Cannes 2003 Diary Days 4 & 5: “Swimming Pool,” “Elephant” and “Distant” Lead Fest Lineup, So Far
by Stephen Garrett
With a third of the competition films having screened, this year’s Cannes Film Festival is beginning to reveal its shape: not an altogether masterful display, but neither a complete disappointment of the sort some predicted when the lineup was announced. While no one film has yet captured the imagination of audiences, commanded thunderous applause or united critics in a chorus of hosanna, a few have been solidly impressive.
Presently ahead of the pack are François Ozon’s deliciously wicked “Swimming Pool,” Gus Van Sant’s disturbing and ruminative “Elephant” and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s elegiac “Distant,” with decent showings from André Techiné’s WWII romance “Strayed” and Samira Makhmalbaf’s “At Five O’Clock in the Afternoon” (a simplistic and overlong but effective social drama about the oppressed lives of burqa-covered Afghani women). Bringing up the rear are disappointing but benign films such as Raoul Ruiz’s dark madness farce “That Day” and Pupi Avati’s flaccid romance “The Heart Is Elsewhere.”
Wielding an ever-adept hand at suspense and melodrama, Ozon proves once again his growing command of the medium with “Swimming Pool,” a movie as much about storytelling as it is about passion, jealousy and murder. Returning to his muse-actresses Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, Ozon tells a sly, perverse tale of sexual appetite and pent-up frustration in the relationship between a dowdy English crime novelist (Rampling) and the slutty young French woman (Seigner) with whom she has to share a country house in the south of France. While a twist ending compromises some subtly complex character revelations in favor of a cleaner narrative, the film remains as funny as it is bitingly cruel and surprisingly compassionate, ultimately making for a refreshingly adult thriller.
At the press conference afterwards, Ozon mentioned that the film was inspired by and somewhat of a tribute to Brit writers such as Ruth Rendel and Patricia Highsmith. “I’ve always been fascinated by English writers,” said the director. “I’ve always felt closer to their books than to French literature.” He also admitted that his decision to set the film largely in one place — a villa and its titular piscine — has been a recurring motif in much of his work. “I like confined spaces,” he said. “I like locking people into a place and studying them like a biologist.” Looking ahead, one journalist (referring to Ozon’s previous film “8 Women” and the director’s preference for female leads) asked how many ladies would be in his next movie. “How many do you want?” he said, smiling.
Eschewing more conventional filmmaking devices and embracing the sort of deliberate pacing and economy of camerawork seen in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Tsai Ming Liang (as well as those directors’ themes of loneliness and alienation), Ceylan’s “Distant” is a beautifully realized study of a middle-aged Turk and his emotionally disconnected life as a successful photographer in Istanbul. The drama is a slow, sad and meticulously designed character study that brings to a close a trilogy of sorts Ceylan began with 1997’s “The Small Town” and 2000’s “Clouds of May.”
Developing the influence of Bela Tarr (as well as Tarkovsky) on his own work, Gus Van Sant has crafted a powerful, poetic retelling of the Columbine High School massacre with his HBO-produced film “Elephant.” An extension of the aesthetic experimentation Van Sant began with 2002’s “Gerry,” this new film deconstructs and reinterprets — from different characters and vantage points — the last half-hour leading up to two disaffected teens’ decision to open fire on their classmates. The film’s strongest suit is its refusal to pander to classic TV-drama clichés of heroic students or deserved targets — much of the action is almost impossible to predict. Yet, simply by tackling such an incendiary topic as Columbine — so loaded already with social commentary and mythic dimension (violent videogames, socially outcast kids, neo-Nazi imagery) — Van Sant risks, and somewhat falls victim to, not completely exploring the subject matter. And the director’s decision to be somewhat objective and not take a stand on the kids’ state of mind is a double-edged sword: the film bravely challenges the audience to participate in determining the root causes of such events, but it also invites lazy and simplistic psychological explanations for such behavior.
Then again, its dreamlike state is the strongest and most haunting aspect of the film, which takes its title from Alan Clarke’s 1989 short film “Elephant,” an assemblage of violence in Northern Ireland so truncated into brief, unconnected moments that it eloquently describes the randomness and futility of such human carnage. Van Sant has pulled off an admirable paradox, in that the film is impressionistic without sacrificing its documentary-style immediacy (Frederick Wiseman’s films on high school were a deliberate reference point) for an event that words may never adequately capture. Its ultimate worth will be less as an emotional catharsis and more as a philosophical rumination — the source of a dialogue that Van Sant would welcome. “I don’t usually get to work in Academy aspect ratio,” he said at the film’s press conference, referring to the movie’s boxy, TV-format screen dimension. “It looks just like 16mm films — the kind of medium you see in high schools. It’s an educational format.”