Inspecting the Cannes

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

This would have been a depressing year for French cinema at Cannes were it not for Philippe Harel's Une Femme Defendue, a flawed but oddly irresistible melodrama shot almost entirely through the eyes of one of its lovers; and Manuel Poirier's Western (which won the third-place Jury Prize), an overlong but likable road movie that follows two male buddies and the women they court along their cross-country journey. Otherwise, it was clear that Cannes isn't immune to playing favorites. In fact, actors Johnny Depp and Gary Oldman were somehow allowed to make their directorial debuts with films in competition. In Depp's laughably inept neo-Western The Brave, the actor does everything but don redface for his role as an American Indian stud, who submits to death by torture in exchange for reparations from an old sadist (Marlon Brando, playing Colonel Kurtz once again).

Somewhat more authentic was Oldman's verite-style Nil by Mouth (co-produced by Besson, of all people), which portrays South London family squalor through such characters as a monstrous bloke (Ray Winstone) who regularly beats his faithful wife (Kathy Burke) to a bloody pulp. In turn beating the viewer over the head, Oldman includes "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" on the soundtrack, and gives the abusing husband a didactic speech to explain that he too had been hit, by his dad. Like so many first-timers, Oldman uses excessive violence mainly to show that he means business--and in this case, Sony Pictures Classics took the bait.

Another act of assault-as-showmanship was perpetrated by Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose family-under-siege thriller Funny Games is one of the most sadistic films I've ever seen. Like Wes Craven's Scream, it winks at the viewer about how cleverly it's overturning horror conventions, while mercilessly preying on our sympathy for the characters and cultivating more real-world fear. Ultimately, whatever academic discussion it provokes can't match the complicated critique of class-based bloodlust in Craven's 25-year-old The Last House on the Left--a film so similar to Funny Games that Craven might consider litigation. Conversely, Cannes favorite Wim Wenders gave his latest work of techno-pacifism the pretentious title of The End of Violence. Amounting to an arty but equally insufferable version of Grand Canyon, it's an L.A. story that focuses on a producer of violent movies (Bill Pullman) who gets a taste of his own medicine when he's compelled to offer his kidnappers a million dollars--in percentage points. (Ironically, Wenders himself was attacked at Cannes by two masked thugs who attempted to steal his car; unlike his character, the filmmaker gave chase, but the thieves got away on a motorcycle.)

Wenders, with his healthy budget and hip cast (Pullman, Andie MacDowell, and Gabriel Byrne), joined Besson and Ang Lee in delivering an overwrought and underdeveloped American film. (Lee's self-satisfied and deadly dull The Ice Storm--an adaptation of the Rick Moody novel with Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Joan Allen playing frigid East Coast parents in the early '70s--merely aspires to the WASP melodrama of Ordinary People.) Yet one of the more satisfying movies in competition turned out to be L.A. Confidential, a big-scale Hollywood genre film based on the James Ellroy novel and directed by the heretofore hack-like Curtis Hanson (The River Wild). Set in the '50s, and featuring Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger in what amount to minor roles, it's an unfashionably pre-postmodern-style cop thriller that recalls De Palma's The Untouchables in its sharply edited shootouts, snappy dialogue, and confident use of two unproven hunks as stars (Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce).

Another surprise was that Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, which had been hyped from the fest's first hours as the likely Palme d'Or winner, unspooled as a facile and familiarly rendered drama of Western journalists (Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dillane, Emily Lloyd) struggling to reveal the truth of Third World war to an uninterested audience back home. True, Winterbottom (Butterfly Kiss, Jude) does continue to expand his dramatic range with this, his third film, which is powerful insofar as it includes some real footage of Sarajevan concentration camp prisoners within its Oliver Stone-like visual blitzkrieg. Otherwise, the mix of handheld video and widescreen Steadicam shots is off-puttingly slick--as is the "ironic" use of cheery pop songs like "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and the predictable lack of native Sarajevans as major characters. Ultimately, the film's point--that representations of difficult subjects need sugar-coating to get over--is made more unintentionally than not.

In the midst of this curiously underwhelming festival lineup, it was fortunate that such reliable masters as Kiarostami, Wong (Happy Together), and Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) came through with films that mostly met their high expectations. Kiarostami's latest was the ideal choice for the Palme d'Or, owing to its self-reflexive movie-within-a-movie conceit; a political subtext hearkening back to Cannes's roots; and a restrained aesthetic that stood in marked contrast to the overblown films for which this year's fest was rightly criticized. Not surprisingly, Wong (who fully earned his award for Best Director) delivered the year's most stylistically adventurous film with his portrait of the tumultuous relationship between two Hong Kong men in Buenos Aires. Especially in its Jarmuschian first half, Happy Together finds the director answering his many Hong Kong imitators by moving in a more subdued and melancholy direction.

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