The Cannes Film Festival

The esteemed Cannes Film Festival celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. While this would normally be the cinematic equivalent of Jupiter aligning with Mars, several factors made the party less than monumental. On the film front, the quite extraordinary feast of Cannes '96, led by Breaking the Waves and Secrets and Lies, turned to famine in '97 with daily doses of mediocrity the rule. The jury, likely baffled by the arid field, chose their prizes quixotically, at best. The rather depressing viewing situation was greatly exacerbated by vast crowds of gawking French tourists, stormtroopers protecting baby-kissing politicians (including President Chirac) and, of course, a week of rain.

Each year, the Competition section is devoted to the highest profile films of the Festival; they screen in the awesome Salle Lumiere for decked-out royalty, cinematic and otherwise. These films compete for prizes, including the treasured Palme D'Or. Due to the Golden anniversary, the selections this year were driven even more than usual by Cannes' hunger for stars, beginning with the opening night world premiere of Luc Besson's silly sci-fi comic book, The Fifth Element. The evening's highlight was Demi Moore on hubby/star Bruce Willis' arm sporting a Gaultier shower curtain which bested even her legendary L.A. sartorial statements.

In a year of celebrity--there were at least 100 household-name actors skulking around--the films that went on to triumph were shockingly small; both could well end up without U.S. distribution. The Palme D'Or was awarded ex aequo (split) between two films: Shohei Imamura's The Eel and Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherries. Both were happy surprises, if for different reasons.

While no one would doubt Imamura's place in the Competition--his career spans 40 years, from revolutionary sex/death pastiche films like The Insect Woman to international arthouse hits The Ballad of Narayama and Vengeance Is Mine--this new film feels more like a reflective sigh than a major career statement. A gentle dark comedy, it calmly follows the rehabilitation of a laconic murderer in a small town and his various friends: a pet eel, a Buddhist priest and a suicidal young woman in love with him. Except for its characteristic opening sequences--blood from the re-enacted killing spurts onto the lens--the film is shot in sunny, saturated colors, lending it the air of a filmmaker content with his achievements in the sunset of his career.

Kiarostami's situation is radically different. With his last completed film, Journey To Dawn, banned in Iran, the chances of his newest emerging for Cannes Competition were so slight that Festival Director Gilles Jacob declined to announce the film at his opening press conference. Finally added on the Festival's second to last day, the film is a deceptively simple but breathtakingly profound parable. A man picks up three hitchhikers--a soldier, a religious man and a teacher--and tries to make a deal. He will give them money if they will come the following morning to a certain mountain spot. If he is alive, they should help him out; if dead, they should throw ten shovelfulls of earth on him. Each man resists in his own way, with the teacher proving the most compelling--he tells a wonderful fable that forces the suicidal man to imagine what "taste" he would miss most after death. Then, radically, for the film's last 30 seconds we see video footage from the set, with everyone laughing and gossiping: Kiarostami emphatically declares that whatever barriers are raised, filmmaking will be his "taste of cherries."

The Grand Jury Prize went to the early front-runner for the Palme, Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. The lauded Canadian director's exploration of revenge and pain in a small town in the wake of a school bus accident features Ian Holm as an ambulance chasing lawyer. Its rich emotional textures and exceptional performances make this small-ish film seem much bigger indeed.

Sean Penn and Robin Wright in She's So Lovely, Photo: Joyce Rudolph
Acting prizes went to Cathy Burke, of Naked fame, as an abused wife in Gary Oldman's actor-ish but powerful Nil By Mouth and Sean Penn for Nick Cassavetes' She's So Lovely, the film based on his father's script. (So much for all that "I don't want to talk about dad" the director spouted during the release of Unhook the Stars). Best Director was Wong Kar-Wai for Happy Together, a puzzlingly failed but riveting film. Hong Kong heartthrobs Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung play gay lovers--the film starts with what could only be termed "a courageous sex scene"--who get sidetracked on a Buenos Aires vacation. The film is shot with Wong's characteristically controlled mania, and one assumes the award is as much for his recent contributions to film aesthetics than for this rather shrill new work. Best Script deservedly went to indie god James Shamus for The Ice Storm, Ang Lee's restrained, accomplished look at an American town in the '70s forced to acknowledge the complexities of contemporary life.

The rest of the Competition went from the merely mediocre--silly, dull films from Marco Bellocchio, Francesco Rosi, Wim Wenders and Idrissa Ouedraogo--to the spectacularly awful. While Johnny Depp's directorial debut, The Brave, was, as reported, incredibly bad--he plays a Native American who has agreed to star in a snuff movie; faced with imminent death, he becomes the saviour of his oppressed reservation community--it really doesn't compare with the two "grand statement" films from Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) and Michael Haneke (Benny's Video). Kassovitz's Assassin(s) portrays a petty thief unable to become a proper killer and a brainless boy unable to follow in an older killer's footsteps. What would only have been a clumsy, plotless and boring effort to shock is made sublime by the film's frequent cutaways to violent television programs which "recruit" French youth to crime. Haneke one-ups him, though, with a witless fantasy of two amoral young men terrorizing a young family in hyper-wealthy Austrian cottage country. Obviously oblivious to three decades of sophisticated American filmmaking on the subject of acculturated violence, Haneke includes dire moments of direct camera address and--wait for it--VCR-style rewinds to emphasize the televisually-inspired nature of our violent society.

So the worst Competition in recent memory should have made for an equally bad Un Certain Regard section, the Competition also-rans programmed by the same people. Happily this was not the case.The European premiere of Neil LaBute's strong, accomplished In the Company of Men was well-received as was Richard Kwietnowski's intense Love and Death on Long Island. An intelligent stalker film, it follows a British academic's obsession with a young American teen star; although nothing particularly bad happens to anyone in the film, Kwietnowski delivers a palpable sense of dread throughout. I also liked the deeply Gothic Hungarian mommy-killer movie The Witman Boys and a small French relationship film called Marius et Jeanette. Big disappointments in the section included Singapore's Eric Khoo's screechy 12 Storeys (his short Pain and feature Meepok Man heralded a new cinema wave a few years back), Rob Tregenza's dated meditation on insanity, Inside/Out, and Paul Chart's appalling farce, American Perfekt.

The prestigious Director's Fortnight--it is an unfriendly parallel section to the Competition run out of the Noga Hilton Hotel's beautiful screening facilities five minutes from the Palais Festival Headquarters--took a beating this year. Its fairly weak selection was largely ignored, even with the Camera D'Or (Best First Film) chosen from its ranks. (That was Naomi Kawase's Suzaku, a lifeless bit of exotic ethnic-ness which put the Rotterdam festival to sleep some five months earlier.)

Stars of the section were the opening film, Alain Berliner's Belgian pre-pubescent cross-dressing movie, Ma Vie en Rose, and The Friend of Failure, a well-regarded but stodgy Eastern-European thriller from the director of the far superior Adam's Rib. Disappointments included Matthew Harrison's star-laced Kicked in the Head, the only American selection and sadly filled with cliches from the last 20 years of New York indie filmmaking. Udayan Prasad's My Son, the Fanatic should have been called "My Friend, the Prostitute". It ignores the interesting dynamic between a British father of Indian descent and his increasingly fundamentalist son in favor of a taxi driver's relationship with a hooker, the latter a rather tired cinematic trope.

The Critic's Week, a section for discovering first and second-time filmmakers, yielded Junk Mail and Insomnia, two terrific Norwegian thrillers! Yes, Norway, that country we thought the cinema had left behind. The first is more straightforward and satisfying, slyly interweaving Kaurismaki-like absurdities into a blood-pumping ride; the second is stranger, with occasionally over-the-top moments marring an enigmatic, truly spooky film. I was also happy to see Bent on screen, even if its insistence on "proving" the existence of gay love feels a bit dog-eared; the play, though, has been well opened up by director Sean Mathias, and Mick Jagger looks great in drag.

The best film of the Festival, though, appeared in the smallest of the parallel sections. Cinemas En France, programmed by the Director's Fortnight, has been uncovering a most exciting cinema movement for the last few years: young and angry France. Films unreleased in the U.S., such as Will It Snow For Christmas? (recently picked up by Zeitgeist), Select Hotel, Trop de Bonheur and The Lovers paint a France divided by history, ethnicity and mean-spirited malaise in shockingly honest hues. The latest addition to this impressive catalogue is Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jesus. A small town near Lille, in "darkest" France, contains a boy and his friends. They are average members of the community--playing in the school band, fixing up a car, joy-riding their motorcycles--until a chain of events inspired by an Arab boy's advances to the boy's girlfriend leads to isolated bursts of violence. No character is especially "bad" or "good" in this film; it just chronicles the bad choices people sometimes make. This is a lesson from which Mr. Kassovitz and Mr. Haneke could well have learned.

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© 2005 Filmmaker Magazine