Trainspotting Review











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. Cannes is a year off 50, but still gives us the pegged-back platinum smiles and glam­our-soaked Givenchy dresses. While the brolly-spurning stars braved la pluie to enter a first-night movie dangerously called Ridicule, we umbrella'd watchers below felt as if we'd wandered into For­eign Correspondent. Was fate's gunshot about to ring out in the guise of a thundercrack, declaring half a century of sybaritic film festivals to be enough? Or would this be a blip at the start of yet another twelve days' cine-ecstasy?

No, followed by yes. Next day Cannes was alive, well, and sunny, and back to its status as a self-governing time warp. As the year's keynote pix demonstrated, the world's top filmfest survives because it's all about the hypnotic collision between work and play, art and suffer­ing, drought and deluge, le sublime et le ridicule. More specifically, between the international communicability of the movie image – cinema as our friend the "universal language" – and the crazed untranslatability of the movie word.

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 garrulous Taiwan crime fable that non-Orientals could not follow even with a monsoon of subtitles. Or like Flora Gomes's Po di sangui (Tree of Blood) from Guinea-Bissau, a tale of witches, rituals, and migrating souls that, seen late-night in the Salle Debussy, is like having the Rosetta Stone for your bed­side reading. The literal screen pictures may be lingua franca: a tree, a mountain, a person. But the meanings and nuances in world cinema can be stubbornly cryp­tic, even a hundred years after the light-shedding Lumières opened the factory doors.

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 Britain's most occult movie mage. Go to the East, collect two thou­sand ideograms, do not pass Noh. Mimed as much as acted, the film offers an author-heroine (Vivian Wu) who uses her own body and then those of her lov­ers as parchment. She imbibed this pas­sion, we flashbackingly learn, from the childhood ritual in which her author father used to pen birthday greetings on her face and lips.

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 Cannes entry Stealing Beauty, in which individual words from Liv Tyler's poems flutter out surreally across the frame.) In a festival flaunting more than a few catchpenny fetishisms, culminating in the battered Buicks and leg braces of Cronenberg's Crash, The Pillow Book unites kinkiness with a per­fectly coded symbolism. It says: We Are What We Create. It also says: Every Delirious Delivery Is Its Own Kind of Death.

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 Cannes, though he didn't attend his film's showing. We were told he had travel-phobia: doesn't like planes, isn't keen on trains. So he talked to the press by long-distance TV, standing on a cliff near Copenhagen. (Doesn't mind precipices.)

Here was another Cannes paradox: the richest and most elloquent movies are often made by directors unable to string two words together or reluctant to leave home to do so. Scowling under sunny skies in a dark, buttoned-to-the-neck shirt, Peter Greenaway looked like a Scottish elder lured from his ministry. And Mike Leigh and Aki Kaurismäki, who made two beautiful soul-companion movies about domestic life, brought swathes of Nordic forlornness to the Mediterranean shore. Leigh's Palme d'Or-winning Secrets and Lies, like The Pillow Book and Breaking the Waves, is about the hieroglyphy of passion and obsession. We laugh or gasp at what we don't understand, which shows that deep down we probably do understand it. Farce and tragedy fight for custody of a plot about an unmarried working-class white woman (Brenda Blethyn, winning the Best Actress prize) who finds that the daughter she gave away for adoption long ago – presumably sight unseen – is black. The now twentysomething oph­thalmologist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) reenters her life, only to find that the entire extended family lives with secrets and lies, with skeletons in closets and niggers – metaphorically speaking – in woodpiles.

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 Leningrad Cowboy-free zone with a bare domestic plot and dripfeed dialogue: Pinter deliv­ered by the cast of a Bresson film in a language that, like Leigh's, we don't need to understand. The wife loses her job as maître d' in a dowdy old-fash­ioned restaurant. The husband is laid off as a bus driver. And that's about it as plot. For dialogue, the only line you need remember is spoken by the hero's drinking pal: "Life is short and misera­ble, so let's make the most of it."

As the couple trek through their Hel­sinki days and nights looking for work, the film's charm and strength are its rapt Sunday-painter naïveté. Scenes are blocked out in bold mood-indicating colors, mostly blue. (On several occa­sions characters are actually painting the walls while we watch.) Faces are fro­zen as if posing for a portrait or pass­port photo, in slanting light that picks out each pore and blemish. Emotional metaphors are made literal, as when the husband manifests his moral collapse by keeling over senseless on the hall carpet. Twice. And the camera moves scarcely more than the characters, or than the hypnotized audience.

In this form Kaurismäki is Europe's finest primitive since Fassbinder. The few spoken words in the film fly straight off into the ether, much like the escaped alphabets of Greenaway or Bertolucci, and we are left looking at human lives in all their bare, entranced, tragicomic wholeness.

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 missed Hollywood at all. Of only three U. S. competition pix, none save the sly, funny Forgo caused a flutter at the bet­ting shops (Joel Coen duly won Best Director). Altman's Kansas City and Spike Lee's Girl 6 both came in the "Hmm, well. . . . " category. Tinseltown hasn't died, of course – it has just relo­cated; festwise, it now sets its bags down in Berlin and Venice.

But even that may change next year when Cannes toasts its 50th event. Invi­tations are already going out to great and good, from Spielberg downwards (will The Lost World be the opening film?). In addition, each day of the '97 junket will feature a special tribute to a differ­ent movie master. In further addition, fireworks will go off and banquets will be held. If there is any proper sense of hoopla, we'll surely also have one of those giant birthday cakes, out of which will pop Debbie Reynolds or Robert Bresson, or fest director Gilles Jacob: any one of those people who have made movie life worth living for the last half-century.

I require more champagne.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.