Fear and Loathing in Cannes

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

Variety's gainfully employed Todd McCarthy lends the voice of reason, reminding the infinitesimal audience that the film critic's doomsaying is at least as old as Pauline Kael. Ebert laments the loss of campus film societies as a means of audience education but, in nearly the same breath, puts in a good word for the Landmark Corporation's arthouse chain and its repertoire of mostly proven hits. French critic Michel Ciment (the journal Positif) mentions that last year's quartet of Cannes award-winners (Taste of Cherry, The Eel, The Sweet Hereafter, and Happy Together) earned hardly any money in commercial release, but that this hasn't stopped people from coming to the festival. Indeed, as mass-released "alternative" fare like Good Will Hunting continues to make foreign art cinema an iffy prospect anywhere, the film cognoscenti visits festivals at any cost because surprises at home are few and far between.

In other words, for critics who'd rather seek hidden treasures once in a while than spend 52 weeks a year helping to announce whatever Harvey Weinstein and Co. considers a sound investment, the film festival has become the last, best arthouse. But since that arthouse isn't open to the general public, reporting on it is to risk irrelevance or loss of employment--which only makes the situation worse. Probably the only reason to continue practicing film criticism is the naive hope that, every so often, what you write has some microscopic influence on widening the range of available product. And if not, well, there's always Miramax's fall lineup.

Friday, May 22

Speaking of said lineup, every once in a while the former indie company's clout lands a Velvet Goldmine--that is, a film by a smart, iconoclastic, politically minded director, designed expressly to subvert the status quo of visual, narrative, and sexual representation. Or so would say Todd Haynes groupies, whose ranks have grown considerably since the director's masterfully ironic Safe risked commercial failure in 1995.

Thus, Haynes's hugely ambitious glitter-rock epic struts into competition today carrying a lavender-colored feather boa in one hand and the Miramax logo in the other--and, on top of it all, the heaviest of critical expectations. The film's opening title seeks to settle us all down: "Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume." The word "fiction" is key, as Haynes stacks layer after layer of flamboyant artifice atop stardust memories of the queer youth culture's yearning for "ch-ch-ch-changes"--precisely the project of glam rock itself. Ewan McGregor plays rocker Curt Wild as a teasing mix of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed; the svelte Jonathan Rhys Myers plays omnisexual icon Brian Slade as an ever-evolving amalgam of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and Oscar Wilde; and Christian Bale plays the '80s-era reporter assigned to discover what happened to citizen Slade (as in Citizen Kane), and to the '70s spirit of personal, sexual, and artistic experimentation.

The investors were probably thrilled to hear that they'd be getting something like Citizen Kane meets Boogie Nights and Performance. But the role-playing of the filmmaker and his actors is so extravagantly complex--and the style so tantalizingly opaque--that not even the publicists' "meet the talent" press luncheon could spoil the mystery of this goldmine's Rosebud...

Saturday, May 23

...try as they might. As I and a half-dozen other critics are busy devouring various unnamed delicacies, seated around a table in the Carlton Hotel's hoity-toity banquet room, a thoroughly undelightful publicist asks one among us, an alt-weekly reporter from St. Louis, to switch tables--"because we have a lot of talent coming through." (Said talent, including Haynes, isn't due for another 15 minutes, but a full set of microphones is required immediately at each future stop on the stars' whirlwind roundtable tour.) "Can't I wait until I finish eating?" the critic humbly inquires. "You can just walk your plate over there," Miss Miramax replies, gesturing toward the hinterlands.

So what did Todd Haynes have to say, you ask? Well, the studio, hoping to maximize their goldmine, naturally prefers to have all "publicity" appear at the time of a film's release. Loose lips sink ships.

Sunday, May 24

About 30 of us gather in front of the Trinitron outside the pressroom to scribble down the names of the award winners. Befitting the varied tastes of its president, the jury spreads the trophies around. Haynes takes the Prix de Meilleure Contribution Artistique (Best Artistic Contribution), thanking Oscar Wilde and Roxy Music "for giving us so much to aspire to." Hal Hartley wins the screenplay prize for Henry Fool; John Boorman is awarded Best Director for The General, his so-so bio-pic of Irish thief Martin Cahill; Peter Mullan takes the actor's prize for My Name Is Joe; Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier, the young women from La vie rêvée des anges (The Dreamlife of Angels), split the Best Actress award; Roberto Benigni gets the Grand Prix for Life Is Beautiful (and proceeds to kneel at Scorsese's feet--an Italian thing, you see, allusions to the Holocaust being no longer required); and the top-prize Palme D'Or goes to Theo Angelopoulos for Eternity and a Day--which seemed to last about that long.

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