The Worst Cannes Ever?!

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

Before the opening-night film of the Director's Fortnight--Catherine Breillat's disappointing idea fest Sex Is Comedy--the programmers decided to screen a short film depicting a poetry reading by Palestinean poet Mohammed Darwesh. Amid the turmoil on the West Bank (a.k.a. Palestine) a few months back, this writer was not allowed to leave his country for a reading in New York. And so the reading--and a camera--came to him. Darwesh's work also closed one of the opening films of the Critics' Week, Rana's Wedding.)

In the press conference for the dull Kedma, Israeli director and Cannes habitué Amos Gitaï surmised that the nationalist vacuum provided by the foundation of the European Community has led to the rise in racism throughout Europe, and anti-Semitism in France, specifically. True or not, these political films aren't being ignored, but are truly being eaten up by the French press. This includes the one documentary in Competition--the first since 1956--Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Moore knows how to play the crowds--his omnipresence on the Croisette caused more of a stir than that of any other American, except, of course, for Jack. (Mr. Nicholson's lackadaisically physical performance in the fitfully funny late-life crisis About Schmidt dominates the film to such an extent that only Kathy Bates, whose performances get better and better, avoids being lost in America.)

Bowling for Columbine makes one simple argument and takes two hours to do it: The reason for the number of gun-related murders in the U.S. is that the culture is founded on fear and continues to propagate it nightly through salacious news reporting. (Violent films apparently matter little.) Early on, Moore stays on his home turf of Michigan, delivering a sympathetic look at the Michigan Militia and paying a truly wacked-out visit to James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols. He also shows, perhaps for the first time, video footage from inside Littleton, Colorado's Columbine High School. But, eventually, the ego must land. The documentary droops when it becomes the big guy's "Fishing for Compliments," as he shows himself consoling family members and teachers of young victims. Then there's his heroic campaign to ban the sale of bullets from Kmart stores, the ammunition source for the Columbine killers' rampage. And the climactic interview with Charlton Heston is sheerly maudlin. International members of the press who dared criticize the film were, according to Variety (who dubbed the film "incendiary"), merely revealing a thinly disguised anti-American bias. More common were leftist American critics who rightly pointed out the films glaring weaknesses: its length, the specious quality of its argument, and Moore's continued fascination with making fun of his neighbors to the north.

One of those all-terrain rolling suitcases would make everyone in this picture happier: Lynne Ramsay's 'Morvern Callar'
One of those all-terrain rolling suitcases would make everyone in this picture happier: Lynne Ramsay's 'Morvern Callar'

While the American continues to blame Canada for making his fellow countrymen look like paranoid psychos, the most famous Canadian-Armenian blames the Turks. Less kindly received by the press, though the public delivered a 12-minute standing ovation, Ararat is Atom Egoyan's first attempt to broach the subject of cultural politics. The film encases the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in Egoyan's usual house-of-mirrors structure: a film about the Armenian genocide directed by erstwhile chanteur Charles Aznavour; the interrogation of a terrorist's son; the life of painter Arshile Gorky in two time periods; the tortured love affair between a step-brother and step-sister; and an old man coming to terms with his son's homosexuality.

Deeply, deeply flawed (can you tell there are, like, a few too many things going on?), the film still contains something very right and intelligent at the core--the impossibility of telling the story of genocide--or the Holocaust, or war in general--in a straightforward, Spielbergian manner. Miramax, chop away. Egoyan's film failed to stir up the expected controversy that was rumored to have caused the director to pull it from competition. Ultimately, Egoyan goes out of his way to give the Turkish point of view, so it's not totally shocking that there's talk of Ararat opening a Turkish festival next month.

Mining the vein of history and memory with far more aesthetic success, Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark appeared on Day Seven and delivered a technical knockout with its 90-minute single-take Steadicam jaunt through the Hermitage. This museum and former home of the Tsars becomes a depository for the triumphs and failures of Russian history, the grandeur of artistic achievement, and, ultimately, the act of seeing with one's own eyes. (Rumored to be going blind, Sokurov appeared at his press conference behind a snappy pair of shades.) Russian Ark culminates with a weaving dance through an opulent 3,000-person ball scene, with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in the background, conducted by the great Valeri Gergiev. The cinematographer behind this spectacle is Tilman Büttner, who also ran alongside Lola in Tom Tykwer's film. Forget a special award for technical achievement; give this guy the Medal of Honor.

 

With Morvern Callar at the lead, it was in the Director's Fortnight that the buzz was to be found. The hugely ambitious (and just as gleefully pretentious) Japón begins with a lanky Man With No Name (played by director Carlos Reygadas's father's best friend) trudging into an isolated Mexican village to find peace before killing himself. Along the way we get sex among the elderly, copulating horses, and prolonged shots of the wind blowing through the fields. In moments like these, the film takes on a classical mise en scène by way of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. Reygadas puts a Super 16 Cinemascope lens to some of the wildest camerawork this side of Sokurov in an epic nine-minute closing shot.

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