Feasting on Shadows 

At 50, is Cannes showing its age?

At 50, is Cannes showing its age?

Judging from its coverage in the American trade papers, you’d think the 50th anniversary edition of the Cannes Film Festival had nothing in particular to do with good movies. The Hollywood

Reporter devoted a page of its daily feed to reviewing the studios’ parties (rated on a scale of one to five martinis). And while Variety’s film criticism appeared brilliant by comparison, the paper never failed to report at length on any Hollywood big shot who happened to announce a new deal, open a Planet Hollywood, or draw a crowd.

But at the same time, this was a festival for cineastes, with theaters named after Andre Bazin and Ingmar Bergman, a film-historical press conference given by Jean-Luc Godard, an ongoing retrospective of former Cannes classics, and a poetic assemblage of clips from various world-cinema gems.

What about the stargazing, you ask? Let’s start by saying that Cannes is not a place for ordinary people to meet Robert Redford. Even B-list actors are well-protected by a slew of French gendarmes, venturing out only in carefully orchestrated, street-blocking productions designed to lure a captive audience. This most prestigious film festival in the world is 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.

Such dichotomies seemed encapsulated by this year’s closing-night film: Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power, an artful studio movie by a hallowed auteur and Hollywood moneymaker, a critique of absolute power and the thing itself. But Cannes also makes room for the likes of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, a gorgeously minimalist character study of a man’s consideration of suicide; the film was included at the 11th hour in the wake of opposition from the Iranian government. (Kiaro-stami’s film shared the top prize, the Palme d’Or, with The Eel, a gently quirk-laden melodrama directed by Japanese master Shoei Imamura.)

Cannes is political and always has been. 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 very first opening night, the event was put on hold until after the war. There’s still an element of international one-upmanship here. Amidst Hollywood’s vulgar efforts to colonize Cannes, 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. Meanwhile, although some French cineastes appear protective of their country’s art films to the exclusion of all else, the festival’s own attitude is ambiguous. Who knows what it meant that the opening-night film was The Fifth Element, a Hollywood-style sci-fi blockbuster by a French director (Luc Besson), financed largely with French money? Was this a case of international cooperation, or co-optation?

As the French have a long tradition of passionate movie-loving, Cannes feels like the ideal location for buffs to reflect on the state of the art. So, notwithstanding the worthy Palme d’Or winners—and another indelibly colorful experiment by Chungking Express director Wong Kar-Wai, Happy Together—did the generally disappointing schedule of films this year reflect the festival programmers’ poor choices, or the poor health of world cinema circa 1997? And if it’s the latter, does that reflect a temporary lapse in quality, or a crisis in world cinema resulting from the trend toward blockbuster coproductions and derivative genre films? It’s certainly a relief that the awards went to deserving films. Nevertheless, there was plenty of evidence to encourage conspiracy theories about homogenization and populist programming—especially since it’s impossible to know why certain films were chosen at the expense of who knows what.

You’d think a movie’s inclusion at Cannes would be synonymous with excellence, and perhaps it has been in the past—although some of this year’s dreadful competition films, like Mathieu Kassovitz’s Assassin(s), Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and Johnny Depp’s The Brave, couldn’t help but cast aspersions on the tastes of (and pressures upon?) the selection committee. Likewise, the jury is out on whether a hit at Cannes necessarily becomes a hit at the U.S. box-office—the last three Palme d’Or winners have been the $100 million Pulp Fiction, the unreleased Underground, and the modestly successful Secrets & Lies. This seems to me a good thing, as it helps shift the balance of power away from the money men and toward the moviegoers. In a way, the only sure thing here belongs to visiting critics and cineastes, who are invited to assess world premieres, search for new classics, and screen films they might never get to see back home.

Some 4,000 journalists attended the festival this year, and it’s no wonder. This may be the last place left in the world where critics are held in high regard. At Cannes—the site of many legendary critical debates, run by a former critic (Gilles Jacob)—reviewers still have an undeniable impact in shaping a film’s early reputation. In fact, the power of the press here largely explains Bruce Willis’ defensive statement at the Fifth Element press conference that his film was review-proof (not in the U.S., buddy!), and that “the written word is going the way of the dinosaur, anyway.” Besides being idiotic, this probably wasn’t a wise thing to say in a room full of journalists.

On the subject of beleaguered journalists, two events surrounding The Blackout, Abel Ferrara’s salacious portrait of a Bad Lieutenant-style Bad Actor (Matthew Modine), managed to hit critics where they live. A mosh-pit in front of the tiny Cinema des Arcades caused one faint journalist to experience a literal blackout, while Modine’s press-conference request for a black British critic to repeat his question because “it’s dark in here” prompted the writer to accuse Modine of racism. (Ferrara responded to this charge in typical Bad Director form: “I’ve seen his type selling cassette tapes for 20 bucks in Rhode Island.”) Meanwhile, The Blackout itself proved another of Ferrara’s intense trips through the gutter of Catholic guilt and insatiable addiction (and cinematic self-reflexivity).

At the other end of the art-film spectrum, Godard’s latest project, Histoire(s) du Cinema (parts 3A and 4A), is another enjoyably inscrutable inquiry into the question, “What is cinema?” Using pilfered clips from Hitchcock and Italian neo-realism to wrest film history from its copyright owners, the former Cahiers du Cinema reviewer goes on to suggest that anyone with a VCR and a remote control can (and should) be a critic. The plural “histoire(s)” in Godard’s title seems to reflect the many diverse histories in the making at Cannes—encompassing everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to, ugh, Luc Besson. The vast gulf between these two auteurs could be measured by the fact that Godard’s press conference was, shamefully, only half-full, while Besson was greeted with shrieks of “Luc! Luc!” every time he appeared in public.

In a way, Besson’s The Fifth Element seemed the perfect opener: It articulated the insidious Planet Hollywood mentality that was the Sixth Element at Cannes, and it proved that a French director could make a big-studio epic with the likes of Bruce Willis. Similarly, but on a lower budget, the French would-be wunderkind Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) scraped the scummy bottom of Tarantinoisms with Assassin(s), a vile and plagiaristic hit-man thriller that inspired a theater-full of vindictive boos at its press screening.

It’s clear that Cannes isn’t immune to playing favorites. In fact, actors Johnny Depp and Gary Oldman were somehow allowed to make their directorial debuts with films in competition. In Depp’s laughably inept neo-Western The Brave, the actor does everything but don redface for his role as an American Indian stud, who submits to death by torture in exchange for reparations from an old sadist (Marlon Brando, playing Colonel Kurtz once again). Meeting the press, Depp had the gall to suggest his film as a modern metaphor for the genocide of the Native American. Somewhat more authentic was Oldman’s verité-style Nil by Mouth (coproduced by Besson, of all people), which portrays South London family squalor through such characters as a monstrous bloke (Ray Winstone) who regularly beats his faithful wife (Kathy Burke) to a bloody pulp. Like so many first-timers, though, Oldman uses excessive violence mainly to show that he means business.

Conversely, Cannes favorite Wim Wenders gave his latest work of techno-pacifism the pretentious title of The End of Violence. Amounting to an arty but equally insufferable version of Grand Canyon, it’s an L.A. story that focuses on a producer of violent movies (Bill Pullman) who gets a taste of his own medicine when he’s compelled to offer his kidnappers a million dollars—in percentage points. (Ironically, Wenders himself was attacked at Cannes by two masked thugs who attempted to steal his car; unlike his character, the filmmaker gave chase, but the thieves got away on a motorcycle.)

Wenders, with his healthy budget and hip cast (Pullman, Andie MacDowell, Gabriel Byrne), joined Besson and Ang Lee in delivering overwrought and underdeveloped American films. Unexpectedly, one of the more satisfying movies in competition turned out to be L.A. Confidential, a big-scale Hollywood genre film based on the James Ellroy novel and directed by the heretofore hack-like Curtis Hanson (The River Wild). Set in the ’50s, and featuring Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger in what amount to minor roles, it’s an unfashionably pre-postmodern-style cop thriller that recalls De Palma’s The Untouchables in its sharply edited shoot-outs, its snappy dialogue, and its confident use of two unproven hunks as stars.

Another surprise was that Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo, which had been hyped from the fest’s first hours as the likely Palme d’Or winner, turned out to be a facile and familiarly rendered drama of Western journalists (Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dillane, Emily Lloyd) struggling to reveal the truth of Third World war to an uninterested audience back home. Winterbottom (Butterfly Kiss) continues to expand his dramatic range with this, his third film, which is powerful insofar as it includes some real footage of Sarajevan concentration-camp prisoners within its Oliver Stone-like visual blitzkrieg. Otherwise, the mix of hand-held video and widescreen Steadicam shots is off-puttingly slick—as is the predictable lack of native Sarajevans as major characters. Ultimately, the film’s point—that representations of difficult subjects need sugar-coating to get over—is made more unintentionally than not.

In the midst of this curiously underwhelming festival lineup, it was fortunate that such reliable masters as Kiarostami, Wong, and Atom Egoyan came through with films that mostly met their high expectations. Kiarostami’s film was the perfect choice for the Palme d’Or, owing to its self-reflexive movie-within-a-movie conceit, a political subtext hearkening back to Cannes’ roots, and a restrained aesthetic that stood in marked contrast to the overblown films for which this year’s fest was rightly criticized. Not surprisingly, Wong (who deservedly won the Best Director award) delivered the year’s most stylistically adventurous film with his portrait of the tumultuous relationship between two Hong Kong men in Buenos Aires.

Egoyan also intrigued his many fans by showing more emotion than usual. Like Secrets & Lies, The Sweet Hereafter (which won the second-place Grand Prix) is a tale of family turmoil dredged up and laid bare, as a repressed big-city lawyer (Ian Holm) swoops into a small town in British Columbia to seek settlements for the grieving parents of 14 children who died in a bus accident. Egoyan was criticized in some quarters for failing to tie up thematic loose ends, but I’d say that further supports his ambitious bid to make his oeuvre a little messier and more true to life.

The ratio of strong films to weak might have increased further with the presence of Zhang Yimou’s new Keep Cool, but this was not to be. Just as the New York Film Festival was nearly denied permission to screen Zhang’s Shanghai Triad because of the Chinese government’s objection to the Tiananmen Square documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, here a Chinese film about homosexuality called East Palace, West Palace, directed by Zhang Yuan, provided the pretext for China’s ban on Keep Cool.

This situation was all the more disappointing in light of the fact that Palace played like a timid and didactic Kiss of the Spider Woman knockoff, in which a gay man (Si Han) attempts to explain his sexuality to a homophobic cop (Hu Jun). Although discreet flashbacks to the man’s dangerous liaisons do nothing to make his affairs resemble normal love (the ostensible purpose of this Philadelphia-style exercise in mass-consciousness-raising), China’s hostile reaction to the film does bear out its degree of risk and its admirable agenda to enlighten. In this way, East Palace, West Palace provided an apt reminder that any film deserves to be judged in the context of where it was made—in other words, that one country’s sap is another country’s breakthrough. Indeed, given the threat to world cinema posed by Hollywood imperialism this year at Cannes, any movie that distinctly reflects its country of origin is worthy of respect.

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