CANNES FILM FESTIVAL – 1994
INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
photo call, Mr. Kennedy:"
Its day two of the festival. I emerge from
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
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
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
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.
WHAT WERE THE NOTABLE MOVIE TRENDS IN CANNES THIS YEAR?
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
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
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
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
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
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 Memories – playing
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
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.!
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1994 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.