Fear and Loathing in Cannes

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

Coutard confesses that Breathless seemed nothing special when he was shooting it. Cardiff asserts that the current crop of new directors ("these film-school kids who've seen everything") tend to tell the cinematographers exactly what they want, minimizing the craftsman's input, whereas Hitchcock or King Vidor would simply say, "Jack, I want a feeling of sadness here," and turn him loose. A gorgeous five-minute clip from Life and Death--the scene in which David Niven's RAF pilot prepares to jump out of a fiery plane without a chute--makes me wonder if Cardiff's theory is correct, because nothing I've seen in the fest has come close to achieving its beautifully surreal Technicolor glow.

Tonight is the press screening of one of the most challenging films in the festival, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flowers of Shanghai, a snail-paced portrait of brothel life in late 19th-century Shanghai, shot in static tableaux, like a filmed play. At least a quarter of the audience walks out before it's over--perhaps trailing the media monster's footprints down to the beach.

Wednesday, May 20

At long last, lé cinema. Lars von Trier's Idioterne (The Idiots) proposes an odd solution to alienation, following a group of beautiful young nomads who go around impersonating retarded people as a rebellious means of raw self-expression and subcultural fraternizing. Put it this way: If Emily Watson's fragile Bess from von Trier's Breaking the Waves had joined these fun-loving folks to "find her inner idiot," she probably wouldn't have needed to give herself to God. Although The Idiots is the uncredited second film in von Trier's newly formed cinema collective (his name isn't on it), this is unmistakably the work of the man who made Waves--the same aesthetic mix of jump cuts, seasick camera work, and washed-out colors capturing the metaphoric story of people too delicate for this world, fighting to assert themselves amid the powers that be.

Leave it to Lodge Kerrigan, director of the bleak Amerindie Clean, Shaven, to return us to the land of the lost. Kerrigan's Claire Dolan is a tightly controlled, nearly suffocating investigation of the life of a New York prostitute (Katrin Cartlidge) who struggles to put some distance between herself and her manipulative pimp (Colm Meaney), enlisting the aid of a scruffy cab driver (Vincent D'Onofrio) to give her love and then father her child. The theme all around is control, and Kerrigan certainly proves the master of his own domain. At the post-screening press conference (which, again, I saw on TV), the youngish auteur broods impeccably, stares at his water glass, answers tersely, and musters no charm whatsoever, generally looking like a guy who doesn't get out much. After a week of nothing but screenings, I believe I know how that feels.

At this point, I'm so bitter about my blue badge and browbeaten by the hassle it brings that the mere sight of a pink card is enough to inspire, um, fear and loathing. Even Russia's relatively obscure Khroustaliov, ma voiture! (Khroustaliov, My Car!) requires the blues to arrive early, just in case. Meanwhile, one imagines that pink-card holders are happily sipping cold beer at a cafe until a few minutes before showtime. Here come two of them now: "Oh well, we're kind of early," one says to her friend, casting a glance in our direction.

Thursday, May 21

Halfway through actor-director John Turturro's boring Illuminata, I bolt, just barely making it into a market screening of the buzz movie in competition, La vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels). Even though I watch from a cramped and cross-legged position on the floor of a tiny room, this incisive study of the shifting relationship between two young French women (Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier) is riveting for seeming as real as any doc. (Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution yesterday, meaning it may appear in our town before year's end.)

At noon, I check out a panel discussion sponsored by Variety and the Excite! search engine on the state of film criticism, hoping it might cure what ails me. This urgent summit in Variety's tentlike "pavilion" (free Heineken, co-sponsored by RAI International) has been called in the wake of David Denby's recent rant in The New Yorker about why people don't love the "right" movies, and by a more substantive panel discussion that took place last year at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Roger Ebert gets this swingin' party started by asserting that "the world of film is in disarray and chaos." It's dominated by marketing, he says, resulting in the fact that audiences only go to the movies that the PR people tell them to. (The direction of his own thumb seems to have no influence--and despite the fact that Godzilla, so I've heard, features a mayor named "Ebert" who's the arbiter of size matters.) He recounts a story--a chilling one, if you're in this profession--about an unnamed critic who was recently fired from a major daily. Seems the editor felt his critic's tastes didn't reflect the readers'. "If I walk by a restaurant," the editor mused, "and it's packed with people who like it, I expect my critic to write a positive review." Naturally, the critic demurred: "But what if the food isn't any good?" Boss Man: "If people like it, it is good."

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