by Harlan Kennedy


c'est pour la presse!" screamed the man with the purple tie and matching complexion. "S'il vous plait!!" placated the guard, beating off a hundred elbows. "C'est un scandale!!!" volunteered the woman in the off-the-shoulder, about to be on-the-floor Pierre Cardin shawl.

Yup. The entire population of the Côte d'Azur was trying to get into the press show of kids. Half an hour later most of us would be trying to get out, disenchanted with the film's mix of pru­rience and special pleading. But the incident quintessentialized the 48th Cannes Filmfest. It was at once exciting and bruising, interesting and insane, overcrowded (with films and people) and undersignposted.

The festival poster, shining down from every palm on the Croisette, might have tipped us off. In this miracle of kitsch a sun-gilded baby, clearly free of Kids-era drugs and AIDS, has been decanted onto the sea's surface from a giant patch-quilt of floating movie his­tory. The Technicolor baby – represent­ing, said fest boss Gilles Jacob, the future of cinema – has fallen out of the Odessa Steps pram in one of the movie stills woven into the seaborne collage. The tot wears a look of hope mixed with faint panic. It has probably begun to realize that it has no more idea than the rest of us what the future of cinema actually consists of.

Would anyone have thought we'd still be watching large-screen movies at all in 1995: the age of video and satellite, cyberwebs, and infotainment highways? Would anyone have thought that Jeanne Moreau, a generation after Jules et Jim, would still be alive and ambulant and leading the festival jury? God bless her and all who sail in her. And would any­one have guessed that Britain, once the sick man of cine-Europe, would domi­nate the world's premier festival in the hundredth birthday of cinema? (Francois Truffaut, circa 1960: "British cin­ema is a contradiction in terms.")

Yet here were Loach, Boorman, Davies, and company bringing more pix to the Competition – five – than any country save the States. Our theory is that Britain, full of delayed psychoses after the speak-no-evil Thatcher years, is now ready to go mad in public. King Nigel Hawthorne does it in Regency England. Emma Thompson does it with a shotgun in Carrington. In deepest Georgia, Terence Davies does it. In Rangoon, in the heat of noon, John Boorman does it.

Above all, Ken Loach does it. Hitherto known for his sober control of the Brit social drama, he has gone to war-wracked 1930s Spain. Mad? Only in service of a higher sanity. Land and Freedom may be the best political movie of recent years, and the most honest from the Far Left. It shows ideal­ism not triumphant but torn apart.

Its hope-filled innocent from Liver­pool (Ian Hart) thinks that by joining the P.O.U.M. – the organization of small Republican militias – he is fighting Franco. Instead, as he and we learn, Stalin is the superfoe. The USSR, by funding and supporting the Interna­tional Brigade, is trampling on Spain's antifascist small fry to win the civil war for the Soviet sphere of influence.

That big drama is cleverly orches­trated as "noises off." What we see and hear are the human repercussions. The loud debates in the dust of battle; the Babel confusion of tongues and accents – British, French, American, Spanish – jabbing out irreconcilable views; the passionate despair of a final showdown between Hart's ragged army and the soldiers from the groomed superpower. Even the Anglo-Spanish love story, which could have been cornball, works. Somewhere between the dust and sweat and stillborn tears there is time for one human animal (Hart) to sneak a few shared emotions with another (Rosana Pastor's marvelously clipped and wary companera).

Most of the Brit movies in competi­tion were about bottled-up or bottle-necked emotions. The Madness of King George is about royals going barmy at Windsor Castle: plus ça change. Boor­man's Beyond Rangoon is a blend of Hollywood epic and zip-lipped gung ho à l'anglaise. (We could have used some dialogue explaining why Patricia Arquette keeps dashing into life-endan­gering situations.) And the beguiling Carrington, set in the 19-teens, gives us the cuckoo romance between gay biog­rapher Lytton Strachey (of Eminent Vic­torians) and painter Dora Carrington.

Emma Thompson is a mite jolly-hockey-sticks as Carrington, and first-time helmer Christopher Hampton has not quite learned to put his camera where his stage-reared imagination is. But the dialogue is deft and Jonathan Pryce is brilliant as Strachey, an over-wound wit behind a Birnam Wood beard. He copped the Best Actor prize.

As for Davies's The Neon Bible, it could be The Fallen Idol in the Ameri­can South. A teenager's low-angle gaze at adult mysteries becomes the stuff of wacky mythopoeia. Dad (Denis Leary) has inexplicable rages and then dies. Mum (Diana Scarwid) is full of long silences and hot and cold running grief. And there is Aunt Mae the failed chantoose (Gena Rowlands), with her cracked singing voice, fading beauty, and death-of-vaudeville dresses.

The film, wonderful in patches, shows the risk in transposing genius. An autobiographical reality nourished the surrealism of Davies's Liverpool pix. But here Southern Gothic meets the Scouse Proust in a shaky mid-Atlantic rapprochement. We still cherish the great moments – for one, the shot where a child grows up literally before our eyes, morphed into adolescence on a starlit porch. Or those fir branches that flap at the windows outside dying Scarwid's room: mopping and mowing like dreadful hands, they're the eeriest image of Nature pressing at humanity's window since Monica Vitti curled foe­tus-like under the picture-windowed trees in The Eclipse.

And there is always Gena. Gena for Genius: an actress who does no wrong even when wrong is done around her. Anyone who says differently can roll up their sleeves, step into an alley, and pre­pare for fisticuffs.

Davies's film epitomized a trend at Cannes: the tendency for strong style-signatures to attach them­selves to fallible documents. This year, films noirs Nineties-style – gorgeous empty vessels for bloodshed and imbro­glio – were the vogue all over town. They ranged from Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, noncompetitive in the Palais, to Raymond DeFelitta's Café Society (Quinzaine) and Gary Fleder's Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (Un Certain Regard).

The secret of these movies is: Use style as foreplay and guns as consum­mation. Kiss-kiss aesthetics climax in bang-bang plot dénouement. That you can't tell one plot from another hardly matters. Did Chris Walken do his flaky supervillain act, plus hilariously unex­plained wheelchair, in Suspects or in Denver? Did Kevin Spacey do his spaced-out cripple-cum-informer in Café or in Suspects?

Then came Zhang Yimou's Shang­hai Triad, putting all these other mov­ies and their makers in the shade. "Just a gangster film" chorused some hacks, obviously suffering from noir overkill. But if this film is "just" anything, it is just a masterpiece.

The director of Red Sorghum and To Live has now dissolved the surface of the screen completely. The visuals are so molten in his hands that in this Thir­ties-set underworld saga they take any form commanded: from the giant-eyed closeups introducing the boy servant hired to attend the Godfather's songstress-mistress (Gong Li), to the watercolor longshots of the final act set on an idyllic but blood-absorbent island.

For a movie in the kiss-bang genre, Shanghai Triad has little of either, at least on screen. Love takes the form of Gong Li's infidelity with a young hench­man: a series of snatched visions or fur­tive patterings seen or heard by the boy. Death takes its toll not in thumping bodies and spurting blood-pellets but in the reactive horror flickering across human faces.

Chief of these is the "heroine" her­self. Gong Li's moll begins as a diva from hell, dishing out spite and self-adoration along with the nightly cabaret songs. (A gargling melodic voice; a scarlet dress like an overgrown Christ­mas cracker.) Then, as she realizes that her "power" has power to chop off heads, even on the Godfather's second-act getaway island containing one peas­ant mother and daughter, her shaken soul starts to jettison surplus frivolity.

She becomes human, but too late: the Zhang Yimou tragedy machine is whirring into action. If the film's first half is a gold-filtered paean to the sickly glories of ill-gotten wealth – kaleido­scopic mirror-trick visuals and effulgent backlighting – the second half opens the world and the heroine to the elements. Every shudder of wind in grass, every clattering curtain of midnight rain becomes part of the character's own seismic self-discovery. And the film's Parthian "shot" tramples even on the triumphalism of tragedy. The closeup of coins dropping into the sea from the boy's pocket – he is hanging upside down from a ship's mast – is tender for the evaporation of his dreams and the vanity of his mistress's own last gift to a future she cannot control.

"Just a gangster film"? Hardly. Shanghai Triad is a movie about the hopelessness of dreams-of-change in a country that has seesawed, for fifty years, between promise and betrayal.


After Zhang, the two most ambi­tious and overt political epics at Cannes, both three hours long, keeled over from size and self-impor­tance. Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze was more admired than Emir Kusturica's Underground – at least, until the jury went mad and gave Emir the Golden Palm. (Theo, hardly forgotten, caught the Grand Jury Prize.) But do we really buy Harvey Keitel as a Greco-American filmmaker crisscrossing southeast Europe – from northern Greece to Sarajevo-in search of the beating heart of Balkan history?

Portentousness, never far from Angelopoulos pix, comes in with a wallop when a giant statue of Lenin is maneu­vered through one long sequence. Inert and heraldic, the statue seems to stand – as much as any intended signification – for this director's petrified way with metaphor and meaning. Still, the jury liked it.

Underground is first gloriously, then tediously mad. We begin with runaway bravura à la Time of the Gypsies. Ani­mals have escaped from the zoo after the first bombing raid of World War II. So we peer past elephants or over the shoulders of tigers to meet the two scam-artist heroes who will grow up, sort of, during the film's sixty years of Yugoslavian history. Blitzed by brass bands and giddied by Unsteadicams, we perversely enjoy the first hour. Then the hangover sets in. By the time we reach modern-day Bosnia – main char­acters all still alive, despite bombs, hand grenades, and brass bands – we are begging for an airlift to tranquility. Somewhere inside Kusturica is a great filmmaker also awaiting rescue. In this instance he needed a cavalry of scissor-rattling editors.

Excess, though, is born into Cannes. You'd think a town that walks, talks, and breathes cinema for twelve days would know how to cry "Enough!" Never. Instead it drooled, as I did, over the short collages called "Preludes" that preceded each Competition flick. These centenary-designed bouquets of famous movie moments – three to eight se­quences serially juxtaposed and unla­beled to add to the fun – were each "themed" to a subject or a star. They allowed us to muse on guitars in the cin­ema, or trains, or birds (Franju, Hitch­cock), or milk (The General Line, Suspicion), or Marilyn, or Ingrid. "Play it, Sam," said the glistening-eyed Swed­ish woman to the café pianist. Where-upon – strange place Planet Cannes – one thousand people went absolutely, totally berserk.

Cinema gazing in its own mirror – but what do you expect in Year 100? It explains the fashionable self-reflexiveness of all those films noirs; of Sam Raimi's Competition-closing gun opera The Quick and the Dead, out-pastiching Leone as it counts off the mickey-taken tropes; and of movies like Robert Lepage's Le Confessional, opening the Quinzaine, that mused stylishly on the conceit of a parallel priestly conscience-crisis happening in Quebec while Hitch was shooting 1 Confess (scenes of Monty Clift agonistes are cut into the all-color modern story).

The oddest pic of the fest also used film-commenting-on-film to add dimen­sion to its story. But it was totally free of dandyism. Hou Hsiao-hsien's haunting Good Men, Good Women is a three-pack of stories from Taiwanese life, each leaking into the others. A troubled actress is at the heart of the modern story (anomie, anonymous telephone aggro) and of a flashbacked love story. This character also plays the truth-based heroine in the third segment: a monochrome film-within-a-film about Taiwanese volunteers in China's 1940s war against Japan.

The film is as opaque as it sounds. Shot like Hou's last effort, The Puppet-master, with a scarce-moving camera in engulfing shadows, it is about as viewer-friendly as a blindfold. But unlike the playboy directors who use film buffery as a boutonnière – sometimes a joke one that squirts you in the eye – Hou's multi­layered structure of illusion and reality is deadly serious. It explores that literal shadow area between national myth and national history; between reality and (self) dramatization; between the pliant past and the unyielding, uncommuni­cating present.

In short, the Far East is still telling us that movies can be serious art while the Englishspeaking West – or much of it – is running around lubricating its cult of the Ludic. Is that polarity oversimpli­fied? Not really. In the mid Nineties, high-impact cinema from the countries in-between is stunning for its scarcity.

Gratitude as much as real admira­tion probably accorded the Iranian film The White Balloon its sleeper-of-the-festival status. It won the Camera d'Or for best first film and shared the Inter­national Critics' Prize (with Loach and Angelopoulos). Plot: a little girl loses, chases, and finally recovers a banknote in the streets of Tehran. The images are basic, the acting more basic. But the Quinzaine audience went crazy. Here was a film from a fledgling movie coun­try. It was trying to fly. It wasn't trying to be clever. It didn't quote Hitchcock. In the hundredth year of movies it almost looked like a fresh start for no-frills cin­ema. But its tabula rasa charm also tan­talized some into hypothesizing a concealed complexity. Why was the film called The White Balloon when the only such balloon was on the end of a street vendor's stick – a minor, late-appearing character? And why do the vendor, an Afghan-featured boy, and his balloon occupy the film's final frozen frame? Is there a message here about ethnicity and dispossession? Is there a symbolic significance in "white" or "balloon" or "stick"? Should we do a quick corre­spondence course on Iranian culture and society?

The hell with it. Let's just go see the two fastest, dizziest flicks in the test. One was Mathieu (Best Director) Kassovitz's La Haine: drugs, street feuds, and Mach-2 dialogue in monochrome Paris. Makes Kids look like Sesame Street. The other is Anthony Weller's Mute Witness, the horror thriller of the festival: ninety minutes of blood, screams, and Sir Alec Guinness (as "The Reaper"), set in a spooky Moscow film studio.

Then let's go and see Sharon Stone present the prizes. Or we could get it all on the computer. For yes, reader, the silicon superhighway has reached the South of France. Wanna be keyed in? Just grab your Internet and tap for "Cannes on Cyber." Or for web chatter about the Palme d'Or, tap http://www. cannes/-:nninit.html ... and so on. Did somebody say something about the future of the moving image? That baby is already crawling off the Cannes poster in search of his laptop PC pacifier.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.