Inspecting the Cannes

In its 50th year, is the world's most prestigious film festival showing its age?

Some 4,000 journalists attended the festival this year, and it's no wonder: This may be the last place left in the world where critics are held in high regard. At Cannes--the site of many legendary critical debates, run by a former critic (Gilles Jacob) in a country where the auteur theory was coined by critics-turned-auteurs like Godard and Truffaut--reviewers still have an undeniable impact in shaping a film's early reputation. Indeed, the power of the press here largely explains Bruce Willis's defensive statement at the Fifth Element press conference that his film was review-proof, and that "the written word is going the way of the dinosaur, anyway." Was this some sort of plug for The Lost World--or just a stupid thing to say in a room full of journalists?

Critically speaking, it was a shame that the group of movies screened in competition this year left a lot to be desired. Still, befitting the anniversary spirit, a number of the films purveyed a critical take on the industry--or at least returned the media's gaze. The Argentinean La Cruz (The Cross) failed as a comedy, but it resonated deeply with the working press because of its main character: a psychotic film critic (Norman Briski) who gets fired for writing too many negative reviews. Out of a job, the critic nevertheless tells a friend that he's planning to attend the next Cannes festival.

On the subject of beleaguered journalists, two events around The Blackout, Abel Ferrara's salacious portrait of a Bad Lieutenant-style Bad Actor (Matthew Modine), managed to hit critics where they live. A mosh pit in front of the tiny Cinema des Arcades caused one journalist to experience a literal blackout, while Modine's press-conference request for a black British critic to repeat his question because "it's dark in here" prompted the writer to accuse Modine of racism. (Ferrara responded to this charge in typical Bad Director form: "I've seen his type selling cassette tapes for 20 bucks in Rhode Island.")

It was hard to say which was more theatrically vulgar: Ferrara's press conference or his film. For the former, the auteur strode in 20 minutes late looking like a vampire pimp in a tall black hat, dark wraparound shades, and yellow teeth, merrily joining actors Modine, Claudia Schiffer, Beatrice Dalle, and Dennis Hopper at the dais by pouring himself a glass of Budweiser, and then joking with music contributor Schoolly D about how the two of them had pulled down their pants during the shoot to determine "who's got the biggest fuckin' dick." Meanwhile, The Blackout itself proved another of Ferrara's intense trips through the gutter of Catholic guilt and insatiable addiction (and cinematic self-reflexivity), wherein Modine's drug-addled Matty fears he did "something terrible" to his lover (Dalle) during an alcoholic bender.

Mirroring Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, The Blackout's anti-hero has a habit of forgetting his more violent behavior. There's also some Vertigo in the mix here, as a second lover suddenly appears to remind him of the one he lost. As always, Ferrara captures the depraved mood perfectly, using woozy camerawork and elliptical editing to approximate an endless series of blackouts. Perhaps even more remarkable is the way he turns the seemingly miscast Modine from a yuppie into another strung-out and soul-baring Ferrara protagonist, and how the film's considerable insight into alcoholism and male adolescent self-indulgence is rendered with a Cro-Magnon sort of passion. Needless to say, there were plenty of walkouts. Yet those who stayed to the end found a movie provocatively lacking in the cathartic redemption that has become a Ferrara trademark.

At the other end of the art-film spectrum, Jean-Luc Godard's latest project, Histoire(s) du Cinema (parts 3A and 4A), is another pleasantly inscrutable inquiry into the question, "What is cinema?" Using pilfered clips from Hitchcock and Italian neo-realism to wrest film history from its copyright owners, the former Cahiers du Cinema reviewer goes on to suggest that anyone with a VCR and a remote control can (and should) be a critic. Meanwhile, the plural "histoire(s)" in Godard's title seemed to reflect the many diverse histories in the making at Cannes--encompassing everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to (ugh) Luc Besson. The vast gulf between these two auteurs could be measured by the fact that Godard's press conference was, shamefully, only half-full, while Besson was greeted with shrieks of "Luc! Luc!" every time he appeared in public.

In a way, Besson's The Fifth Element seemed the perfect Cannes opener: articulating the Planet Hollywood mentality that was the Sixth Element here, and proving that a French director could make a big studio epic with the symbolic likes of Willis, an actor-cum-hamburger salesman who has a self-professed beef against the written word. Similarly, but on a lower budget, the French would-be wunderkind Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) scraped the bottom of Tarantinoisms with Assassin(s), an obscenely plagiaristic hit-man thriller that inspired a theater-full of vindictive boos at its press screening. (Kassovitz's press conference was thus a heated affair, but hardly scandalous. Contrary to the interpretation of some French reporters, Assassin(s) is not a controversial film about violence, just a violent, pea-brained film.)

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