagers. He indicts himself.


Ulrich Köhler's In My Room opens with a handheld shot, during some kind of conference — it looks more like the camera has motion sickness. We soon discover the reason for the lurching. Armin (Hans Löw) has gotten confused between the on/off buttons — the camera was recording when he was moving around, and stopped when he cornered an interview subject. He's not much better in his personal life. He brings a girl home and objects when she asks if she can use his toothbrush. A valid objection, perhaps, but it's the way he puts it: "Seriously? There are more germs in your mouth than in your ass." Armin is the kind of movie character whose 'before' suggests that a major overhauling is in the offing, to bring about the 'after' — and it happens when everyone else seems to have vanished off the face of the planet.

Houses are empty. Cars and bikes lie abandoned in the middle of the road. There's no explanation — only the realisation that this worthless human being, seemingly the only man on earth, is going to have to fend for himself. At first, Armin doesn't seem Adam so much as Old MacDonald. He has a farm. He gets ducks, hens, a goat, a horse. And then, he finds an Eve (Elena Radonicich). I can't say I was overly taken by the monotony and repetitiveness Köhler pushes his protagonists through, but that is the point. In My Room turns Hollywood's survival formula on its head, and becomes a nihilistic what-if variation: What if your ingenuity can only take you so far? What if you have all the freedom in the world, but no civilisation to impose rules? What if no salvation is in sight?


The plot of Nadine Labaki's Capharnaüm (Arabic) suggests an unflinching, less-cute version of Irreconcilable Differences, the flashback-filled 1984 comedy-drama where a little girl goes to court in order to divorce her parents who have no time for her. In the flashback-filled Capharnaüm, a little boy goes to court and sues his parents, who aren't able to provide for him. (His mother screams, "This is not a house. This is a shitty chicken coop.") But Capharnaüm, if anything, is even cuter — and it's saying something when the child in the Hollywood film was played by a fresh-from-E.T. Drew Barrymore. This is a "social issue" movie that wants you to pinch its cheeks. It's fairy-dusted neorealism, which isn't ashamed of four-handkerchief melodrama (an 11-year-old girl forced into marriage, a toddler left dangerously close to speeding cars on the road). It's a Dickensian survival story, replete with a glass-eyed villain. It's Oscar bait.

None of which is necessarily a bad thing, and Capharnaüm is certainly very well-crafted, and the actors are superb. But to tell you the exact problem I had with the film, I'll have to remind you of Manikandan's Kaaka Muttai (Tamil), which was also structured around two underprivileged kids out on their own. But the boys of Kaaka Muttai wanted nothing more than to taste pizza — whereas, here, the boy is addressing the plight of those who don't possess papers, and that's too much of a "statement" to stuff into the mouth of a kid. The framing device around the court proceedings is practically redundant. The film would have worked just as well as a series of oh-poor-thing moments, the warm strings on the soundtrack being plucked like our heartstrings — and a Citizen Kane-like ending (a file buried in the midst of thousands) meant to make us tut-tut about the injustices in the world. This manipulative movie is hard to hate, yet hard to respect.

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