Here I am at the Cannes Film Festival on the sun-soaked Côte d'Azur, looking not only for great movies but for some vivid anecdote that might encapsulate the experience of le festival in 2003. I'm reminded that this is what a filmmaker does: He or she endeavors to collect a wealth of little details that'll add up to a complete picture. A picture, of, say, Loneliness in the case of The Brown Bunny, or Military Might in The Fog of War, or High School in Elephant, to name just several of the hundreds of new films screening in and around the 56th festival in Cannes.
So I need an image here--an opening shot, if you will. Given the surprisingly dungy state of some of the movies competing for awards this year at the world's most prestigious film festival, I'm tempted to describe how one never walks anywhere in this rarefied resort town without taking good care not to step in la merde de chien. But that would be crude. And given the shitty attitude that tends to characterize the art of the deal here, I'm tempted to relay the rumor that writer-director-actor-editor-producer-cinematographer Vincent Gallo--whose one-man show The Brown Bunny climaxes with a four-minute blow job--had himself intended to kneel only before those journalists whose publications would promise to put his puss on the cover. But that would be crass.
So let me settle for something scary that I witnessed while traversing the Croisette one afternoon: a parade of foreign freaks--one covered in fake blood, another in a string bikini, several others in rubber monster masks--screaming, "Troma! Troma! Troma!" at the top of their lungs. Granted, Troma--the New York-based distributor of playful schlock-epics such as The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High--regularly sends its cadre of gore-drenched young flacks to howl at festivals worldwide. But this year the shtick managed to resonate beyond the realm of cheesy marketing. After all, this was the year when the spectacle of American violence became high art in the land where Libération is the name of a newspaper and not a bombing campaign.
Which isn't to say that America's bloody behavior was performed only by Americans at Cannes. Danish dogmatist Lars von Trier continued his tilt away from "realism" with the Brechtian Dogville, whose allegory of rabid cruelty in the U.S. of A. seemed sharper for playing out in a blatantly theatrical context. The Colorado town of the title is represented on a stage with only minimal props and chalk marks to outline the characters' homes and possessions. The result is a setting that draws class distinctions literally and puts the viewer in the proper position to accept the concrete detail (e.g., the words "Elm Street" scrawled on the floor) in place of the big picture (e.g., America). This, of course, is the definition of art: bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.
As in countless American fictions, a stranger comes to town. She is Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious fugitive from gangsters who takes shelter in Dogville and proves worthy of her name by providing her hosts with an ambiguous sort of salvation. Initially the upstanding citizens of this Depression-era town--including the John Boy Walton-like writer (Paul Bettany) who makes a philosophical experiment of bringing Grace to Middle America--accept their new neighbor with open arms, putting her to work in trade for keeping her in hiding. Then Dogville, as one of von Trier's didactic title cards puts it, "bares its teeth."
This was the point in von Trier's three-hour movie--the first installment of a "U.S. trilogy," he announced--when I decided I'd had more than enough of the director's proclivity for inflicting pain on his fragile heroines. (At the premiere, Kidman herself was seen repeatedly leaving the theater in tears.) But the maker of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark has a twist in store here: Kidman's character bites Dogville back. And if you choose to see Grace as the personification of von Trier's punishing victim-art (like Dogville, she's presented to the common folk by an artist with a gift for "illustration"), then the movie is more intriguing still.
To elaborate: The Danish auteur's timely critique of American vengeance was underscored as it came in for American criticism that could only be interpreted as vengeful. In the course of sending Dogville to the pound, Variety's Todd McCarthy jibed that the director was "sensitive to criticism" for having conceived the movie in response to U.S. reviewers' rough treatment of Dancer. The critic went on to crack that the film would naturally rate highest among the "Blame America First crowd," and to remind von Trier that the U.S. "has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world." (Not that McCarthy--any relation to Joe?--is sensitive to criticism or anything.) And Roger Ebert, who claimed not to have recovered from the "ordeal" of the Dogville screening by the time of filing his review, considered the movie "a gangster-Western-feminist avant-garde experiment in which (I think but am not sure) the message is that fascists will win out every time over do-gooder liberals." (Indeed, the avowedly liberal Ebert would seem to have lost the war of words in this case.)