Inspecting the Cannes

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

Cannes, France--

Judging from its coverage in the American trade papers, you'd think the 50th anniversary edition of the Cannes Film Festival had nothing in particular to do with good movies. The Hollywood Reporter devoted a page of its daily feed to reviewing the studios' parties (rated on a scale of one to five martinis). And while Variety's film criticism appeared almost brilliant by comparison, the paper never failed to report at length on any Hollywood big shot who happened to announce a new deal, open a Planet Hollywood, or draw a crowd.

But at the same time, and especially if you focused on actual films rather than the many overcrowded "media events," this was a festival for cineastes, with screenings in handsome theaters named after Andre Bazin and Ingmar Bergman; a film-historical press conference given by Jean-Luc Godard; an ongoing retrospective of Cannes classics titled "Cinema du Toujours"; and a poetic assemblage of clips from various world-cinema gems, preceding each of the 19 features in competition.

But what about the stargazing, you ask? Well, let's start by saying that Cannes is not a place for ordinary people to meet Robert Redford--or Isabelle Adjani, this year's president of the jury. Even B-list actors are well-protected by a slew of French gendarmes, venturing out only in carefully orchestrated, street-blocking productions designed to attract a literally captive audience. Thus, the most prestigious film festival in the world is defined by the most extreme contradictions: culture and glamour, art and commerce, sunny beaches and dark theaters, critical debate and crass deal-making, challenging cinema and mainstream product.

Such dichotomies seemed encapsulated by this year's closing-night film: Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power, an artful studio movie by a hallowed auteur and Hollywood moneymaker, a critique of absolute power and the thing itself. But Cannes also makes room for the likes of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry, a gorgeously minimalist character study of a man's consideration of suicide, included at the 11th hour in the wake of opposition from the Iranian government. (Kiarostami's film shared the top-prize Palme d'Or with The Eel, a gently quirk-laden melodrama directed by Japanese master Shoei Imamura.) Like any big-budget production, the festival had its own meticulously scripted and tidily resolved three-act narrative: Some dismal competition titles established dramatic tension; the plot thickened midway through with the arrival of auteurist sellouts and flawed masterpieces; and the jury heroically saved the day by voting in favor of uncommercial art.

Cannes is political and always has been. The festival was launched in 1939 as the French response to Mussolini's influence over the Venice Film Festival--and when Hitler happened to invade Poland on the first fest's opening night, the event was put on hold until after the war. Fifty years later, there's still an element of international one-upmanship here. Amidst Hollywood's vulgar efforts to colonize Cannes, with oversized 3D ads for summer blockbusters adorning every hotel on the Croisette, one senses that if an American film doesn't win the Palme d'Or, an American studio will at least make sure to buy the one that does. Meanwhile, although some French cineastes appear protective of their country's art films to the exclusion of all else, the festival's own attitude is ambiguous. Who knows what it meant that the opening-night film was The Fifth Element, a Hollywood-style sci-fi blockbuster by a French director (Luc Besson), financed largely with French money. Was this a case of international cooperation, or co-optation?

As the French have a long tradition of passionate movie-loving (and a track record for recognizing our great movies before we do), Cannes feels like the ideal location for buffs to reflect on the state of the art, and to consider various unanswerable questions. For instance: Notwithstanding the two worthy Palme d'Or winners, and a pair of indelible experiments by directors Atom Egoyan and Wong Kar-Wai, did the generally disappointing schedule of films this year reflect the festival programmers' poor choices, or the poor health of world cinema circa 1997? And if it's the latter, does that reflect a temporary malaise, or a chronic one resulting from the trend toward multinational blockbusters and familiar pulp fictions? Although the festival jury did see fit to honor those deserving exceptions to the rule, there was still plenty of evidence to encourage conspiracy theories about aesthetic homogenization and populist programming--especially since it's impossible to know why certain films were chosen at the expense of who knows what.

After all, you'd think a movie's inclusion at Cannes would be synonymous with excellence--and perhaps it has been in the past. But some of this year's dreadful competition films--like Mathieu Kassovitz's Assassin(s), Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, and Johnny Depp's The Brave--couldn't help casting aspersions on the tastes of (and pressures upon?) the selection committee. Likewise, the jury is out on whether a hit at Cannes necessarily becomes a hit at the U.S. box office: The last three Palme d'Or winners have been the $100-million Pulp Fiction, the unreleased Underground, and the modestly successful Secrets & Lies. Ironically, this commercial uncertainty seems a good thing, as it may help shift the balance of power away from money men and toward moviegoers.

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.)

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.

Egoyan also intrigued his fans by showing more emotion than usual. Like Secrets & Lies, The Sweet Hereafter (which won the second-place Grand Prix) is a tale of family turmoil dredged up and laid bare, as a repressed big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) swoops into a small town in British Columbia to seek settlements for the grieving parents of 14 children who died in a bus accident. In a typically complicated Egoyan narrative of flash-backs and -forwards (based on the Russell Banks novel), we discover that Holm's character has loved and lost one of his own brood, too. Egoyan was criticized in some quarters for failing to tie up thematic loose ends, but I'd say that further supports his ambitious bid to make his oeuvre a little messier and more true to life.

The ratio of strong films to weak might have increased further with the presence of Zhang Yimou's new Keep Cool, but this was not to be. Just as the New York Film Festival was nearly denied permission to screen Zhang's Shanghai Triad because of the Chinese government's objection to the Tiananmen Square doc The Gate of Heavenly Peace, here a Chinese film about homosexuality called East Palace, West Palace, directed by Zhang Yuan, provided the pretext for China's decision to prevent Keep Cool from screening at Cannes. (Apparently, China chose to pull the hotly anticipated Keep Cool rather than the ostensibly offending film in order to make its point more forcefully--or perhaps to settle a score with Zhang for his previous work.)

This situation was all the more disappointing in light of the fact that Palace played like a timid and didactic Kiss of the Spider Woman knockoff, in which a gay man (Si Han) attempts to explain his sexuality to a homophobic cop (Hu Jun)--the latter being a surrogate figure for the perceived mass audience. Although discreet flashbacks to the man's dangerous liaisons do nothing to make his affairs resemble "normal" love (the root purpose of this sort of Philadelphia-style exercise in mass consciousness-raising), China's hostile reaction to the film does bear out its degree of risk and admirable agenda to enlighten.

In this way, East Palace, West Palace provided a timely reminder that films should always be judged in the context of where they were made--after all, one country's cheesy melodrama might be another's political breakthrough. Especially given the threat to world cinema posed by Hollywood imperialism this year at Cannes, any movie that distinctly reflects its country of origin is worthy of respect.

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