The Plaisir Principle

Or, Cannes 2001: How to love the movies without hating yourself

Cannes, France--


So I'm here at the Cannes Film Festival in the sunny south of France, staring at a ridiculously dreamy ingénue named Naomi Watts doing press for the new David Lynch movie, and I'm thinking about pleasure. Le plaisir, as the French would say. Actually, just between you and me, I'm misérable: dangerously sleep-deprived, borderline delirious from fever (or cold medicine), sick of braving the crowds, tired of lunching frantically on les jambons fromages, and more than a little stressed about my looming deadline. But that's another story. This one is about pleasure.

Mind you, I'm not talking about "visual pleasure" in the manner of British film theoretician Laura Mulvey, whose Peeping Tom of cinema-studies papers posited movies as tools to forge the viewer's identification with the male protagonist and his "privileged gaze." No, in the case of this article, dear reader, the privilege, I dare say, is all yours.

And to prove it, here's a coming-attractions trailer for what you'll experience in this sexy, swanky, globetrotting feature, whose early rough cut was deemed "A potentially strong piece of work!" by none other than City Pages' own arts editor. In the course of "The Plaisir Principle," you'll find out what that ridiculously dreamy ingénue is doing naked with David Lynch--and it's no straight story, let me tell you. You'll learn why the greatest showcase for art cinema in the world follows suit with mainstream Hollywood by giving moviegoers what they know and love. You'll hear about a charming little indie called The Last Blow Job, and you'll discover the winner of the fest's top prize, the Palme d'Or--and why it sucks, too.

Best of all, you'll get to know a jet-setting critic who comes to doubt the meaning of movie pleasure while overhearing Ewan doing Elton in Gay Paree; who bumps into the Coen Brothers in Santa Rosa and wonders who the hell cuts their hair; who sees the truth in advertising for Clearasil on the cratered puss of Vincent Gallo back in Paris; who OD's on movies after scoring some bad shit from Abel Ferrara in Alphabet City; who grows skeptical of the entire industry while visiting an orphans' hospital in Uganda; and who, during one final stop in Italy, witnesses the resurrection of cinema in the catholic tastes of Martin Scorsese.

But first a little history--though not because history is important (we'll get to that later). This is just for fun. After all, Cannes--by which I mean the festival, although it's no doubt true of the lush seaside ville as well--was founded on pleasure. For the inaugural event back in 1939, Hollywood sent a "steamship of stars" to the Côte d'Azur, including Mae West, Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer, and Douglas Fairbanks, along with ten of its newest movies. Alas, only The Hunchback of Notre Dame actually screened, on account of Adolf Hitler's decision to invade Poland on opening day. The timing of this real-life blockbuster was surely coincidental. Yet it bears mention that Cannes was conceived as the French critique of the Nazis' dictatorial direction of the Venice Film Festival, where Renoir's pacifist Grand Illusion had met considerable resistance in 1938. Which is to say that Cannes, in addition to being about pleasure (and pain), is also about power.

How fitting, therefore, that the 2001 edition would begin with Moulin Rouge--another American take on French material, and set, as one of its characters gleefully reports, "where the rich and powerful come to play with the young and beautiful of the underworld." According to the movie, it's artists who populate this "underworld," tossing breadcrumbs to us lowly consumers who live and breathe in environs even farther below notice. But who are the overlords governing the glitziest film event known to man? Well, the "Power List" in the current issue of Premiere gives top billing to megaconglomerate superstars Sumner Redstone (Viacom), Gerald Levin (Time Warner), and Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.)--the last of whom controls 20th Century Fox, and thus Moulin Rouge. True, the acknowledged director here is Baz Luhrmann, the auteur who was kind enough to share credit with the Bard on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. But, to the French, or anyone else, this is nothing if not un film de Monsieur Murdoch.

Like Cannes itself, Moulin Rouge is one big, glittering billboard touting who owns what. Where, in most Hollywood musicals, the characters sing their innermost thoughts to one another, here the "underworld" playmakers of Paris circa 1900 communicate in anachronistic song samples of licensed material--the only context in which one could imagine David Bowie's "Heroes" mixing with Phil Collins's "One More Night." In an early workshop for Spectacular Spectacular, the aptly nondescript epic within Murdoch's epic, the stage show's writer (Ewan McGregor) hits on an inspired lyric: "The hills are alive/With the sound of music." Lucky for him (or Murdoch), the tune comes from a movie that's owned by Fox. The Spectacular star, Satine, whom Nicole Kidman plays as a liberated but fragile sexpot (who has the copyright on that?), makes her first appearance as she's being lowered on a swing set into the film's titular club, crooning "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"--from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also owned by Fox. (An honorary spot on next year's Cannes jury belongs to whoever can guess what multinational communications conglomerate will be issuing the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.)

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