Cannes 2004 Critical Wrap: Inspiration, Arrogance, Hilarity, and Plenty of Sex
by Stephen Garrett
There's nothing like the cinematic gluttony of a film festival. From Sundance to Toronto, the biggest events in the movie world offer hundreds of selections to enjoy -- and of its brethren, Cannes offers arguably the finest and most diverse fare. This reporter decided to stuff himself with as many viewings as possible, and after 50 features in 10 days found that no matter how much you see, there's still more that goes unseen.
indieWIRE has already published coverage of Cannes' most talked-about movies of 2004, so this festival round-up piece will concentrate on highlights from the festival's myriad categories, including competition and out-of-competition selections, Un Certain Regard, Director's Fortnight, and Critics' Week, as well as special market screenings of notable titles.
Any year that offers new out-of-competition works from Jean-Luc Godard and Michaelangelo Antonioni (not to mention two features from Abbas Kiarostami) is already above par, and such typically bold-faced directors dotted the Croisette with new work that ran the spectrum of quality, inventiveness and import -- and featured their masters in front of the camera as well as behind. Godard's "Our Music" is an absorbing meditation on war and its effects set in Sarajevo; and though characteristically dense with literary allusion and philosophical ruminations, the work remains one of the filmmaker's most accessible films in years, mainly because of Godard's own magnetic appeal. Frail, 91-year-old Antonioni arrived in person for his offering, "The Eyes of Michaelangelo," a 15-minute wordless short that showed il maestro awe-struck in the presence of a Michelangelo-carved marble sculpture -- and elegiac tone poem that suggests the modern filmmaker contemplating his own chance at artistic immortality.
And Kiarostami follows up 2002's "Ten" with a documentary and feature, both also numerically named and both problematic in their own ways. His non-fiction film "10 on Ten" is simply the director on-camera for more than an hour, driving around Iran and defensively delivering what amounts to self-justification masked as a master class. One comment after another is a rebuke to criticisms of his last movie, dismissals of classic film techniques as false and misleading, and explanations about why "Ten" and his other films work so well. His new feature, "Five," is just as perplexing a mix of inspiration and arrogance. The Warholian film, composed of five long and abstracted video shots of nature (from driftwood to a moonlit sea), is inexplicably dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu -- a disingenuous dedication that the humanist Japanese director would no doubt politely decline.
Another master director who had the cinerati buzzing was Ousmene Sembene, whose overpraised "Moolaadé" (in Un Certain Regard) was a simplistic social critique of female genital mutilation -- a no-brainer topic to join in denouncing, and a film whose appeal one can only speculate was largely anthropological.
Up-and-coming filmmakers with their second or third features made a strong showing in the festival. One of the most hauntingly beautiful movies to play the Croisette was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady" (in competition), a gay romance which uses myth and metaphor in its second half to elevate its pleasant but mundane love story to a level of animalistic mystery and awe that ultimately makes for transcendent viewing. Also from Asia was Hong Sangsoo's Korean anti-romance "Woman is the Future of Man" (in competition), a dry, incisive look at two men still infatuated with the same girl from college.
Sophomore outings from two Latin directors were sharp, subtle portraits of human dynamics that both felt a bit thin for their running time. Argentine Lucrecia Martel followed up her rich study of upper-class decadence, "La Cienaga," with "La Niña Santa" (in competition), a quiet and ultimately tragic look at how a teenage girl's crush on an older man sets off a chain reaction of social catastrophe. And the deadpan Uruguayan treat "Whisky" (in Un Certain Regard), about a older bachelor pretending to be married, is Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's second film that fulfills the promise shown in their festival-fave debut "25 Watts."
In the Cannes market, eagle-eyed cineastes could find David Gordon Green's "Undertow," his upcoming third film and a worthy Southern Gothic disappointment about a pair of boys raised by their single dad and the uncle who comes back to shatter their lives. Not everything quite gels in this dreamy thriller, but the tone and sensibility is so assured that the experience is still deeply satisfying.
Michael Moore may have won Cannes with "Fahrenheit 9/11," but quality documentaries were hardly an anomaly this year. Jonathan Nossiter's wine exposé "Mondovino," bumped up at the last minute into a competition slot, was an absorbing if scattered look at that lucrative liquor industry and how its heritage is threatened by the bland tastebuds of globalization. Xan Cassavetes' "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession" (out of competition) expertly outlined the rise and fall of the renegade Los Angeles cable-TV movie paradise and its influence on film preservation, directors' careers, and even Oscar voting. But by far the most entertaining documentary at Cannes was "Born to Film," a hilarious peek at three French independent filmmakers who make Ed Wood and the people at Troma look like Cecil B. DeMille.
It being the French Riviera, what would the festival be without some good, old-fashioned sex? One of the raciest movies selected for any sidebar was "The Scent of Blood" (in Director's Fortnight), an Italian erotic drama starring Fanny Ardant as the wife in an open marriage whose infatuation for some young buck drives her husband insane with rage. As over-the-top as it is compelling, and annoyingly upholding the double standard that men can have mistresses but women can't without it destroying their lives, the film still holds attention as a mature look at adult sexual politics. Also richly dealing with sexuality, but from a coming-of-age vantage point is Benoit Jacquot's "Right Now," based on the true story of a teenage woman who falls in love with a bank robber and turns her life upside down fleeing with him throughout the Mediterranean coast. Encounters with shady older men, flirtations with lesbianism, and even a disco-fueled menage-a-trois makes this moody movie dreamily arresting.
The Amour Fou prize for most outrageous descent into decadence is a tie between Asia Argento's "The Heart is Deceitful... Above All Things" (in Director's Fortnight) and the Isabelle Huppert vehicle "Ma Mere" (in the market). Argento makes a crude adaptation from JT Leroy's semiautobiographical account of his upbringing with a self-destructive mom; but her total commitment to its raw lunacy -- including a scene in which the 10-year-old protagonist dresses up as his mother and seduces her boyfriend -- holds a primitive power that's undeniably potent. And "Ma Mere"'s tawdry tale of incestual obsession is almost irredeemably bad, although its classic scenes of a mother sniffing her son's shit odor off her lesbian lover's finger is almost as classic as the climactic shot of the son masturbating in front of his dead mother's body.
For more artistically satisfying porn, look to Michael Winterbottom, whose market entry "Nine Songs" is his wonderfully successful attempt to use hardcore shots of penetration, oral sex, and a cum shot in a truly touching love story. The result -- a tight 65 minutes -- is an unforgettably riveting and romantic look at relationships that trumps Bertolucci and Oshima in capturing pure human attraction.
The best part about Cannes' movie orgy is the Cannes Classics series, a replay of the festival's most remarkable work in brand-new and restored prints. Among the delights were Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket," Antonioni's "Blow-Up" and -- most touchingly -- the extended version of Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One." Its reconstruction, overseen by critic Richard Schickel, has resulted in a beautifully brutal, honest, and surreal look at World War II (or any theater of war, for that matter) and is all the more sobering and heartfelt in this day and age. Modern geopolitics were never far from the screen in Cannes -- and more importantly, neither was the artistic energy to interpret, digest, and ultimately understand it.