Closing Night Surprises in France, But Was Cannes 2003 Really So Awful?
by Stephen Garrett
The intrepid international cinerati who remained in Cannes to watch the hot-ticket awards ceremony on Sunday were stunned into applause and a smattering of catcalls when Gus Van Sant's Columbine elegy "Elephant" was announced as the Palme d'Or recipient at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Despite an official festival policy that no film can win more than two major awards (with the exception of an acting prize), "Elephant" lived up to its name by also nabbing best director and generally crushing the opposition -- namely the equally animalistic study of human nature "Dogville," for which the critically celebrated Lars Von Trier and his crew were left empty-handed. "I've never been able to show a film here before, except 'To Die For' in 1995, which was out of competition," Van Sant said during a packed press conference after the film. "So to win is kind of miraculous and fortunate and lucky." When a foreign journalist pointed out that the award was possibly an anti-American message, Van Sant disagreed. "I don't think of it as an anti-American movie," he said. "I pretty much live exclusively in America, and the film is not criticizing anything except maybe the urge to conform in a bland way. I don't think of it as an attack more than an exploration or a musing about high school."
Patrice Chereau, the president of the Jury, hinted during the awards ceremony that the night's accolades would be unexpected when he announced that he and his harmonious colleagues had asked festival head Gilles Jacob for special permission to bend the official policy meant to encourage diversity. Indeed, no less than three films won a pair of awards each: joining "Elephant" in the winner's circle was Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Uzak" (Distant), which won the Grand Prix and the Best Actor award shared between its two leads, Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak; and Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions," which received the Screenwriting Prize and the Best Actress award for Marie-Josée Croze. Making the "Uzak" wins more poignant was the fact that the recently married Toprak, who is also the director's cousin, had died only last month. "When he found out we were in Cannes, he said, I will have my honeymoon in Cannes," said Ceylan. "But the next morning, he was in a car accident."
The Prix du Jury went to Samira Makhmalbaf's third film, "At Five O'Clock in the Afternoon." Earlier in the day, the film also received the festival's Ecumenical prize. If she keeps up her pace, the 23-year-old Makhmalbaf is on track to be the most-lauded film director at Cannes: her debut, "The Apple," won the Camera d'Or in Cannes five years ago. Chronically in need of hair pins, the petite beauty as usual kept adjusting the scarf wrapped around her head as she gave her gracious acceptance speech which also contained the most overt political message of the night. Referring to her film's story of a woman who wants to become the president of Afganistan, she said: "I don't want to be president if the most important president in the world is George W. Bush." The predominantly French crowd predictably ate it up.
Another Cannes has ended, for better or for worse, and cinema's marriage to the world's most seductive film festival seems to have survived --just barely. In the ten years since this reporter first arrived on the Croisette, never before has Cannes so frustrated, disappointed or downright offended so many journalists, distributors and moviegoers. Only a handful of movies seemed to have been picked up for U.S. release and not many critics were enthusiastic in their evaluations as the days went on. The vibe of the festival was distinctly odd: as usual, mighty crowds gathered at the familiar Petit Majestic for a last-call beer -- and the Grand Hotel patio scene grew exponentially since even last year -- but there were fewer beach parties and just a scattering of off-site soirees in the surrounding chateaus. The hoi polloi gathered as always like lemmings, but to see whom? Stars were low wattage and sparse. If it's true that what comes up must come down, then here was the indisputable proof.
Was this year truly so awful? It's impossible to call this edition a complete failure when the competition featured the likes of "Elephant," "Dogville," "The Barbarian Invasions," "Uzak" and Alexander Sokurov's "Father and Son" (some critics would even call a couple -- if only one or two -- of these masterpieces.) And certainly the lineup included master auteurs turning in respectable (though hardly career-defining) work: the sturdy but unsurprising pedophilia-tainted murder mystery of Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River;" the simplistic political humanism in the ultimately effective "At Five O'Clock in the Afternoon;" the delightful though superficial sexual perversion at the heart of François Ozon's "Swimming Pool;" the intellectually admirable visual and theoretical construct of the otherwise dramatically inane plot in Peter Greenaway's hilariously ambitious "The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story." Not to mention worthy though unexciting fare from André Téchiné ("Strayed"), Raoul Ruiz ("That Day"), Hector Babenco ("Carandiru") and Claude Miller ("La Petite Lili").
But what Cannes lacked was the thrill of established filmmakers turning in truly challenging, and thoroughly satisfying, fare. And the competition lineup included more than a few movies that didn't deserve the honor of making the cut. Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" would have been much better served -- and far less ridiculed -- as a Quinzaine selection, or as part of Un Certain Regard. So too Lou Ye's "Purple Butterfly," Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Bright Future," Bertrand Bonello's wrong-headed "Tiresia" and Naomi Kawase's minor family drama "Shara." The luster of being in competition deservedly raised expectations and in turn harmed lesser films. One old-guard French director, Bertrand Blier, who at his age and because of his stature deserves to be in competition, even received the kind of ridicule rarely exhibited by the press. Prolonged, almost joyful waves of booing and hissing greeted the end credits of his latest absurdist film, "Les Cotelettes" -- granted, the last image is of two men gang-banging the female incarnation of death itself while hospital nurses and patients danced around them in a sort of Gallic Solid Gold routine. But still and all, the razzing seemed more directed at the festival in general than the film specifically.
Popular consensus has concluded that this was simply not a vintage year (they can't all be great, right?) and the weak showing just means that the Venice and Toronto film festivals will be unusually strong. But a quick glance at filmmakers who weren't ready in time for Cannes -- Joel and Ethan Coen, Jane Campion, Bernardo Bertollucci, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman -- makes one think that maybe the event i sn't worth the rush anymore. There was a time when directors seemed to break their back because the festival was such an important calendar date; as recently as 2000, Wong raced to finish "In the Mood For Love," which at that time of its screening didn't even have a pre-announced title.
Maybe these directors have outgrown the media boost that Cannes offers -- Lord knows Bergman never has to be on anyone's timetable but his own. Maybe the gradually outgoing head of Cannes, Gilles Jacob, truly was the rainmaker whose personal relationships with directors encouraged them to work harder and faster for that all-important Cannes debut. Maybe it's time for a new festival to become the most important showcase for world cinema. Whatever the reason, let's hope that none of it is true: say what you will about the French, but they are singular in their devotion to film. Even when the movies are disappointing, the unflagging pomp and circumstance of Cannes makes the most unimpressive filmmakers seem like they were touched by God. The festival is a bastion of dignity and reverence; in a world ruled so much by the whimsy of fickle trends, may that never go out of style.
The complete list of Cannes 2003 winners is available at indieWIRE.com.