Cannes 2003 Six Months Later: Not So Bad After All
by Howard Feinstein
Two critics, three opinions -- or so goes the adage. One thing almost all Cannes-going journalists agree upon is that the 2003 edition was a misfire. A look back after half a year, however, provides some perspective. Bertrand Blier's "Les Cotelettes" and Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" were the most frequently quoted examples of complete timewasters. Both films were screened in the main competition, which was for sure a mixed bag but unfairly trashed nonetheless. The other injustice was that too few took into account the relative strength of the three other sections in the crevices of the Croisette, Un Certain Regard, Directors Fortnight, and Critics Week, all of which offered some fine works by unknowns that lacked the advance "buzz" of the competition films. (The nearly 1,250 movies in the market are technically off-limits to journalists.)
It's too bad that the competition dominates the collective consciousness. Most critics structure their viewing time around the morning and evening competition press screenings, with dining, interviewing, and filing stories fill out the long days. One views by rote, sitting through all the screenings with pals on the same side of the huge theater. Anyway, a few dogs shouldn't be barometers for the lot. Among the excellent offerings were Lars von Trier's "Dogville," Gus van Sant's "Elephant," Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Distant," and Samira Makhmalbaf's "At Five in the Afternoon." Imperfect, but fascinating and formally splendid were Lu Ye's "Purple Butterfly," Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," and Andre Techine's "Strayed," all of which succeed in taking the spectator into the haunting shadow worlds distinctive to cinema. Among the accompanying special screenings were fine docs like Rithy Panh's "S21: The Death Machine of the Khmer Rouge" and Errol Morris' "The Fog of War."
Having had more freedom to view than in previous years, I was able to plunge into the other sections, discovering in the process some extraordinary films and a number of others of lesser aesthetic weight that thrust me into worlds I barely knew existed.
The Cinderella section was Un Certain Regard, step-sibling of the Competition and more often that not, consolation prize for the preservation of relationships. The best of the bunch, Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold," suffered the misfortune of a closing night slot. Many journalists had already headed for home or for the bottle. Yet how can any serious cinephile skip a movie by the genius who had won Venice two years before with "The Circle" and won our hearts with his debut feature, "The White Balloon"? And the script of "Crimson Gold" is by Abbas Kiarostami, dean of the Iranian cabal! This story of one obese petty thief's desperation attempting to make ends meet is bracketed by a scene of his entrapment in a Tehran jewelry store during a bungled heist. It's an astonishing film.
Most American critics already knew Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's "American Splendor" from Sundance, and even if you don't buy it (I must admit I don't), you respect it. Another good movie is "A Thousand Months," Faouzi Bensaidi's tragicomic coming-of-age tale of a boy surrounded by familial and political upheaval in a Moroccan village. This is an important work: A new wave is emerging from the Maghreb, Africa north of the Sahara.
Created post-1968 in opposition to the competition, the Directors Fortnight means a 15-minute walk from the Palais to the basement of the tacky Noga Hilton -- a walk well worth the effort this year. Take "Osama," Siddiq Barmak's stylized film, which was picked up by United Artists after a bidding war. This is the story of a fatherless young girl in Taliban-era Afghanistan, where women were forbidden to work, whose mother dresses her as a boy so that she can earn money to feed them. Jaime Rosales' magnificent, troubling "The Hours of the Day," from Spain, tracks an amoral serial killer on his rounds as he murders on automatic pilot. From the Central African Republic came Didier Ouenangare and Bassek ba Kobhio's "The Silence of the Forest," an ethnographic feast about a new school superintendent who treks deeply into the forest in order to "convert" the numerous Pygmies to his newly adopted western mindset. Their effect on him is predictable, yet the filmmaking, rituals, and, above all, the setting make this a movie that would have made wonderful copy.
Biggest surprise of all was Critics Week, often a place on the schedule that you can safely mark with a large X. Let's face it: The selection bears the imprimatur of the French critics association. This go-round, however, the scribes came through. They presented the French delight, "Since Otar Left," by Julie Bertucelli. Set mainly in the Republic of Georgia but also in Paris, the movie is built around an old woman's obsessive devotion to her son, who, she thinks, is working in Paris. She makes plans for the family to visit him, but her daughter and granddaughter attempt to shield the savvy matriarch from the truth: He is dead.
Another film, Lee Chang-dong's brilliant "Oasis," pushes buttons -- hard. It explores the unlikely love affair, which had begun with an aborted rape attempt, between an ex-con and a woman badly crippled by cerebral palsy. I missed "Reconstruction," the Danish film by Christoffer Boe that won the Camera d'or for Best First Feature of all sections. But Boe lauded Gallo in his acceptance speech, so I'm in no great rush. Palm Pictures has picked it up stateside, so maybe I'll find out I'm wrong. I did see Enrique Colina's Cuban film, "Hurricanes," which compensated for its aesthetic miscues with sterling urban profiles in the face of disaster.
The recent New York Film Festival had, out of 25 features, 11 from Cannes -- evidence that the whole was not so bad. Okay, you have to plow through crap to find the treasure but let's face it: Cannes is IT, queen of the fests. For 12 days, it might be worth passing on a few lunches, dinners, and late-night cocktails to make the most of it. Not to fret: McDonald's across from the Palais stays open till the wee hours.