The Plaisir Principle

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

But the most striking of auteurist outings at Cannes come courtesy of Claire Denis and David Lynch. As regards the former, please allow me just one of the critic's familiarizing analogies: Denis's Trouble Every Day is this year's Crash, partly for polarizing the Cannes audience more fiercely than anything else, and partly for serving as a classic experiment in Cronenbergian body horror. Not that the movie itself offers much orientation, generic or otherwise. Forcing the viewer to work, as usual, Denis drops us into the middle of an unsettling head trip involving murder, botany, and two of the most bizarre-looking people on the planet (Béatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo, both of whom could stand a visit to the dermatologist). I won't say much to spoil the surprise of Trouble Every Day (shock is a better word), except to say that once Gallo's morose, migraine-suffering creep interrupts coitus with his bride (Tricia Vessey) to masturbate in the bathroom, then goes out and buys a puppy, all bets are off.

And then there's Lynch's Mulholland Drive, a tongue-in-cheek T&A thriller that had me wearing a guilty grin from start to finish. Returning to the deadpan camp territory of his initial Twin Peaks episode (indeed, most of the 146-minute film was once a network pilot, until ABC's cold feet cut the director loose to shoot another hour of narrative irresolution and "hard R" shenanigans), Lynch here gives us the TV-soap alter egos of Laura Dern and Isabella Rossellini. A goody-goody young blonde from Canada (Naomi Watts, a truly beguiling comedian in her first starring role) and a sultry-voiced femme fatale (Laura Elena Harring) with a bad case of amnesia meet in L.A.; become engrossed in a patently ludicrous yet oddly engrossing mystery; and, once the prime-time audience has switched to the nightly news, erotically discover that two sets of twin peaks are better than one. The levelheaded Variety deemed the movie's half-hour dreamscape denouement--a sort of signifier-inverting, experimental mini-sequel to the preceding feature--"a severe and unwelcome turn down a lost highway," then all but retracted the statement two days later. Seems even trade-paper critics want a little variety in their diet at Cannes.

 

Befitting its mix of art and artifice, culture and capitalism, auteurist similes and Hollywood smiles, Cannes amounts to a tricky high-wire act in terms of programming. In order to give pleasure without falling to its knees, the festival needs to provide some delicate combination of the familiar and the unexpected, the tranquil and the transporting. Maybe, God forbid, your own pleasure is The Last Blow Job, a German comedy screening outside the festival to solicit studio johns. (It's a catchy title indeed, though The Next-to-Last Blow Job would have been better: Even the crudest exploitation artist knows the benefits of leaving something to be desired.) Still, the valid argument in favor of allowing that kind of sucker--not to mention the lifetime achievement award being given this year to, er, Melanie Griffith--is that they help subsidize the more artistically adventurous fare from countries whose film industries aren't powerful enough to warrant their own WTO debates.

Diversity aside, good business will occasionally allow for good deeds, and no film could make the point more strongly than ABC Africa, a documentary directed in typically spare style by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry). The film begins with a written request for help seen spilling out of the director's fax machine: The United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development is inviting Kiarostami (who received a UN award in 1997 for his humanitarian fictions) to document the progress of the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans, thereby calling attention to its struggles on behalf of the 1.5 million Ugandan children orphaned by war and AIDS. Accepting the challenge, Kiarostami approaches his ten days of shooting in Kampala from a compassionate rather than an investigative angle--which, in its way, is no less political. Displaying the same concern for the inner lives of kids as in his
narrative film Where Is the Friend's House?, the director here traverses the vast gulf between children's play and their death--the latter represented most chillingly through the image of a young Ugandan AIDS victim being placed in a makeshift cardboard coffin and driven away on the back of a bicycle.

Still, the film hardly amounts to a visual catalog of Ugandan misfortune. Stylistically speaking, much of this beautiful, vibrant work reflects the basic truth that waving a camcorder among children in rural portions of Africa will inspire no small amount of curiosity--and mugging for the camera. Objectivity, such as it can ever exist in a documentary, simply isn't an option here. Perhaps for that reason, Kiarostami regularly turns the cameras on himself and his tiny crew. One unforgettable scene of the filmmakers fumbling toward their hotel rooms after a late-night power blackout makes it clear that light--and, by extension, cinema--is a privilege. Thus the question for the world's filmmakers ought to be, but too seldom is: What to do with that privilege?

It's a question that has particular importance for Kiarostami, who, though he's scarcely written about at length in the U.S., is a hugely acclaimed filmmaker with a devoted worldwide audience. At Cannes, members of that audience would likely have packed screening rooms to see a film of the director practicing choral recitations for three hours--which, given his celebrity as an auteur, would have been a film well within his means to do. And this dynamic makes the issue of what the artist will actually choose to create all the more vital. No wonder Kiarostami includes scenes of an Austrian couple with their adopted Ugandan child, promoting human fellowship where Moulin Rouge promotes mass consumption. More than anything, ABC Africa is a film whose message is simply to remind us of the power of any individual choice, including the choice to do nothing.

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