Every movie I’ve seen at Cannes this year — including Mike Leigh’s Another Year, which is almost universally admired — has been met, at best, with polite applause. That is, until I saw Tamara Drewe, Stephen Frears’ rotely cheeky, Anglo-plastic, eagerly innocuous adultery comedy. At the end of the screening in the Grand Théâtre Lumiére (I was seated in the huge, dramatically sloping balcony), the crowd around me erupted into applause, and then started to clap along with the cheesy-catchy rock song that played over the closing credits. I no longer felt like I was at Cannes; I felt like I was in the Catskills. Why the ovation? Tamara Drewe is this festival’s equivalent of a Sundance crowd-pleaser: a movie that makes a few quirky nods towards artistry, but is really, at heart, a mediocre television show, full of glib characters who don’t ring true. Plainly, the longing for this sort of movie is now an international phenomenon.
Frears sets his kitsch roundelay in the golden-green English countryside and fills the movie with genial lightweight unknowns who look, to our surprise, like ordinary people. But they act like frothy, low-level Hollywood concoctions. There’s the middle-aged celebrity airport-fiction crime novelist who, we’re reminded in every scene he’s in, is a smug hack (he’s played by Roger Allam, who looks, amusingly, like a more buttoned-down Christopher Hitchens). There’s the half-crazy rock drummer (Dominic Cooper) who’s like Bamm-Bamm with eyeliner and George Michael’s beard. There’s the fuddy-duddy, potato-shaped American academic (Bill Camp) who is taking a sabbatical to write a critical treatise on Thomas Hardy (at one point, he castigates the hack novelist for pandering to dark and violent sensations — which makes you wonder if he’s ever read Thomas Hardy). And there’s Tamara Drewe, the luscious lass at the center of it all, who returns to the district after having gotten a nose job; we see flashbacks to her teenage years, in which she sports a (prosthetic) honker that looks like it was built for Shylock. Tamara enjoys flings with several of these men, even though it’s clear from the outset that her one and only love is the noble country farm boy (Luke Evans) she dumped when they were kids. Gemma Arterton, who plays Tamara (pictured above), is like a sultrier Rachel Weisz, and a less interesting one too. For all her hotsy neurotic behavior, there’s nothing going on inside Tamara. She’s vacuous, a construct masquerading as a character.
Then again, that’s true of everyone in the movie. Even the two swoony adolescent girl moppets who kick the plot into gear by planting a scandalous Internet rumor are too preciously annoying for words. When the novelist gets his comeuppance, we’re invited to cheer as if the fact that he’s become famous for writing pulp fiction and has one lusty affair makes him a villain for the ages. If the movie were as worldly, as coyly European, as it pretended to be, it wouldn’t be nearly so judgmental. But filing people into slots is what a movie like Tamara Drewe does well; that’s why it goes down so easy. Frears makes every moment breezy, ersatz-saucy, and terminally cute, as if this were a canned comedy from the ’80s. Of course, now that I’ve called it a crowd-pleaser, you may be wondering: Will it truly please crowds, like that rare Sundance crowd-pleaser that crosses over into the real world? Or will it prove a success in the Cannes bubble only? My prediction is that outside this sunny festival bubble, it will wilt.
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Speaking of audience reaction, there was a sprinkling of boos at the end of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy — a sure sign that the movie wasn’t austere, oblique, minimal, obtuse, reticent, or monosyllabic enough to please the Iranian director’s most ardent followers. In fact, the film committed an aesthetic sin even more scandalous than that: It’s actually inviting and engaging to watch. And even funny! Coming from the creator of the 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry (a good if way too recessive film) and its acclaimed 1999 followup, The Wind Will Carry Us (an indulgent dud), it must have seemed to the art-house Maoists in the audience as if Kiarostami was suddenly collaborating with Neil Simon.
Actually, he’s just collaborating with Juliette Binoche, who gives a spiky and fascinating performance as a woman who hides a heap of resentment beneath her radiance. The movie is nothing less than Kiarostami’s wised-up, middle-aged version of Before Sunrise. Binoche and her costar, William Shimmel (who’s like an English Kevin Kline), play a couple who meet and spend an afternoon wandering through a Tuscan village. He’s a noted author of art-history books, and she’s an admirer. Or maybe closer than that. As the two get to know each other, they drift into a game of playacting that turns increasingly fraught, testing the waters of their relationship, then diving right in — to anger, confusion, despair, and, finally, tenderness. What hooked me about Certified Copy is that it’s a nimble and lively comedy of conversation that is also, if you look closely, a genuine Kiarostami film. It has his perceptual-structural slyness. The thing the movie is not, in any specific sense, is Iranian. And if that’s now considered a sellout, perhaps some of the people who booed should reconsider pigeonholing the purity of international filmmakers. Certified Copy shows Kiarostami reaching for a new spirit, and finding it. Maybe, for the first time in America, he’ll find art-house success as well.