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Kick the Cannes

The (not-so-)great escape: John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and George Clooney in the Coen Brothers' latest

Cannes, France--

 

Who could blame the French for their ambivalence toward American cinema--or American people?

At an opening press conference with jury members here to assess the 23 films in official competition at Cannes 2K, a USA Today scribe eagerly represented his nation of origin with a penetrating query: What does jury president and French blockbuster maker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) think of the Cannes mayor's threat to close all film-related beach parties at 12:30 a.m.?

Plus ça change... The Cannes Film Festival--featuring the aforementioned movies that compete for the Palme d'Or, as well as dozens more in various sidebar packages (and several hundred others screened around town for "market" purposes)--has long been defined by the most extreme contradictions: culture and glamour, art and commerce, sunny beaches and dark theaters, critical debate and crass deal-making, challenging cinema and mainstream product, auteurist profundity and your basic puff piece. Just moments after his inquiry into the particulars of partying, the USA journalist's jury-serving countryman Jonathan Demme dutifully tipped the scale in the other direction by proclaiming that he's here to learn about other cultures through cinema--this while expressing his disappointment that there aren't more films from the Middle East or the African diaspora on the bill.

Yes, Cannes is political. After all, the festival was launched in 1939 as the French response to Mussolini's influence over the Venice Film Festival--and when Hitler happened to invade Poland on the first fest's opening night, the event was put on hold until after the war. Fifty-four years later, there's still an element of international one-upmanship here. The conspicuous paucity of U.S. fare at the 2000 fest (among Yanks only Neil LaBute, James Gray, and the Coen Brothers were chosen to compete this year) had earlier prompted speculation that festival bigwig Gilles Jacob was starting a war with Hollywood--although studio chiefs since claimed that they had launched a preemptive strike by not bothering to send their work for Jacob's consideration.

Such trade-paper tit-for-tat has become another annual occurrence, yet this year's international nipple-twisting affair was distinguished by an opening-night attraction that perfectly allegorized the whole orgy. Mounted by transnational hack Roland Joffé (City of Joy, The Scarlet Letter), the bloated Vatel features France's grand homme Gérard Depardieu in the titular role of a late-17th-century party-thrower. It is this man's job to put on a lavish spread and otherwise suck up to the king, Louis XIV, who comes to the Prince de Condé's Château de Chantilly for an extended stay.

As Depardieu's attendant bends over backward to please the powers that be, it's not hard to see Vatel as Gilles Jacob, the inaccessible Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman) as Hollywood, and the king as French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (who attended the ornate opening-night festivities, natch)--especially since entire sections of the bunkerlike Palais des Festivals were closed for an enormous Vatel fete that turned the lobby of the Grand Théâtre Lumière into an Age of Enlightenment manse.

In any case, Joffé might well have been speaking of Cannes itself when describing Vatel to The Hollywood Reporter: "You could say the film is about ambition, success, pain, deception, politics, love, eating--and all the other things when a large group of people gather to enjoy themselves."

Indeed--but who gets to receive the final toast at this gala? In a year when the dollar is unusually strong in Cannes, it should go without saying that the American powermongers at Miramax purchased the French Vatel on the fest's second day for an undisclosed sum.

 

Amid Hollywood's vulgar efforts to colonize Cannes, what with oversized 3D ads for summer blockbusters adorning every hotel on the Croisette, one senses that if an American film doesn't win the Palme d'Or, an American studio will at least make sure to buy the one that does. Yet, by another measure (and even before the official trophies had been bestowed), the winners of this year's annual world war were the cinemas of Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, and Iran--whose rich, leisurely, contemplative films collectively numbered a dozen within the fest's three main categories. (More on the Asian presence at Cannes in next week's article--in which, among other things, I'll attempt to answer the question "So, what did you like?")

Coming from the other side of the globe (and the other extreme of the aesthetic spectrum), there were plenty of populist Western auteurs--the Coens, Neil LaBute, Lars von Trier, John Waters--who were invited to pay the bills (in other words, to make sure that stars and press flacks and studio lackeys bothered to show up). Following an amiable trio of escaped cons (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) through an embellished rendition of the Depression-era South, the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (scheduled to open in October) keeps the former Minneapolitans in good company with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson. That is, the movie has been assembled almost entirely out of elements from other cultural artifacts--the Odyssey most profoundly, or so it seems. (The Coens have seen fit to give Homer an onscreen story credit, if not a percentage of the profits.) Still, this rambling widescreen odyssey appears more strongly informed by The Wizard of Oz, Down by Law, the films of Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels in particular), and, perhaps most of all, the toe-tapping bluegrass tunes that pepper the soundtrack. Indeed, in the film's best moments, even the cinematography has a twang to it.

 

At the beginning, our wacky, barrel-striped heroes are escaping from a chain gang through endless fields of Mississippi grass, discovering before long that it's mighty hard for three men to hop a freight train when they're chained together at the ankles. (For the first half-hour, the Coens get an impossible amount of mileage out of the joke that these pals are literally inseparable.) As in The Wizard of Oz--I mean, the Odyssey--our intrepid travelers come upon a wide variety of eccentrics (the few sophisticates can be spotted by their lack of regional dialect, per usual), while the brothers' strategic use of Delta blues music allows the movie proper to seem quirky as well. The threesome cuts a single that tears up the Southern charts without their knowing it, allowing the film to end--and I'll be a little vague here--with an unironic affirmation of pop culture's ability to outshine politics in the public imagination (or perhaps just the Coens'). One needn't note the out-of-nowhere digital FX that fantastically wash away the movie's realism to grasp that the filmmakers treasure the pure power of escapism.

This notion was made clearer still by the alternately frivolous and evasive press conference that followed O Brother's first screening. When he wasn't answering, "I don't know," "It's all very unconscious," and "These are really hard questions" (indeed, the brothers have never shown much interest in talking about what they do), director Joel Coen addressed the Sturges influence head on, claiming that O Brother "is the film that [the fictional director Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels] might have made if he had been allowed to make an important movie--and if he had been a fan of country music." But notwithstanding its emphatically argued point that the Ku Klux Klan is bad (imagine a Busby Berkeley-choreographed KKK rally and you have a sense of O Brother's most elaborate set piece), this movie is nothing more than a diversion--the film Sullivan might have made after deciding at the end of his travels that the captive audience really just wants to be entertained.

Much like O Brother, Dancer in the Dark, the new melodramatic epic from Danish director Lars von Trier, latches on to the old gotta-sing-gotta-dance conceit in an attempt to mitigate a strong sense of the been-there-done-that. Thus, von Trier's latest cherubic martyr, Selma (Björk), is introduced rehearsing the Julie Andrews role in a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. And once Fate (or the filmmaker?) begins to conspire against her (that's putting it mildly), this extremely sensitive and childlike soul develops a habit of escaping now and then to the ephemeral fantasy of lavish musical routines--presented for our viewing displeasure in color-saturated digital video.

These segments are meant to be epiphanies, but the music is flat, the lyrics are dull and didactic ("Look at me/In transcendence," Selma shrieks to her mop-swinging factory colleagues), and the choreography is, for the most part, woefully unimaginative. (Suffice it to say that Lars von Trier is no Dennis Potter.) Worse, Dancer in the Dark totally lacks the metatextual dimensions of von Trier's earlier films, in which provocative connections between fate and convention, religion and cinema all come to the fore. Here all the director has working for him is the tired formula of a masochistic woman-child being harassed by narrative contrivance in order to jerk our tears.

Auteurism is one thing; bland self-plagiarism is another. Dancer in the Dark isn't Breaking the Waves, but Treading the Water.

 

Let's get LaBute's Nurse Betty out of the way quickly. One of the more brutish and snide practitioners of the new cinema of cruelty, LaBute (In the Company of Men; Your Friends and Neighbors) here adds a lame-brained Kansas waitress and obsessive soap-opera fan (Renée Zellweger) to his growing list of "strong" female characters. (Don't get me started on describing how he handles the hit men played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock.) Basically, if there has been a more viciously satiric portrayal of a working woman in the five years since To Die For, I haven't seen it--and yet many Cannes viewers seemed convinced (by the cheery production values?) that this garbage signaled the arrival of a gentler LaBute.

 

Speaking of trash made slick, and in light of Walker Art Center's current John Waters retrospective, I suppose I should say a few words about the director's latest gloss on his once-bad taste, Cecil B. DeMented, which screened at Cannes in a noncompetitive sidebar and is due for release in August. In this less expensive, more implausible Bowfinger, a feeble-minded and bitchy Hollywood star (Melanie Griffith, well-cast) is kidnapped by a Baltimore band of young film terrorists (Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, etc.) who force the actor--named Honey Whitlock--to perform in their no-budget assault on the mainstream. ("I see London, I see France, I see Honey's underpants," cheers one of the gang after the star is stripped of her Prada. Ha ha.)

The obvious irony here is that Waters is long past using bona fide shock tactics himself, which may partly explain why this network-sitcom-level parody compels virtually no interest in its antiheroes. The grotesqueries of class warfare and the perverse desire for celebrity are trademark Waters themes (most acerbically explored in his Female Trouble, an enduring piece of Seventies trash-art that's regrettably missing from the Walker retro). Yet the show-biz satire in Cecil B. Demented contains nothing nearly as pointed as Waters's oft-delivered lecture-circuit quip: "Every movie seat in America has crab lice on it." Hmmm. I wonder if that's true of France as well.


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