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.

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'

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.

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.

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.

This rush of motion is matched by bad boy Gaspar Noé's mostly real-time, long-take Irreversible, in which the camera rarely pauses for breath, save for a nine-minute anal-rape scene. Right. While Noé drives home man's animalistic nature, Reygadas adopts to show how each person contains within himself the potential for salvation. The slightly less than modest Reygadas aptly describes Japón as "not for everyone." But is there anything wrong with that?

If Gilles Jacob, Thierry Fremaux, and the rest of the selection committee of the competition continue to spend half their time showing films both tired and true, next year will surely be, once again, the worst Cannes ever.

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