The Worst Cannes Ever?!

The same old auteurs, profound political films, and baffling Brits

A rush to judgment and the Cannes festival go together as naturally as café and lait, moules and frites, art and trash. So it came as little shock that over a coffee one bleary-eyed morning, a prominent festival director well known for his brutal frankness proclaimed, "This is the worst Cannes ever!"

Indeed, as sleep-deprived, group-think-victim journalists gather around the press boxes in the Palais and eviscerate or wildly praise the latest international art-house concoction, the pan is inevitably more common than the praise. After all, to pan is much easier amid the blistering maelstrom of film, fromage, and fashion, where a Russian art film shot in a single HD-video takes the screen the day after the latest Adam Sandler movie, Punch-Drunk Love. (Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the picture is artfully made, albeit not as funny as Happy Gilmore.) Still, it's a bit of a gamble to proclaim this to be the worst Cannes ever, as this anonymous director did quite loudly...on Day Two!

On paper, the lineup for the 55th Cannes festival--actually, only the first "Festival de Cannes," as the powers that be have wised up and scrapped the pretentious official title "Festival du Film"--promised works from the usual Great Auteurs. Among the 22 films in Official Competition were selections by Mike Leigh, David Cronenberg, Abbas Kiarostami, and the now 94-year-old but spry as ever Manoel de Oliveira. Yet halfway through the festival--a schism in time represented by a hand-job to Miramax called "Une heure avec Martin Scorsese," at which jury member Sharon Stone mugged for the throng of screaming French cameramen on the Lumière Theater's red carpet for longer than the Gangs of New York "special extended preview" that followed--one, sadly, would have to agree. Weather aside, this indeed was the worst Cannes ever.

But what do you expect when the country with the most films in the festival, France aside, happens to be the United Kingdom? Ken Loach (Sweet Sixteen) and Leigh (All or Nothing, the title that summarizes this festival any year) delivered more of the same old same old. Cronenberg's Canada-U.K. production Spider follows Patrick McGrath's novel about the tortured inner journey of a released mental patient (Ralph Fiennes). It's an exquisitely made but ultimately minor work, heavy in Freudian overtones--though the French are already raving over its mise en scène (it's on the cover of the Cahiers du Cinéma). Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People is a biopic of Factory Records founder and quintessential Mancunian Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), the man who discovered Joy Division and the Happy Mondays. It may be the just-plain-untalented director's most amiable film to date--but does this really belong in Competition? Unbelievable it may seem, but halfway through the festival, the British films were the talk of the town. The forecast was sunny periods with a 60 percent chance of Armageddon.

But though the hype continued unabated, the naysaying of the first week proved to be an overreaction. While lacking in masterpieces of the epic variety, the second half of Cannes showed what film is all about--devious experimentation (often on digital video), political films of the moment, and severe art films with little commercial viability in sight. In other words: Film is dead, long live film. The champagne started to flow with--what else?--a British film, albeit one that appeared in the Director's Fortnight. Lynne Ramsay's followup to 1999's Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, sees the young titular woman (stunningly depicted by Samantha Morton) plunging into rave culture after she finds her boyfriend dead on the kitchen floor. Besides having a better soundtrack than Party People, and a more genuine lead performance, this resolute film has something that Winterbottom clearly lacks--a poetic vision, and an extremely personal sensibility.

The same can be said for Chinese director Jia Zhangke's first Cannes feature Unknown Pleasures (which also happens to be the title of the second Joy Division album). Jia's fluidly DV-shot followup to the masterpiece Platform is a less epic, equally radical statement against Chinese modernization. History need not progress in a linear fashion, Jia suggests, encasing this argument in a slacker scenario full of references to American culture (positive and negative), low-key song-and-dance numbers, and a number of poignant moments of sentimental intimacy. Ultimately, Unknown Pleasures confirms Jia's status as a major filmmaker--even if the film has nothing to do with Ian Curtis.

 

The change in title aside, this Cannes festival seems different for another reason--an increased presence of political films, many of the working-class variety, some of which actually aren't British. The Dardenne brothers returned triumphantly with Le Fils, an intense, even sparer story than their Rosetta. Olivier Gourmet plays a carpenter who discovers that his new apprentice is the same kid who murdered his son five years earlier.

The warmest reception by far was accorded to Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's poker-faced B-movie The Man Without a Past, the second film in his unemployment trilogy, which the prone-to-exaggeration press corps has already dubbed his best work. Palestinian director Elia Sulieman's absurdist curveball Divine Intervention combines the humor of Jacques Tati with a determined gaze at the current situation in the Middle East. This tone is typified by the star/director sitting silently in his car opposite a Jewish driver while a belly-dance version of "I Put a Spell on You" plays on his tape deck.

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