Fear and Loathing in Cannes

An outsider's diary from Le Festival, where world cinema meets Planet Hollywood

Friday, May 15

Alienated outsiderdom is fast emerging as a theme at this festival. The first film of the morning is Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe--as in "My name is Joe and I'm an alcoholic." Hi, Joe.

Per Loach (Land and Freedom), the protagonist (Peter Mullan) is an Everyman representing larger struggles, but here they're personal, as Joe quits the sauce and courts a sweet social worker (Louise Goodall) while still struggling to control his temper. The film deftly approximates the man's mounting rage with a slow-burn plot that gradually becomes a showdown between Joe and the local mob. It's perhaps a minor Loach work, but the character rings true.

Later that afternoon, the outsider of the Australian Dance Me to My Song--a woman with severe cerebral palsy, played by a woman (Heather Rose) in the same condition--takes me by complete surprise. Knowing only the title and that the film was directed by one Rolf de Heer, I arrive about 30 seconds late and spend most of the opening-credit sequence climbing the balcony of the Grand Théâtre Lumière (a grand theater indeed). The one credit I do catch reads, "A Film by Heather Rose"--which makes me think I'm watching a short before Heer's main feature. But it proceeds for a hundred minutes, rendering in truly harrowing detail the life of Julia (Rose) as she struggles to communicate by computerized voice box, outsmart her horribly cruel nanny (Joey Kennedy), and, in her spare time, win the hand of a nice guy named Eddie (John Brumpton).

Heer's unflinching direction notwithstanding, this is indeed "a film by Heather Rose," who not only gives a fierce performance but also co-wrote this love-triangle variation on her life story. The near-10-minute standing ovation given to Rose--who was seated in the audience in her wheelchair--bodes well in commercial terms for a film that could tap some of the same real-life underdog appeal as Shine. On the other hand, perhaps it would be better if Rose wasn't embraced by Planet Hollywood.

Back at Palais des Festivals headquarters, the closed-caption monitors are running a live broadcast of the Fear and Loathing press conference (happening in the flesh about 50 yards away, in a roomful of video-camera operators and pink-badged reporters). Watching this spectacle on TV, I'm startled (and disturbed) by how completely the star power of actor Johnny Depp and director Terry Gilliam encourages me to devour the entire show--just as I'm supposed to. Sporting a south-of-the-border tan and mustachio to match, Depp responds with undue charm to deep questions about his Method actor bald spot in the role of Hunter S. Thompson and his degree of personal research into pot, mescaline, and LSD. "Johnny, what's the most endearing quality of Cannes?" asks a starstruck French writer. "Um," Depp says sarcastically, "Hollywood's invasion of it."

Saturday, May 16

Today, I'm happy--at least for a while. It's my first-ever visit to the Director's Fortnight, the anti-Cannes offshoot that Godard and Truffaut started in May of 1968 in protest of the main festival's bourgeois politics. Befitting this critically minded sideshow, journalists are taken from a separate line (no discrimination by color, either!) and gently escorted down a wide, white hallway to their seats in a spacious, state-of-the-art screening room. I'm once again struck by the festival's split personality: From hour to hour, I don't know whether to feel elated or exploited, savored or shat upon. At least for the moment, things are good.

The film is Todd Solondz's follow-up to Welcome to the Dollhouse, called Happiness--an ironic/sarcastic title if ever there was one. Like Dollhouse, only more so, this film depicts (or delivers?) an endless amount of fear and loathing under the guise of the blackest comedy: One character, a clean-cut and conservative suburban father (Dylan Baker), recalls a cathartic dream about gunning down random strangers in a park, then, wide awake, goes to his car and jerks off to a teen magazine. In terms of how it appears on-screen, the perverted trick this father pulls on his preteen son's overnight guest is nothing compared to Solondz's shock-tactic denouement in which a mother (Cynthia Stevenson) ends up tasting her boy's first ejaculate.

To an extent, one appreciates the director's view that America is sick, suburbia is polluted, most men are sickos, some women are mean and pathetic, and all children are victims. But then what? Solondz successfully beats the viewer into submission--and so the cycle of abuse continues.

Sunday, May 17

Blue-badge skirmishes aside, the war between the foreign art-cinema battalion and Disney's PR foot soldiers rages on. Today's battle seems to pit Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang (Vive L'Amour) against Mr. Showbiz, Frank Sinatra. The latter's body is barely cold, but in faraway Cannes his death is hot. (My favorite headline came from the French Liberation: "Frank Sinatra est mort: Doo bee doo bee doo.")

In the pressroom, which is ground zero for infotainment explosions, the English-speaking journalist next to me is on the phone describing her mandate to a colleague: "They're still keen on Sinatra and they want more." Later the journalist calls her editor and explains that she has quotes from Cannes celebrities on the subject of Frank. Indeed, Scorsese's 50-word official statement--"Words cannot express my sadness..."--has been available in Xerox form on just about every table counter in the Palais. (And now, I guess I'm getting mileage out of it, too.)

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