CANNES '99: What's What on the Croisette?
by Anthony Kaufman
Nikita Mikhalkov's 3-hour $45 million historical epic "The Barber of Siberia" kicked off the 1999 Cannes Film Festival last night, an appropriately mega-sized film for this mammoth 52-year-old festival. With roughly 50 films in the Official Selection, 26 films in the Director's Fortnight sidebar, 7 in the Critics Week section, numerous student and professional shorts and featurettes, not to mention the over 230 Market screenings which run simultaneously throughout the festival as well as the panels, parties and publicity stunts, Cannes bulges at the seams, turning the French Riviera into something like Disneyland crossed with the New York City subway during rush hour.
Sifting through the celluloid is no easy task. High profile directors in the Competition section will likely garner the most attention, with new films from such international stalwarts as Atom Egoyan, whose "Felicia's Journey" will be released by Artisan in the Fall, Pedro Almodovar with his 13th film "All About My Mother" (called a "satisfying" "thought-provoking melodrama" by Variety and coming to the States via Sony Pictures Classics), and Chen Kaige, whose entry "The Emperor and the Assassin" has been recut to a still lengthy 2 hours, 40 minutes, and will also be released in the U.S. by Sony Classics. Two last minute pre-fest acquisitions will likely catch buzz: David Lynch's "The Straight Story" bought by Disney's Buena Vista, it was announced on Monday, and Peter Greenaway's "8 1/ 2 Women" purchased by Lions Gate according to the trades on Tuesday. Other notable names vying for the Golden Palm are actor Tim Robbins' "The Cradle Will Rock" (also a Buena Vista release) and Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," the only English-language picture without a U.S. distributor.
But name-recognition alone does not make a good movie. Though you may not have heard of French director Leos Carax, you will soon. His trio of astounding previous pictures, "Boy meets Girl," "Mauvais Sang," and "Les Amants du Pont Neuf" (being released by Miramax as "The Lovers on the Bridge" this July) deservedly won him high praise by critics for his personal poetic style. (Chicago Reader film critic Jonathon Rosenbaum called him "the best new French director to come along in years.") Cannes viewers will see if Carax still has the touch with his long-awaited new film, "Pola X," screening today and starring Catherine Deneuve and Guillaume Depardieu (Gerard's son). Another lesser-known critical favorite is the densely-layered direction of Russian auteur, Alexandre Sokourov ("Mother and Son") who weighs in with "Moloch" about the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Veteran helmers Arturo Ripstein and Manuel de Oliveira will also compete respectively with "The Letter" and "No One Writes to the Colonel."
However, newcomers are not to be dismissed. Last year saw the stellar debut of Erica Zonca with "Dreamlife of Angels." This year, two first-time feature filmmakers make their way into the coveted Competition section, Hong Kong's Yu Lik-wai and Frenchman Jacques Maillot. Heralding in a new generation of independent Chinese directors, Yu shot Jia Zhangke's acclaimed "Xiao Wu" (New Directors/New Films '99) and his documentary "Neon Goddesses" garnered several prizes. His new film, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" stars Tony Leung Kar-fai in a story about a love triangle between a porn salesman, an elevator operator, and a prostitute. Jacques Maillot, known for his short films, will screen, "Our Happy Lives" later in the festival.
Another shorts director with an eagerly awaited feature debut is Lynne Ramsay, director of the Un Certain Regard selection, "Ratcatcher," about coming-of-age in 1973 Glasgow. Ramsay has won top honors before at Cannes. Her uniquely envisioned 15-minute short "Gasman" garnered Second Prize last year and a previous film "Small Death" won the Grand Prize in 1996. A former photographer, Ramsay's intimate, beautiful direction may translate well to a longer, more complex format.
Another first effort in Un Certain Regard worth handicapping is cinematographer Christopher Doyle's "Away with Words," a visual collage about language, sex and memory. With his renown visual poetry contributing to the likes of Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express" and Chen Kaige's "Tempress Moon," Doyle's debut is definitely one to catch.
And what will distributors be looking out for on the Croisette this year? Most of the more commercial films in the competition have already been nabbed, thus don't be surprised if a few pics get plucked out of the sidebars. Among the few American pictures in the Directors Fortnight, Alex Winter's "Fever" starring Henry Thomas and Teri Hatcher, about a Brooklyn artist suspected of murder, and Sophia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," featuring James Woods and Kathleen Turner, about a young girl's suicide and the ramifications on the boys who adored her, both look ripe for domestic release (though Coppola's short film traveling around the circuit was nothing spectacular).
One also wonders, will all the fervor around Asian films finally pay off as predicted, the fame of Takeshi Kitano (in competition with Sony Classics' already acquired "Kikujiro") not withstanding, and bring in a whole new crop of Asian films and filmmakers into America? Will Eric Mendelsohn's Sundance directorial winner "Judy Berlin," screening in Un Certain Regard, finally find a home with a U.S. distrib? Will Miramax announce the prize winner of the Who Gets Kevin Smith's "Dogma" for Domestic Release Award? Also, what about USA Films/ October Films/Gramercy Films -- will they be too busy sorting out their slates and staff to pick up any additional product? We've got ten very full days ahead of us to find out the answers.