With the help of these two most powerful U.S. critics, von Trier's film garnered the "anti-American" label early in the fest and was widely predicted to win the Palme d'Or despite the presence of erstwhile American sweetheart Meg Ryan on the jury. Yet this distinguished group--headed by French director Patrice Chéreau (Queen Margot)--apparently preferred its anti-Americanism to be homegrown. Shot on location at a sprawling high school in suburban Portland, Gus Van Sant's Elephant--a cold, brooding fictionalization of events that culminated in the Columbine shootings--came away with the top award at festival's end. McCarthy, none too surprisingly, was on hand to call the movie "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst" for not providing an explanation of its teenage killers' actions. True enough, in Elephant, Van Sant doesn't stop to say, My fellow Americans: The culture of violence in this country is largely a product of the media. (That's Michael Moore's job.)
Rather, what the director does, more effectively than any other did at Cannes this year, is to capture the essence of his film's setting--to explain it, in a way--through the purest properties of cinema. (Like Van Sant's Gerry, Elephant is a visual study of an oppressive environment and its effect on those forced to wander it.) Eschewing conventional plotting and dialogue, Van Sant engages a fundamentally elusive subject by swirling around it. The camera tracks one sullen student after another through a circular maze of alienatingly wide corridors; the narrative periodically loops back in time to observe the same seemingly innocuous interaction ("What are you doing tonight?") from another kid's POV. (One of the things that Van Sant's minimalist style allows us to recognize is how much time the average high schooler spends alone.) The sense of ordinary menace here is enhanced by the constant buzz of fluorescent lights and the occasionally piercing blast of a bell, by words whose ghostly echo suggests how the size of the institution conflates individual voices into one long, amorphous mumble. And then the gunshots start.
Though the title refers to that massive beast in our living rooms that none of us wants to look at, one could maybe argue that the more provocative thing for Van Sant to have done with Elephant would have been to leave the stampede outside the frame. Because even without the ferocious climax, the violence is there already--in the design of the screenplay if not in the architecture of the school building itself. So what's the answer? Narrower hallways? Longer recess? More movies that explain rather than explore the problem? Like Van Sant, I must say that I have no idea. Is that irresponsible?
No question that thiswas a particularly brutal year at Cannes, a condition that seemed measurable in part by the number of movies named for animals. Besides Dogville, Elephant, and The Brown Bunny, there was Time of the Wolf, a typically savage film from Michael Haneke in which an unspecified global disaster (take your pick) forces surviving humans to travel in packs. (Seeing this merciless vision of the apocalypse at 8:30 in the morning--the characters hoarding scraps of food and lashing out at each other like wild dogs--did indeed feel like the end of the world.) And there was Purple Butterfly, a Chinese melodrama that conveys its invasive mood less through the early '30s story of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai than through its aggressively obtuse style.
That this incoherent movie, reportedly passed over for inclusion at other festivals, landed in competition at Cannes can only be seen as indicative of the slim pickings in this year's international art-film crop. (New features by Wong Kar-wai, Jane Campion, Emir Kusturica, Quentin Tarantino, and Theo Angelopoulos are said to have been not quite finished in time to meet the deadline of Cannes programmers.) And yet Purple Butterfly seems soaring compared to Tiresia, another competition entry in which a psychotic Frenchman kidnaps a transgendered Brazilian hooker who, without her hormone injections, soon begins to resemble the Lovesexy-era Prince. All of this has something or other to do with Greek mythology, but I can't say for certain, since I bolted after the prostitute's captor started jabbing the sharper blade of scissors into her eyes. So, too, I fled the scene of Oliver Stone's mid-afternoon "leçon de cinema" after the maker of Natural Born Killers, interviewed by French critic Michel Ciment, addressed the once-again-timely issue of violence in the movies by saying, simply, "You have to show these things." (Maybe so, Ollie--but that doesn't mean we have to stay and watch.)
Far more instructive is Errol Morris's latest documentary The Fog of War, despite the fact that its own "lessons"--11 of which appear onscreen as chapter headings--are written by the movie's less-than-trustworthy subject Robert S. McNamara. (Example #9: "In Order to Do Good, You May Have to Engage in Evil.") At a press luncheon for the film, Morris evaded the question of why he structured an ostensibly critical profile of the Vietnam-era secretary of defense according to the man's own philosophical observations. Which is fascinating for many reasons, not least because McNamara--who's running the show as much as Woody Allen ran Wild Man Blues--claims never to answer the question he's asked, but rather the question he wished he had been asked. In other words, the director whose discernible need for control has long seemed to rival that of his obsessive subjects here betrays a certain degree of identification with a man you could reasonably refer to as Mr. Death.