by Harlan Kennedy


 Your photo call, Mr. Kennedy:"
Its day two of the festival. I emerge from the VIP tunnel leading from the Carlton hotel to the beach. Blinding sunlight, flashbulbs, deafening questions: Have I signed an eight-picture deal with Warners? When and where will the next Planet Kennedy restaurant open? Is it all over – did it ever begin – between me and Julia Roberts?

Suddenly Bruce Willis emerges from the melee to request my autograph. He is followed by a mob of celebrities. I get knocked to the ground, badly dis­lodging my Cerruti sunglasses. Then a scroll of paper is thrust at me by an unknown bearded man in a long, flowing robe....

I wake in a sweat. I call a friend to tell him my ridiculous dream; his answering machine tells me not to worry, these things happen in Cannes. I redial for breakfast. Doing so, I notice a long scroll of paper on the bedside table. On it, above the signature "Your friend, the Editor and Chief Executive Officer of the Universe;" are written two questions:

IS THERE LIFE AFTER GATT? This is an easy one. Yes and no. Did Hollywood really stay away from Cannes '94 in pique? Tinseltown could claim "No" since four and a half movies in the Main Competition hardly constitutes a snub. (Half is for the U.S.-U.K. The Browning Version, with Albert Finney and Matthew Modine meeting in mid-Atlantic to mime life in a British board­ing school.) But those who said "Yes" could point to the movies themselves. Was this the best of Hollywood?

The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle kicked things off: two ornate, underenergized period pieces, with Jennifer Jason Leigh donning the vocal fancy dress as Kate Hepburn and Dorothy Parker, respectively. Leigh was instantly dubbed "the American Isabelle Huppert" in Cannes for her startling resemblance to the Gal­lic diva. But then, to confuse things, Huppert herself, dubbed "the French Jennifer Jason Leigh" by retaliatory U.S. critics, arrived to lead the American del­egation to the Directors Fortnight. She starred in another Yank underwhelmer, Hal Hartley's Amateur, and by this time it did start to look as if the GATT was among the pigeons.

Come on! people were crying. We know you're not putting your heart in this, America! And truly, only two stu­dios out of seven had official presences in Cannes. And truly too, the stars were not there in their thousands, except for Bruce arriving for Pulp Fiction and Clint (Eastwood) being Jury prez.

My feeling? That Tinseltown did say yaboo to the Côte d'Azur this year; also that you sow what you reap. The French having said "Merde a votre Jurassic Park" last year, during Round 666 of the Gab-gab About Trade "n" Tariffs, Amer­ica could now say "Take your Eurofest and shove it." Next year, I think, wounds will have healed and the Hollywood big boys may be back. For the rest of the European Community will have ganged up on France to say "Stop being silly. Tear down your filmic trade barriers and let the best cinema win." And then again, they may not.



Tough question. The notable movies were Zhang Yimou's To Live (China), Atom Egoyan's Exotica (Canada), and Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan). Some of us spied a pattern here, in the pics' tendency to pinball charac­ters across a large, complex variety of settings or subplots: China from 1940 to 1970; Toronto from whorish strip joints to the human subconscious; a Taipei family from negative togetherness to positive disintegration.

Is this the new modernism? Certainly the old-fashioned-seeming movies at Cannes were the nuclear chamber dra­mas like Andrei Konchalovsky's Riaba My Chicken and Giuseppe Tornatore's A Simple Formality. In the first, we're in a rent-a-cliché Russian village that echoes to a collectivist quaintness scarce changed from this film's pre-glasnost prequel (Asya's Childhood). In the second, Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski eyeball each other for two hours across a single setting – purga­torial cop shop – and swap overchiseled dialogue that sounds like J. Borges out of J. Giraudoux.

To Live (Huozhe) is Zhang's contribu­tion to the gathering Mao-Is-Less move­ment, as addressed last year by Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite. The central figures are Ge You and Gong Li as a couple hurled into poverty by hubby's gambling debts in the For­ties, only to find that penury becomes a class virtue in the new Communist order. Zhang escorts us through the years in a style less opulent, more surgi­cal than Chens. Epochs change with a terrifying invasive suddenness. The entry of the Nationalist Army is a bayo­net piercing the white "screed' behind which the hero plies his shadow-pup­petry trade. The Red Army is distant thunder on the soundtrack, then a camera panning up – unforgettably – to frame a vast ragged infantry stampeding towards us.

In the best Zhang films there is always a gallows hilarity. The nightmare scenes in Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern had a mordant wit that scared off sentimentality. In To Live the scene that rattles with tragicomic genius is set in a maternity ward during the Cultural Revolution. "Where are the doctors?" cry the couple as their frail teenage daughter, now married to a Maoist apparatchik, prepares to give birth. "They were reactionary;" say the trainee nurses left in charge, "we got rid of them " So Dad charges off to the nearest jail and drags out a starved and dying medico still wearing his
I'M A COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY placard. While daughter hemorrhages at one end of the corridor, the doc is stuffed with rolls and water at the other to keep him alive and talking. Our eyes swivel between tragedy and comedy, as if at some hideous cosmic tennis match.

Like many tennis matches, though, To Live doesn't quite know how to end. The final set is a no-tie-break marathon, petering out in a series of deuce games between honest nihilism and ticket-sell­ing optimism. Zhang should know bet­ter than to give us golden chicks as a last schmaltzy symbol of the hope to come. What happened to those chicks in Tiananmen Square, now "celebrating" its fifth anniversary? But then most of us brave, wise film critics don't live in China, where Zhang was detained throughout Cannes, battling with the authorities for a visa.

Atom Egoyan, living in more tolerant Toronto, has a wilder way with movie content and symbolism. The imagery in Exotica has a deep-pile, not to say shag-carpet, fauvism. The jungle of human emotions is conveyed in the very décor – palm trees, parrots, DIY waterfalls – of the sleazy bar-cum-strip club where a mentally unsound accountant, recover­ing from his wife and child's mysterious deaths, nightly meets his school-age Lolita for a bit of pay-as-you-ogle sex therapy. And then look at the fishtanks and primeval eels in the pet shop where the gay immigrant parrot-smuggler works (try to keep up with the plot) and befriends the aforesaid accountant, who is auditing his fish.

Did you realize that Canada was like this-this hotbed of erotic metaphor? But since Family Viewing, and even more since Calendar, I begin to trust Mr. Egoyan more than any other solartopee'd or snorkelled explorer in the darker chambers of the human brain. Exotica wears the same mark of genius as Zhang's work: at its deadliest it is also very funny. And the camerawork pushes new frontiers for a style that was always both hallucinatory and hieratic. Watch the way Egoyan takes a "simple" image – a conversation seen through a car windscreen – and bombards it with em­blematic infotainment, from sinisterly reflected passersby to the jewelled ideo­grams of streetlights and neon signs.

Eat Drink Man Woman is the third entry in the Cannes trilogy of "Give your audiences what seems too much and they'll never again settle for too little." How many more plots?, we cry as each of three daughters gets her own story, and each of those stories has stories within the story. (Love ones, mainly.) Meanwhile, Dad, the ex-finest chef in Taipei, is about to hang it up. But not before he has subjected his offspring to a few last years of what one daughter dubs "the Sunday dinner torture ritual" – a groaning family table, and enough fried noodles, glazed ducks, chopped eels to feed the Kuomintang.

Caught between a wok and a hard place, what can the girls do? They go for romance, but as in The Wedding Banquet Ang Lee plants the storytell­ing slalom-posts and forces sentimen­tal expectations to go the awkward or roundabout route. Each daughter matures and changes, or our initially simplified vision of her does. And Pa himself grows from the steam-girt nut-case of the opening sequence – the most rollercoasting, eye-smarting cooking montage in movie history – into a comi­cal-poignant Lear, seeking the Zen bal­ance between love of life and realization of impending death.

Asian movies have become the new Revelation Zone in world cinema. The Directors Fortnight gave us India's The Bandit Queen, a high-voltage cause célèbre in Cannes with its savage scenes of male-female violence, and the Com­petition snuck in an eye-opener from Cambodia, Rithy Panh's Rice People. This could have been over-the-top human disaster epic, with its tale of death, madness, and failing harvests, but boasted a resilient freshness of vision and even a stoic lyricism.

In Europe, by contrast, there's a sense of hardening arteries: nowhere more than in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red. The wandering Euro-Pole caps his tricouleur trilogy with this existential meeting-cute story of a goodhearted model (Irène Jacob) and a crusty ex-judge (Jean-Louis Trinti­gnant). But the fateful convergences are too neat, and the messages about "fra­ternity" in the age of snooping, bureauc­racy, and the Information Highway are too klunkily ironic. Yes, Mr. K, we know that electronics do not automatically create a closer, more loving world. But it's surely old-fogeyish to say they unerr­ingly create the opposite?

Many colleagues put Red high among the contenders for gold. My own two favorites among late-showing Palm-seek­ers belonged to the fest's most curious subgenre: Directors Who Have Caught the Acting Bug. Nikita Mikhalkov be­strides his slow but powerful Burnt by the Sun as a Stalinist Colonel cornered in his dacha by a young apparatchik rounding up purge victims (year, 1936); and Italian comic Nanni Moretti muses and mopeds through the mirthful Dear Diary as, well, himself. Moretti's pic was far better than the Comp's rival comic ego-trip by a performer-director, Michel Blanc's Grosse Fatigué (Dead Tired), rah-rah'd by the French but raspberried by everyone else. Where Blanc does a French Stardust Memoriesplaying a paranoid movie star, he fan­fares his own celebrity even while affect­ing to mock it – Moretti's self-portrait is off duty, picaresque, and lyrically incon­sequential.

Resembling a bearded human lamp­post, the director-star rides around Rome talking about life and flicks. ("The film that affected me more than any other is Flashdance with Jennifer Beals" – whereupon he runs straight into Beals on the Appian Way.) Then he hops between islands, extemporizing gentle shtick about man's solitude. Then he gets ill – false alarm of cancer – and runs a nightmare gauntlet of incompe­tent doctors, worthy of Hannah and Her Sisters. All human life, plus a bit of vibrant timor mortis. Good stuff.

The helmer-turned-histrio bug was semi-rampant elsewhere. Polanski stole a moment or several from costar Depardieu in the Tornatore opus. And Quentin Tarantino stole entire scenes in both his own razzledazzle Pulp Fiction and Rory Kelly's quirky love comedy Sleep With Me. In the latter, watch for Q's inspired cameo, a party guest riffing about Top Gun as a closet gay fable.

Of course the whole of Cannes, starved of high-flying Hollywood fare for nine days, went berserk over Pulp Fic­tion. This answers the first question. Life after GATT'? You bet: and cultural schizophrenia, too. The frenzied Euro-crowd on the Palais steps, only a year after singing along with Culture Minister Jacques Toubon to the tune of "Yanks, go home," risked death by pulp friction to get into this movie: two and three-quarter hours of American blood, wit, and undeleted expletives.

Did anything match this Quentin-mania? Only the crowds for Australia's out-of-contest Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Kangarooland was big in the sideshows, with three Great Barrier riffs duly bought up for U.S. distribution. Muriel's Wedding, directed by Paul J. Hogan, was a hit in the Directors Fort­night: a spoof-romantic soap set in the wilder reaches of Everage-influenced suburbia. The Sum of Us was a touch­ing, play-based two-hander about acceptance – not tolerance – between a father and his gay son. Actors Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe rose above the threat of archness offered by stage-winks and monologues to camera.

And then there was Priscilla. In a festival retro-honoring Fellini, Altman, and Renoir, Stephan Elliott's road movie en travestie had the best virtues of each: Federico's kitsch, Robert's open-plan serendipity, Jean's compassion in the midst of farce. Three drag queens, led by Terence Stamp, break down in the Outback and bring culture shock to the natives. The lines are good, the scenery is stunning, and the clothes are sensational.

As for Cannes, it will continue next year to host celluloid from Sydney to Sunset Boulevard. America should be wooed back in strength. Europe should be wooed back into admitting, with its mouth as well as its feet, that it likes Hollywood movies. Keep the faith – in Cannes there is no such word as Can't.

To prove it, when the jury stomped in laden with prizes they gave the award for Best Director to Italy's Nanni Moretti. China's absent Zhang Yimou and Rus­sia's Nikita Mikhalkov split a Special Jury Grand Prize. And then (blast of trumpets) the Palme d'Or for best film floated featherlike onto that very Ameri­can movie Pulp Fiction. Way to go, Q. T.!







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.