Kick the Cannes 

The East rises this year at Cannes, while the West slowly sinks

The East rises this year at Cannes, while the West slowly sinks

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 competing 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 the USA Today journalist’s inquiry into the particulars of partying, his 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.

The Cannes Film 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 (which only includes competing films by Neil LaBute, James Gray, and the Coen Brothers) had earlier prompted speculation that festival bigwig Gilles Jacob was starting a war with Hollywood—although studio chiefs have 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 (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.

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 3-D 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. (For more on the Asian presence at Cannes, consult my article at http://www.citypages.com.)

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 them 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. As in The Wizard of Oz—I mean, the Odyssey—our intrepid travelers come upon a wide variety of eccentrics, 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’).

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.

These segments are meant to be epiphanies, but the music is flat, the lyrics are dull and didactic, 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—it’s 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. 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 that this garbage signaled the arrival of a gentler LaBute.

Speaking of trash made slick, I suppose I should say a few words about director John Waters’ 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 named Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith, well-cast) is kidnapped by a Baltimore band of young film terrorists (Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, etc.) who force the actress 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, yet the showbiz satire in Cecil B. Demented contains nothing nearly as pointed as Waters’ 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.

Long before the awards were announced at the close of the festival, rumors abounded of Besson’s cinematic predilections. ”He can’t stand the other [jury] members,“ claimed one apparently in-the-know critic while waiting in line for a screening. ”I hear he hates all [23] films in competition,“ said another on the morning of the awards ceremony, ”and that he’s actually planning to withhold the Palme d’Or.“

”Supposedly,“ one gossip put it halfway through the fest, ”Besson thinks [director] Lars von Trier is infallible. He loves von Trier.“ Alas, only the last of these suspicions seems to have been proven definitively, as the Besson-led jury bestowed the Palme upon von Trier’s crushingly banal, unconsciously sexist pseudo-musical—a film that violently polarized Cannes viewers, as many commentators have observed, along national boundaries. To wit, French critics were said to have been enchantés by the picture, while Brits were split down the middle, and Americans allied in near-unanimous disapproval.

Prizes of lesser stature were given to such highly deserving recipients as the Taiwanese director Edward Yang (A One and a Two), the Chinese filmmaker Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep), and the technical crew behind Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s ravishing In the Mood for Love (which struck this critic as being the single best film in Cannes, not to mention the greatest of Wong’s brilliant career). Yet in terms of the Palme d’Or, one could see the writing on the wall once the spiky-haired Besson, at the podium to deliver the festival’s award for best actress, began condescendingly crooning, ”It’s oh so quiet now“ just before handing the prize to the author and performer of those lyrics, Dancer in the Dark’s Björk. (And you thought that braying fool who sang with Björk in the Sugarcubes was bad.)

Arguably, Besson’s prejudices could be spotted even earlier during the star-studded ceremony. Sharing the podium with the young French actrice Virginie Ledoyen (The Beach), the filmmaker repeatedly interrupted his cohost, finished her sentences, and generally invaded her space. So, too, von Trier treats Björk as little more than a frail nuisance in Dancer in the Dark, not to mention his having publicly blamed her for the breakup of his family during the Dark shoot. Quelle coincidence.

—Rob Nelson

A version of this article originally appeared in the Minneapolis City Pages.

Limited possibilities

The first installment of the big-screen Mission: Impossible series was a big hit, despite complaints that the story was confusing, director Brian DePalma’s visual stylization was too icy, and producer Tom Cruise made his own part too big, betraying the team spirit of the original TV show. Cruise has claimed not to be affected by the criticism, but there are nevertheless big changes afoot for Mission: Impossible 2—changes that Cruise has explained by stating that each installment in the franchise will have a distinctive look and vision. His biggest move in that direction is to trade in the brisk, emotionally abstract style of DePalma for the operatic pulp of Hong Kong action guru John Woo.

Woo brings his eye-popping pyrotechnics to M:I-2’s action sequences, but he also brings his heavy ponderousness to the establishing scenes. Much of this sequel’s first hour consists of cross-cutting between stagnant set pieces—like Cruise and his tech expert Ving Rhames waiting for a satellite linkup so that they can watch operative Thandie Newton walk up a pier in slow motion. Woo can make a lot of simple things look exciting, but this isn’t one of them. These are the sorts of scenes you shoot when you don’t have the money for boffo action, and at times the film has the feel of an especially lurid, ridiculously expensive made-for-cable thriller.

Special pains have been taken to assure that the plot is clearer this time than in the original film. It all has to do with a lethal virus, a villain (Dougray Scott) who wants to take over a pharmaceutical company, and a woman (the aforementioned Newton) who wins the heart of the good guy and the bad guy. Unfortunately, Robert Towne’s script seems so focused on explaining everything that it leaves little room for surprises. Everything goes off more or less without a hitch for Cruise and company—doors open just in time, and the bad guys make the right mistakes at the right moments.

Mission: Impossible 2 is not completely unsalvageable. There’s a nice homage to Hitchcock’s Notorious in the Cruise-Newton-Scott love triangle, highlighted by a deliriously romantic car chase set to flamenco music. Woo gets to obsess over false faces and the true identity of a hero as he did in the superior, tougher Face/Off, and he has a likable hero in Cruise. The last half-hour or so of chases and fights are pretty impressive—although it may induce chuckles in audience members who aren’t attuned to the balletic movements of Woo’s action choreography. Most likely, M:I-2 will play best to teenagers, comic book fanboys, and cinephiles with a jones for that Hong Kong style—folks who are used to clunky set-ups and hyperbolic action. They’ll see the film enough times to make it another huge hit for Cruise’s production company, while the casual summer filmgoer is left once again scratching his head.

—Noel Murray

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