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May 21, 1998 2:00 AM
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Northern Lights Illuminate the Croisette: Cannes Offers Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands

Northern Lights Illuminate the Croisette: Cannes Offers Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands

by Stephen Garrett




Aside from the Mediterranean breezes that sift through Cannes' ever-burgeoning
cineaste crowds, the most refreshing cultural winds this year have come from
northern Europe, which is represented in the festival by no less than four
films. The Netherlands brings Alex Van Warmerdam's "Kleine Tony" (Little Tony),
and Sweden has Ingmar Begman's "Larmer Och Gor Sig Till" (In the Presence of a
Clown
), both of which appear in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. And two of the
strongest competition entries are from Denmark: "Festen" (The Celebration),
directed by Thomas Vinterberg; and "Idioterne" (The Idiots), Lars Von Trier's
first film since winning the Plame d'Or for "Breaking the Waves" in 1996.


"Little Tony" is Van Warmerdam's follow-up to "The Dress", which enjoyed a
limited release this past spring in the United States, and recounts a love triangle
among a middle-aged illiterate man, his heavy-set wife, and the pretty young
tutor whom the wife hires to teach her husband how to read and write. The
wife, secretly aching for a child but unable to have one, schemes to win her
way by giving the husband full permission to sleep with the tutor -- even
going so far as having her move into their house. A dark, very funny comedy,
Little Tony mixes country bumpkins, city slickers, silly pratfalls, and
shocking violence in equal measure.


Bergman's "In the Presence of a Clown", warmly received by festivalgoers, is a
period piece set in the 1920's about a man determined to create the experience
of talking movies, by staging actors to read out lines and synch up silent-
screen, filmed performances as they are projected in front of an audience.
When the electrical drain from the projector short-circuits the theater's
lights, the actors continue their drama live, by candlelight. Bergman's two-
hour play-within-a-movie interweaves theater and film with a melancholic
strain depicting the fragility of life -- a point made even more poignant
since Bergman turns 80 this year. But an incidental irony of Bergman's latest
project -- so much about the illusion of filmmaking, the projection of
celluloid, and the shared vitality of a live, staged performance -- is that
(for budget reasons) "Clown" was shot on videotape (for Swedish television,
where it played last December to wide acclaim).


Shooting on videotape is one of the central tenets of Dogma '95, a collective
of film directors formed in Copenhagen three years ago which denounces the New
Wave filmmakers that emerged first from France in the late Fifties, followed
by similar movements around the world throughout the Sixties. Dogma '95 debuts
its first two films this week with "The Celebration" and "The Idiots".


"The auteur concept was bourgeois romanticism from the very start and
thereby false!" screams one of the lines from Dogma 95's manifesto, which
demands that all directors in the collective agree to ten rules composing a
"Vow of Chastity":


-- The camera must be hand-held.

-- Shooting must be done on location.

-- Sound must never be produced apart from the images and vice versa
(and no music unless it occurs in the actual scene).

-- The film must take place "here and now".

-- Optical work is not allowed.

-- Superficial action is not allowed.

-- Aspect ratio must be Academy 35mm.

-- The film must be in color.

-- Genre movies are forbidden.

-- The director must never be credited.


So much for that last rule: at "The Celebration"'s press conference, filmmaker
Thomas Vinterberg happily answered questions that credited him as the
director, and conceded to indieWIRE that the last (clearly violated) rule was
more a stylistic declaration than a pragmatic one -- overseas marketing
dictates auteurism for serious foreign films. "The auteur thing has become
part of the convention as well," he said, damning director credit just as he
was defending it. Von Trier, though, is playing this schizophrenic dilemma
shrewdly. With a chronic fear of flying, he rarely travels outside of his
homeland but this year has driven all the way down from Denmark to be at
Cannes for his film's debut -- but not to appear at his own press conference.


"The Celebration", unfortunately, violates another rule from the Vow because it
neatly falls into the genre of a family drama, with its story of a patriarch's
60th birthday party and the dark family secrets that emerge during the
weekend's festivities. But the film is deliciously alive with an infectious,
playful mise-en-scene: choppy jump cuts, unsettling audio shifts, stuttered
background music, underlit rooms that bleed a copper digital glow on the image.
And the story itself is wickedly unraveled in a stellar ensemble job from a
half-dozen main characters. Not surprisingly, October Films picked up North
American distribution rights just the other day, a fitting complement to
their early acquisition of Von Trier's "The Idiots", announced before the
festival began.


When the Dogma '95 certificate flashed on screen at this morning's screening of
"The Idiots", the audience greeted it with both cheers and jeers. But by the
end of Von Trier's film, loud applause was joined by whistles and happy whoo-
hah's -- affirmation indeed. "The Idiots" continues Von Trier's wildly
provocative storytelling and follows a group of people who decide to act
mentally retarded and occasionally go out into the world to see who they can
fool. "Find your internal idiot," the characters preach to each other while
they stumble around with faux-twisted limbs and saliva running down their
chins. Even some characters in the movie find the premise deeply offensive;
and watching Von Trier deftly tightwalk between satire and earnestness is what
makes the movie so absorbing. Expect healthy trimming from this version of
the film: October will have to either risk releasing it unrated or just simply
cut out the dozen or so shots of on-camera erections, vaginal penetration,
orgiastic groping, and even a close-up crotch shot of a man peeing.


Meanwhile, Cannes has only four more days before "Godzilla" stomps on the
Croisette and closes down the Festival. Still to screen are Todd Haynes' hot-
ticket "Velvet Goldmine", John Turturro's "Illuminata" and past Palme d'Or winner
Theo Angelopoulos with "Mia Eoniotta Ke Mia Miera" (Forever and a Day).

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