CANNES 2001: Every Day, Trouble; A Week Into the Cannes Can
by Mark Peranson
After kicking off, appropriately, with another kind of consumption -- Nicole Kidman's 19th-century disease, rather than Gerard Depardieu's overblown feast of a year past -- the insane smorgasbord that is the Festival du Film has endeavored to present infuriating works of excess designed to disgust, and therefore enlighten, rather than to delight. A week into this year's Cannes, Liv Ullmann's jury is faced with a bevy of films more worth the Palme d'Eplorable than the Palme d'Or; both in the competition and in the appropriately named Un Certain Regard section. The question to date is not what films I may have liked or disliked, as "like" is a term inappropriate to many of these works; it's more what can be tolerated, or, to return to the gustatory, "kept down." The logistics of the whole Cannes enterprise aside -- from long lines to cancelled press screenings -- the films in stage one have truly caused trouble every day.
Does this sound tempting? Perhaps, but the good should come before the bad and the ugly. Were it not for 92-years-young Manoel de Oliviera, I would have an even harder time getting up in the morning. In "I'm Going Home," de Oliviera begins with a tease, presenting a lengthy staged scene from Ionesco's "Exit the King." The lead is an ancient-looking Michel Piccoli (a leading contender for Best Actor), who discovers after the show has ended that his wife and children have died in a car accident. Rather than make a film about suffering, de Oliviera uses the opportunity and takes the time to ponder the present, and the last, very moving stage of an ethical artist on the somewhat fast track to "King Lear"-like senility. Both rigorous and riotous, often within the same scene -- such as a very long take of a film director (John Malkovich) studiously observing Piccoli attempt to pull off the role of Buck Mulligan in a film version of "Ulysses" -- de Oliviera's film is a reckoning and, one can hope, not an ending.
"I'm Going Home" is the type of film that gets easily passed by in the salty, Mediterranean waves of celluloid and publicity. The biggest news, if you read the trades, has been "Apocalypse Now Redux" -- like I'm going to bother with a film I've already seen four-fifths of when there are 500 or so other things or so to choose from. So it's only appropriate that the films with the most across-the-board support also deal with war and its aftermaths. The Bosnian "No Man's Land" is characterized by a slickness both in its aesthetic and in how it deals with the subject matter; indeed, it could pass for American, if only those soldiers spoke good English. More to my taste, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar," a symbolic-humanist (e.g. "Iranian") story which sees a Afghani-born Canadian journalist travel back home to convince her sister not to kill herself on the day of the first eclipse of the new millennium. It should infuriate the Taliban as much as "No Man's Land" will piss off the Serbs.
While watching "Kandahar," it seemed to be flawed by a ponderous voiceover and an excessive didactism, though, in hindsight, Makhmalbaf really doesn't go far enough. The film's best moments are those when he diverges from the journey story, and even from the plight of women, and concentrates on what appear to be deadly accurate scenes of everyday Afghani life, such as a training school for mullahs, and dozens of amputees at Red Cross stations after having their own blown off by land mines. The best scene of the festival to date features a "Chariots of Fire"-esque parade of amputees on crutches storming their way across the desert to relief airplanes that parachute in what we find out are artificial limbs. Like daughter Samira's winner from last year "Blackboards," "Kandahar" is a film of pieces, rather than a whole body of work.
But to get back to the point I was trying to make: War is hell, and so has the festival been so far. Of course, it all depends on what you see and when you see it. Hirokazu Kore-eda's unnecessarily opaque, but very well-directed "Distance" gets stronger the farther away one gets from it; but the richness, and the humanist impulse of "Kandahar" and "I'm Going Home" has been overshadowed by a return to confrontational, aggressive, and ultimately pandering cinema, barely concealed auto-critiques included for the same price of admission, that takes perverse pleasure in humiliating its characters and making its audience (here, for the most part, critics) feel superior. I, for one, am not buying it.
Much ballyhooed increased American presence has shown a series of artistic setbacks that have, strangely, provoked blasé reactions from the English-language press: The Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a film that isn't there, an aggressively banal and profoundly uninteresting gloss on James Cain in the form of two hours of art direction and painstaking black-and-white photography; Hal Hartley's aggressively awful "No Such Thing" demonstrated the sound of one hand clapping at the press screening; and Todd Solondz's aggressively provocative "Storytelling" evokes the question: what kind of society (or is it parenting?) could spawn such a severely disturbed individual. One of five consecutive films I saw to feature a rape scene -- trust me, this one is very much featured -- it also literally evoked a queasiness the likes of which I haven't felt since, well, "Happiness." (There was no Solondz press conference; I await the public stoning.)
It hasn't all been awful, but when the Abel Ferrara film stands out like a jewelled rock of crack, something's got to be wrong. "'R Xmas," which opened Un Certain Regard, is a muted and ultimately sensitive portrait of two New York smack dealers on Christmas Eve circa 1993 (the last year of Dinkins), and features "Sopranos" star Drea Dematteo in a Gena Rowlands turn. Call it Ferrara's "It's a Wonderful Life." Of course, being an Abel Ferrara film, there is no distributor as of yet -- and the relative lack of sex and violence can't help its cause. So, Palme d'Or: "Shrek"? (That's a sick joke.)
Gilles Jacob also hyped "the strong French presence," and in that regard, well, there certainly are a lot of French people walking around. In competition, Catherine Corsini's "La Repetition" is a silly study of acting and obsession (Emannuelle Beart, actress; Pascale Bussieres, devoted friend) in a festival where theater and acting seems to be a major obsession (and, this, even before the Rivette has shown.) Based on a controversial novel by Austrian Elfriede Jelinke, Michael Haneke's ridiculous "The Piano Teacher" is an odd, analytical mix of a truly Teutonic subject (piano teacher desires S&M relationship with blond, studly student) and the French language. (Austrians are irate.) It stars -- I mean, debases -- a dependably good Isabelle Huppert (leading candidate for Best Actress, or is it Best Survivor?), who lives with her shrewish mother and harbors secret dreams of violent degradation. Perhaps the greatest disappointment, though, is Claire Denis' out of competition dance of desire and death "Trouble Every Day," a cross of, I think, Tourneur, Cronenberg, Argento and Benoit Jacquot's "A Single Girl" that is a horror film in every sense of the word.
Like "Storytelling," which, to tell the truth, is also looking better three days later, the Vincent Gallo-Beatrice Dalle starring "Trouble Every Day" is visceral, not uninteresting, and likely to cause a stir when released because of a few gory, cannibalistic scenes -- though how either of those films could be approved for a general viewing audience is beyond me. While its topic is the body and the fluids that flow inside of it, the film's own corpus is physically marred by a number of things, not the least of which is intellectual pretension. If "Moulin Rouge" is this year's "Dancer in the Dark," and benefits from the touch of class, then "Trouble Every Day" is this year's "Crash," likely to divide audiences and critics alike, though most are standing with the negative. What very few films have done, the Makhmalbaf aside, is explore issues that mean anything today. With the young guns for the most part done and the old men (the oldest aside) still to come (Godard, Rivette, Hou, and Imamura), one can only hope that the next few days will see less apocalypse, and more now.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope magazine (insound.com/zinestand/cscope).]