AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE 49TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
Love and death, rain and shine, sense and insensibility (another glass of champagne, s'il vous plaît) – Cannes boasts the lot. And never more so than in 1996, when giddy opposites became a way of life.
Rain sliced across the Palais
steps on opening night, turning this year's smile-and-flashbulb gala into an
even more defiant artifice than usual.
No, followed by yes. Next day
Thirty thousand movie hacks
come here every year to savor that so-called universality. They watch films
like Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye, South, Goodbye, a
So the two standout films of Cannes '96 for this festgoer were Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Brilliant in themselves, they suggest, too, that everything is communicable if we also understand that it's incommunicable. By drumming hard on the runic, they crack open the cosmic.
The Pillow Book is a natural career move for
Greenaway uses the skin of celluloid as his writing surface. Japanese ideograms stream across the frame; color and black-and-white blend or alternate; and the visual delirium in any one shot-collage may include images within images within images. "Sex and text, flesh and literature," Greenaway has mused of the film, "the two simulations in life that can be, sooner or later, guaranteed to excite and please." This may seem a dodgy rationale for linking the erotic and the calligraphic. What is "simulation" about sex except in a movie? But the pic becomes more persuasive the more it strays from other people's logic into its hieratic, hermetic own.
For Greenaway, the artist is both giver and receiver, voluptuary and victim. A work that is both agony and ecstasy to conceive is then, with agony and ecstasy, given away. So when the heroine Nagiko daubs her first and greatest love Jerome (Ewan McGregor) with ideograms, and sends him as a living manuscript to her father's gay ex-publisher, the sensual sacrifice soon becomes ultimate. Caressing his new paramour-palimpsest, the older man takes "proofreading" to new heights and depths. (Any more scenes like this and Greenaway could moonlight as erotician to the literary set.) And the boy's later suicide leads to his body being flayed and paginated to make life and art, or death and art, one.
Greenaway's camera insists on
that oneness. Like a pictorial encyclopedia, the film composes page-by-page
bouquets out of word and painted image and photograph. When Jerome and Nagiko make love, Japanese
erotic prints appear in tiny cartouches
in lower frame. When Nagiko is writing her pillow book, the ideograms
escape to fly all over the screen. (This power-of-the-pen image is
coincidentally duplicated in Bertolucci's
Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, a romance set on the edge of the world, is also about the closed language of human love and the higher truths revealed when it is broken open by tragedy.
Von Trier's own language gets simpler by the movie. In this linear yarn filmed on location in Skye, Zentropa fans may miss the old techno-wackiness: the surreal back-projections, color-and-monochrome mixings, trompe-l'oeil sequence shots à la Kane. But in Waves as in The Kingdom, von Trier's brilliant and macabre TV soap, the director's visionary side still thrives. Even with a wobbly handheld camera and a few orange-to-sepia variations on plainest monochrome, he is modern cinema's answer to Edvard Munch.
Here he airdrops into the Scottish isles to film the romance between a Swedish oil-rig worker (Stellan Skarsgard) and an elflike local virgin (Emily Watson). It's a harsh place. The clouds bear down on the crags; the silence bears down on the sea; and the Calvinist elders, who have cobwebs in their brains and probably birds nesting in their beards, bear down on everything and everyone. So when Jan is paralyzed by a rig accident and tries to give Bess the gift of freedom and new love, telling her to "go with other men," we see calamity coming.
What we don't see is where it will come from. Von Trier gives his heroine so many seemingly contradictory facets that we'd think no actress could make the role work. She's quickwitted and commonsensical; at the same time she's a schizophrenic who supplies both voices in her frequent duologues with God in the church – high and squeaky for her, James Earl Jones (sort of) for Him. She's a demure waif; then again, she's hungry for her first taste of sex, demanding it straight after the wedding, right there in the church hall bathroom. Later still, though she's terrified of the island's beard-and-cassock religious mafia, she blithely dons lipstick, stockings, and thigh-length skirt for her nightly sallies into promiscuity.
Newcomer Emily Watson plays her, simply and inspiredly, as if there were no contradictions. She takes Bess's love for Jan as the throughline, one that explains every stress and serenity. And since von Trier's docudrama camera style, with its plans-séquences often whirring through 360 degrees, means that every actor has to be "on" all the time – just like Robby Müller's virtuoso, no-shelter lighting – an alert and luminous truthfulness takes over every part of both her character and those around her.
The circling style turns another potential contradiction into a symbiosis: that between the movie's no-escape tragic plot and its round-earth view of human emotion and motivation. Honed by popcorn cinema, our instinct to type-cast characters makes us expect Bess to be the heroine-in-jeopardy while Jan is the brute-on-the-offing. But neither conforms. He is the one ravished by fate while she marches on to scandalize the frail and faithful. Love, says the film, makes the world go "round" in every sense. It extends the curvature of human experience and insight; it helps opposites to blend into a planetary wholeness.
The movie's leitmotif images are as shrewdly integrated as its acting and camerawork. Von Trier divides his story into five sections, each introduced by a title over a still landscape shot. (Actually the colors and shadings change subtly during these long-held tableaux, as if the scenery were undergoing a furtive time lapse.) The tinted pictures of soaring crag or sparkling sea hint at the elemental-emotional mood of the ensuing segment. But these frontispiece images, which could come from a Victorian-edition Walter Scott novel were it not for the pop songs skittishly overlaid (David Bowie, Leonard Cohen), also spoof the kind of great-novel fatalism that never quite locks in here.
Von Trier's touch is too prankish for that. He probably knew he was treading Michael Powell territory in this tale of love versus repression in socking scenery (Gone to Earth meets Black Narcissus), so he gives us supporting characters bent towards comedy – the preposterous priests, Skarsgard's exaggeratedly macho, beer-clinking mates – and a central image of high-decibel Powellian kitsch: the church steeple that has lost its bells. No prizes for intuiting this landmark's symbolic import, vis-à-vis Jan's accident and its effect on his manhood. Von Trier, though, has a wonderful payoff in store: the bells make a final appearance in a closing shot of apocalyptic ingenuity, one that unites the temporal and spiritual, the erotic and transcendent, the sublime and parodic.
Von Trier won the
second-highest honor the filmfest bestows, the Special Grand Jury Prize at
Here was another
The holy writ about Mike Leigh used to be that his films were too British to travel. All those constipated emotions, expressed if at all in surreal Anglo-Saxon stammerings and slang. "I wouldn't know 'im if 'e stood up in me soup," says one character of another, in a hit expression that soon ran round the Croisette. Words, though, in Secrets and Lies are often the chaff people throw up to deflect or camouflage Exocet emotions. The real and universal battles are those fought in the tics and silences of people's faces. The greatest scene in Leigh's film is the unflinching ten-minute take of Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste revealing all to each other, while saying scarcely a thing, at a café table. Leigh just lights the fuse and stands back to watch the slow but perfect explosion of gasps, shrugs, sniffles, blank looks, and climactic eye-dilations.
In Drifting Clouds Aki Kaurismäki proves himself
Leigh's Siamese, or Symbionese, twin. This is the Finn's finest movie since Ariel and The Match Factory
Girl, and, like them, a
As the couple trek through
In this form Kaurismäki is
With northern European cinema
operating at full bore, and Danny Boyle's Trainspotting outstreaking
all the noncompetitive films in the 26-strong Main Selection, we hardly
But even that may change next
I require more champagne.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1996 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.