The Plaisir Principle

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

Besides incorporating Orphean myth, Parisian politics, the threatened writers' strike, Kidman's personal life, and McGregor's "enormous talent" into its text, Moulin Rouge wraps all of Cannes's venerable contradictions into one overstuffed package. It's a star-driven blockbuster with the vague semblance of high art; and, in a year when the festival's acknowledged mandate is to cater to Hollywood (enough of those downbeat Marxist neorealist award winners), it's an American studio blockbuster--but set in the City of Lights. And at a time in film history when actual celluloid is as endangered as original music in a musical, the movie's MP3-swapping aesthetic bodes well for the fully digital cinema of the future, when beleaguered celebs like Kidman won't even need to show up on the set to make their movies. Rather, they'll be stored on the hard drives of corporate super conductors such as Murdoch, and double-clicked to duet with other virtual stars for a song.

But back to pleasure. Despite Luhrmann's end-credit claim that "this story is about truth, beauty, freedom, and, above all, love" (how free is a film that feels so strong a need to advertise its themes?), we might assume that the only pleasure being taken in Moulin Rouge is by the News Corp. mogul. Not so, however. At the film's press screening in Cannes, I had the extreme displeasure of sitting across from a critic who took highly audible delight in his recognition of every single pop-musical reference--giggling at the first lyrics from "Roxanne," "Like a Virgin," and "The Show Must Go On" (and on and on), and applauding the discovery that Elton John's "Your Song" was, indeed, his own.

And so I started to wonder: Is the chief pleasure principle of Moulin Rouge--or postmodernism in general, or the Cannes Film Festival on a bad day--to commend the spectator on his savvy identification of in-jokes, of auteurist tics, of products within the product? Yes, I have that CD in my collection, too. Was it Foucault who said that a powerful society is one whose inhabitants learn to love their oppression?


Whether or not it's true of life, or of movies across the board (and it may well be), I'm prepared to suggest here that pleasure at Cannes--particularly for the returning attendee--is synonymous with familiarity. For the visiting critic (and particularly the foreign one), this axiom extends to certain practical matters: knowing how to stay marginally sane while seeing 30 to 40 films, out of countless hundreds screening in town, in a mere ten days (it helps to have a therapist who agrees to communicate by e-mail); knowing the precise flick of the wrist required to open your electronically controlled press locker to retrieve those 50 pounds of PR that accumulate every day; knowing which publicists to schmooze for tickets to one-time-only screenings such as Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love (only to discover after the movie begins that there are literally hundreds of empty seats); knowing that damn near the only place in Cannes to get coffee to go is at the otherwise insufferable L.A. power-lunch outpost called the American Pavilion; and, last but not least, knowing the exact location of toilets in the bunkerlike Palais des Festivals, as well as how to work the nifty device that enables a clean strip of paper to fall mechanically atop the seat. Ah...Cannes.

But where was I? Oh--the pleasure of familiarity, oui. Just before the start of every screening at Cannes, the same message--issued by the same gently lilting female voice (Mesdames, séance commence...), and followed by music as trance-inducing as Vertigo's--beckons us to dream, and, perchance, to sleep (particularly when the screening is at 8:30 in the morning). Which is appropriate, because movies have a lot in common with dreams, don't they? The medium's inherently hypnotic flicker aside, movies semiconsciously resemble dreams as a way of offering a familiar experience to the widest possible audience. I mean, who couldn't relate to falling in love at first sight, or falling in bed with a supermodel, or falling from the top of a bell tower--while asleep, that is? So, too, the movie critic, in order to give his reader something to relate to, might write that "Moulin Rouge is like Singin' in the Rain on acid"--or that "movies are a lot like dreams."

From the beginning of cinema, genres have served to orient us in much the same way: The image of a man on a horse (or a poster of the image of a man on a horse) generally signifies that the movie is a Western, which in turn means that it's about, for example, how the West was won. Movies cost a lot to make, and, at $8.50, they cost a lot to see as well--so both investor and ticket buyer wish to know where they stand. Another guide through the cinematic wilderness is the auteur: The words Directed by Sam Peckinpah beneath the image of a man on a horse (or a poster of same) signify that the movie is a Peckinpah Western, which in turn means that it's about, let's say, how the West was brutally won.

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