Kick the Cannes

Dim efforts by Roland Joffé, the Coen Brothers, Lars von Trier, Neil LaBute, and John Waters darken the screens of the world's flashiest film fest

Cannes, France--


Who could blame the French for their ambivalence toward American cinema--or American people?

The (not-so-)great escape: John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and George Clooney in the Coen Brothers' latest
The (not-so-)great escape: John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and George Clooney in the Coen Brothers' latest

At an opening press conference with jury members here to assess the 23 films in official competition at Cannes 2K, a USA Today scribe eagerly represented his nation of origin with a penetrating query: What does jury president and French blockbuster maker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) think of the Cannes mayor's threat to close all film-related beach parties at 12:30 a.m.?

Plus ça change... The Cannes Film Festival--featuring the aforementioned movies that compete for the Palme d'Or, as well as dozens more in various sidebar packages (and several hundred others screened around town for "market" purposes)--has long been 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, auteurist profundity and your basic puff piece. Just moments after his inquiry into the particulars of partying, the USA journalist's jury-serving countryman Jonathan Demme dutifully tipped the scale in the other direction by proclaiming that he's here to learn about other cultures through cinema--this while expressing his disappointment that there aren't more films from the Middle East or the African diaspora on the bill.

Yes, Cannes is political. After all, 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-four years later, there's still an element of international one-upmanship here. The conspicuous paucity of U.S. fare at the 2000 fest (among Yanks only Neil LaBute, James Gray, and the Coen Brothers were chosen to compete this year) had earlier prompted speculation that festival bigwig Gilles Jacob was starting a war with Hollywood--although studio chiefs since claimed that they had launched a preemptive strike by not bothering to send their work for Jacob's consideration.

Such trade-paper tit-for-tat has become another annual occurrence, yet this year's international nipple-twisting affair was distinguished by an opening-night attraction that perfectly allegorized the whole orgy. Mounted by transnational hack Roland Joffé (City of Joy, The Scarlet Letter), the bloated Vatel features France's grand homme Gérard Depardieu in the titular role of a late-17th-century party-thrower. It is this man's job to put on a lavish spread and otherwise suck up to the king, Louis XIV, who comes to the Prince de Condé's Château de Chantilly for an extended stay.

As Depardieu's attendant bends over backward to please the powers that be, it's not hard to see Vatel as Gilles Jacob, the inaccessible Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman) as Hollywood, and the king as French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (who attended the ornate opening-night festivities, natch)--especially since entire sections of the bunkerlike Palais des Festivals were closed for an enormous Vatel fete that turned the lobby of the Grand Théâtre Lumière into an Age of Enlightenment manse.

In any case, Joffé might well have been speaking of Cannes itself when describing Vatel to The Hollywood Reporter: "You could say the film is about ambition, success, pain, deception, politics, love, eating--and all the other things when a large group of people gather to enjoy themselves."

Indeed--but who gets to receive the final toast at this gala? In a year when the dollar is unusually strong in Cannes, it should go without saying that the American powermongers at Miramax purchased the French Vatel on the fest's second day for an undisclosed sum.


Amid Hollywood's vulgar efforts to colonize Cannes, what 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. Yet, by another measure (and even before the official trophies had been bestowed), the winners of this year's annual world war were the cinemas of Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, and Iran--whose rich, leisurely, contemplative films collectively numbered a dozen within the fest's three main categories. (More on the Asian presence at Cannes in next week's article--in which, among other things, I'll attempt to answer the question "So, what did you like?")

Coming from the other side of the globe (and the other extreme of the aesthetic spectrum), there were plenty of populist Western auteurs--the Coens, Neil LaBute, Lars von Trier, John Waters--who were invited to pay the bills (in other words, to make sure that stars and press flacks and studio lackeys bothered to show up). Following an amiable trio of escaped cons (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) through an embellished rendition of the Depression-era South, the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (scheduled to open in October) keeps the former Minneapolitans in good company with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson. That is, the movie has been assembled almost entirely out of elements from other cultural artifacts--the Odyssey most profoundly, or so it seems. (The Coens have seen fit to give Homer an onscreen story credit, if not a percentage of the profits.) Still, this rambling widescreen odyssey appears more strongly informed by The Wizard of Oz, Down by Law, the films of Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels in particular), and, perhaps most of all, the toe-tapping bluegrass tunes that pepper the soundtrack. Indeed, in the film's best moments, even the cinematography has a twang to it.

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