by Harlan Kennedy



War is Hell. Cannes is Heaven. 24-hour-a-day moviegoing is Purgatory. (Or can be). The 2004 Côte d’Azur junket had it all: the good, the bad and the in-between. As Jean-Luc Godard anticipated in his own gift to the 57th festival, NOTRE MUSIQUE, we in the fifth month of the fourth year of the third millennium AD are replaying Dante’s Divine Comedy. Or so it often felt in this sunny southern-French spot, sited between embattled hemi-demi-semispheres (while brightly, rightly insisting that art must go on as usual) . 

The world is not at war: only bits of it. Yet it sure feels global. At Cannes the European premiere of TROY seemed effulgently up-to-the-minute, with its tale of drawn-out strife, bloody, sullied and fitfully heroic, in a land eastward of the Mediterranean. Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11 was a blast from the frontline, exploding out from late-late news in Iraq to both the semi-distant past – the family history of Bush/Bin Laden entente – and the near future of an impending US presidential election. And a swift audit of a dozen other movies, from Patricio Guzman’s SALVADOR ALLENDE to Heinz Weingartner’s THE EDUKATORS (first German film in the Cannes competition for eleven years) to Emir Kusturica’s LIFE IS A MIRACLE to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s TROPICAL MALADY (first Thai film in competition ever), proves that the entire world is obsessed with conflict. From the crimson skyline of the rising sun to the blood-dipped horizons of the west.

Godard will win no new converts with NOTRE MUSIQUE. The film is about as coherent as a crackling last message left on a field telephone by a war-crazed soldier. But that may be why it feels so brilliantly a propos.

First we get the opening battle montage, a long uncommentated delirium of clips from war footage actual and fictional (from Holocaust to Hollywood). Then the pic composes itself – sort of – into a set of passing exchanges between philosophical voyageurs sans bagages. They include Jean-Luc himself, looking a little older, a little greyer, a little more mischievously vatic. And they try to solve the problems of Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, of Marxism and Capitalism, of peace and war....

You get the picture. And even if you don’t, the picture gets you. Godard has never got old. It’s just we who have regressed to infancy. With our need for simple stories, for bread-and-circus narratives in the Spielbergo-Cameronian age, we are forgetting the lessons the old New Wave taught us: that a tale told the ‘wrong way round’, with its ideas determining its plot structure instead of vice versa, can teach us more than ABC what-nextery.

Thailand’s fascinating TROPICAL MALADY is no easier on the braincells. The gay romance depicted between a soldier and a country boy is already prone to structural hiccups in the first half. Song interludes; a wordless sequence of a boy – the boy? – walking naked through forests.  Then midway, reality surrenders to fable. Unconditionally. In a series of word-captioned tableaux vivants, like picture-book pages gone filmic, Character A (the soldier) is reincarnated as a camouflaged Everyman hunting a mysterious prey, who appears to be Character B (as naked boy, then as tiger) through the midnight thickets of a jungle. Is the prey, the monster, actually himself? Are we all seeking to devour the objects of our desire, after filling them with our own memory systems and identities? (Is that what war is about as well as love?)

And did someone say Dante?  “Halfway through life I found myself in a dark forest”. Of course Cannes isn’t a dark forest. It’s more a tourist hot spot filled with champagne light where happy, crazy people try to set the world to rights by making and seeing movies.  Et in Arcadia ego. And to Latinise further – with thanks to Virgil – Armani virumque cano. Dressed in the best from Emporio Giorgio, the suit-wearer’s passport to a world united, I strode happily into battle. (And indeed into restaurants. It’s amazing what being dressed by Armani can do for your unofficial credit rating in European eateries).         

War and art. Art and war. Among the films addressing conflict topics, directly or obliquely, many fearlessly raised the banner with the bold device “Art is Bliss”. Kusturica’s latest flick orders you to be optimistic with its very title. LIFE IS A MIRACLE. Even in war-battered Bosnia, a villager can fall in love with the in-house girl hostage he’s supposed to surrender in exchange for his son. And even around this troubled oasis of passion, a happier corona of activity can fizz into being, in shape of funny animals (including a lovelorn donkey) and crazy musical groups (the director’s own No Smoking Band) and lots of perpetuum mobile comic life suggesting that this village’s patron saint is St Vitus.

The Serbian two-time Golden Palm winner was reproved by some for filtering a cruel war through a rosy viewfinder. But outlaw optimism and what else do we have to live for? The French loved the movie. It probably reminded them, with its garish colours, escapist expressionism and sky-navigating flying reveries, of Chagall. Kusturica, at best, always does.

Art is bliss? Well, it is, isn’t it? Especially great art, a peak that one filmmaker at Cannes is now fast approaching. China’s Wong Kar-Wai makes movies on the usual subjects: war and peace, love and hate, humanity and inhumanity. But 2046, his 4-years-in-the-making latest, has the cosmic, godly view that separates immortal cinema from mortal. What’s the difference? Well: Kusturica shows people flying, Wong Kar-Wai actually flies.

For ten minutes, admittedly, we wonder if we’re still stuck in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. That was Wonky’s last Cannes preemer. Here is Tony Leung again, Chinafilm’s Mr Charisma, glad-eyeing a sequence of swoonily lit women in a hotel timewarped, seemingly, in the Technicolor 50s.  (The story theoretically unfolds in late-60s Singapore and Hong Kong). Leung looks more like Clark Gable than ever: handsome cowlick, ladykill moustache, puckered smile blending wry gallantry with rueful melancholy. But the films is more than a multi-storey romance stopping at different floors as Leung puts the moves on lovelorn courtesan Zhang Ziyi and aging but glamorous casino groupie Gong Li, in between counselling landlord’s daughter Faye Wong in the conundrums of love. Leung plays a writer doodling a sci-fi story – conjured in digital vignettes – about a train that travels to year 2046 where humans can recapture their lost memories. No one can escape. Or none but one. That’s the hero-writer himself: determined to free his time-locked happiness, imprisoned in the memory of a long-ago love, in a hotel room hapfully numbered 2046, a love that sealed off his heart ‘forever’, if he’s unlucky, from other passions....

So it’s just a tragic love story, you’ll say. Puccini plus Sternberg. WATERLOO ROAD meets LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. If not, what else is it about?

For starters it’s about Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. Wong’s lenser has his finest hour (two hours). The imagery is jawdropping. Doyle sluices colour, radiance and iridesence through the handful of sets; he bestows chameleon hues, sheens and textures on ‘plain’ rooming-house walls; he half-curtains the widescreen opulence of some shots in black; he refracts and facets others in such a way that we seem to be peering through jewelled eye-glasses.

And what’s it all for? It’s for conveying the heart and mind of a man trapped in his own hall of reflections. His own memory maze. Where romance and beauty are doomed to be referential, to gaze out only in duplicated lustre while real love exists as the never-seen but always-remembered....

Music in this movie goes with the mood and message: a plush and plangent super-kitsch, echoes of nostalgic echoes – from Callas crooning ‘Casta Diva’ to Como drooling ‘Chestnuts Roasting on a Open Fire’ – while exotic distanciation is further imposed by the captions that formally interrupt the narrative, as if they are quotes from the hero’s phantom novel. (“He began to sense a horror in the affair....”).

This is what great cinema is about. A story comprehensible predominantly in its imagery; where words and sounds are footnotes and haunting echoes, auxiliary but secondary; where the invited filmgoer prises open the door to a new world, recognizable yet different, like the mysterious shape, seen at beginning and end, that guards the portals of this tale. Is it a giant shell? Is it a jewelled oyster? Is that an eye in its centre? When a love story, in its infinite verticality, meets a science fiction story, with its infinite horizontal reach rearward and forward, anything is possible. Which is probably why Wong Kar-Wai picked this collision of genres.

It won My Private Bundle of Gold award and should surely have won the Golden Palm. Years ago Quentin Tarantino, who had just started out as the wild man of Wonderland, California, helped to release the very movie that made Wonky’s name. CHUNGKING EXPRESS. Just shows: a great pulp-fictioner could pick ‘em, though for some reason he didn’t pick this one.

Elsewhere, Tarantino put himself about to good effect. Not a man to sequester himself in smoke-filled rooms – unless it’s gunsmoke and he’s clearing up dead bodies – Quent went everywhere. To the thrill of gossip hacks ogling a new romantic ‘item’, Sofia Coppola was often at his side, not least at the Z CHANNEL showing. How she and he and we in the audience giggled to watch QT go ape on screen. He was one of Xan Cassavetes’s interviewees in this Sundance-hailed docu-hit about a cine-seer, suicide and legendary cable channel programmer.

Tarantino at this fest was grace itself. He suffered the shutterbugs to come unto him. He gave the press corps an easier time than they could remember with any previous Palme d’Or pontiff. He sat in on KILL BILL 2 the Euro-premiere and later THE COMPLETE KILL BILL (240 mins). And he sat back for two days while another Ugly American became news all over the Croisette, indeed the populated world. Michael Moore.

FAHRENHEIT 9/11, Moore’s avidly awaited exercise in Bush-whacking, filled so many screening-rooms to bursting, in the main festival building, that people were all but falling out through ventilation grilles. (There are no windows in the ‘Bunker’s hinterland). If they had, after a white-knuckle trip through serpentining airducts, they would have fallen into another auditorium showing the same movie.

There were as many vertical levels of simultaneous FAHRENHEIT 9/11 screenings as there were serial vertical levels in ancient Troy  (coming up next). The movie too is multi-level. Moore’s 2-hour jeremiad against the White House’s Iraq adventurer smokes, hisses and crackles after its initial explosion has done its work. The first hour is brilliant docu-terrorism. It sets its blasts under the Bush/Bin Laden fiscal and familial links. It wires a satirical detonator to Bush’s floundering public appearances, not least his paralysed facial and body language at the primary school where he heard the 9/11 news. (“Mr Bush just sat there reading MY PET GOAT....”. Quite a challenging read for him!).

If the Moore mastery weakens a little in the second half, it’s because a misbegotten war is its own harshest critic. What could the filmmaker add to the daily news bulletins from Bahgdad or Falluja – fresh each morning with our French croissants – which upstaged anything a hellfire political counter-preacher could do with tape, editing scissors and voice-over verbal poundings? Quite a bit, actually, given this man’s determined inventiveness. And hooray, the movie got the 2004 Golden Palm, only the second documentary to do so in Cannes history, the first being Jacques Cousteau’s THE SILENT WORLD (1956).

Moore of course was mobbed. It’s a weird world, but lovable, when an unshaven fatso in baseball cap, sports shirt and shin-length khaki short gets stormed by more fans, on a midnight Croisette stroll, than gather screaming by the Palais steps for such as Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Julie Andrews (all SHREK 2), Charlize Theron (THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS), Tom Hanks (THE LADYKILLERS) or Brad Pitt.

Well, exempt Brad. He did cause hysteria. Not just at the tapis rouge but at the TROY press conference. The hysteria was international. “Question for Brad,” “Question pour Monsieur Pitt,” “I woo’ like to hask Senyor Peet theese question”, “Ah so, Bradpitt-san!, I have question as follows....”

Wolfgang Petersen, Eric Bana and Brian Cox, also attending, might as well have been smiling waxworks. Brad flashed blue eyes, dimpled his cheeks with each smile, scratched his stubble-blond hair, showed his extensive knowledge of anthropology, archaeology and geography – “Troy is in Turkey” (to someone asking if it was in Albania) – and confirmed the screenwriter’s assertion that there is no mention in Homer that Patroclus, Achilles’s ‘cousin’ in the movie, was Achilles’ gay lover. In short Pitt turned everyone in the room into snowmelt, even those who had arrived with a deep-frozen contempt for TROY. (Still, Patroclus is Achilles’s lover).

Whaddyado? Some folk just have the magic. Here’s another: Gael Garcia Bernal. The Mexican hearththrob, starring in two Cannes crowdpullers, Pedro Almódovar’s BAD EDUCATION and Walter Salles’s MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, had been on my flight to Nice. This alone was enough to get me invited to eighteen dinners thrown by wealthy Cote d’Azur matrons. “And what was Gael like...?”, “Did you sit near him...?” “Are his eyes a melting shade of brownish-blue...?” “Is Troy in Albania...?” (sorry, wrong dinner).

These two pix prove that the Force is with Latin cinema as we move towards 2005. In the Pedro pic, Gael plays the cross-dressing brother of a transexual ex-child-abuse victim who (Gael, that is) gets amorously involved with both the brother’s former schoolhood lover and the formerly abusing priest-teacher. On another narrative level (there are as many as Troy) a movie-within-the-movie, or rather a movie-encircling-the-movie, is turning all this into high-style screen melodrama as we watch.

Wild or what? For Almódovar it’s show business as usual. So is his ability to paint a swimming pool as if it were a Hockney masterpiece, to texture sets for emotional meaning and symbolic enrichment (dig the crazy-tiled look of a crazy-tiled character’s Madrid mews pad) and to strip his characters both literally and metaphorically when the narrative heat turns up.

In MOTORCYCLE DIARIES Gael Garcia Bernal plays Ernesto Guevara in 1952, before the 23-year-old Argentinian medical student won his nickname ‘Che.’ (And several years before he met Fidel, changed Caribbean history and became a T-shirt). He and a pal tour South America on a truth-based field trip to investigate diseases continent-wide, including leprosy.  As one does.

They rev, roar, sputter, push and finally walk – every motorbike has its last day – all the way to Colombia, after Salles has toured them through scenery to die for in Chile and Peru. The visual climax is the famous Mayan plateau surrounded by supercrags where Aztec panpipes on the soundtrack, as if under the distant telepathic influence of Tony Bennett, seemed to be whiffling “I lost my heart, in Macchu Picchu...”. The political subtext of Salles’s film is clumsily served up. Guevara meets a succession of dispossessed peasants and peons, all but carrying placards saying “We are the poor and persecuted and you are the future guerrilla messiah of Latin America.” But the landscapes are beautiful. So is the acting.

Real-life characters are great to meet at a filmfest, whether impersonated on screen or immanent in the flesh. How numinous to meet Max Von Sydow. Here in Cannes to give an acting masterclass, the avatar of Ingmar Bergman, the ‘Exorcist’, the Christ 40 years before Mel Gibson, and the man who made three days of the condor seem 362 days too few – that was a thriller one could have watched for a continuous year – spoke from his spiritual diaphragm.

In that deep voice made of melted chocolate and broken glass he presented an hour of insights. Into the how, why, wherefore of the thesping art, from the profound to the pragmatic. The key to any character, he said – at any point in any play or movie – was to know what he wanted.  “’I want, I want, I want’ should be the actor’s mantra,” rasped the mage. “The drama is the drama of conflicting needs and desires.”

On the practical side, always speak a line after you make your gesture. So (pointing imperiously to the exit sign): “Get the hell out of here!” cries Sydow. We are momentarily so alarmed that we almost do. Then Sydow repeats it the other way round, after a few remarks about the speechmaking ineptitude of politicians. We suddenly see that if “Get the hell out of here!” is followed by the raised arm and pointing finger, the gesture is forced and phony. It seems a posturing afterthought. Light is suddenly shed on the incidence of the ridiculous in the rhetoric of folks like – well, to name the name again – George Dubya Bush. (Now I must wash my mouth out with soap again).

Back in the land of darkness we call moviegoing, the fest was whirling to its climax. And just when we had begun thinking that Cannes 2004 was a little weak on the very art Von Sydow had apostrophised – acting – a horde of histrionic view-halloos were suddenly hurled at us from the screen.

·        CLEAN. Hong Kong diva Maggie Cheung, who was Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep, plays the heroin-hooked heroine of the French regisseur’s latest. A popworld dropout recovering from an OD’d hubby’s death, Cheung’s character tries to kick the drug habit while auditioning for (a) a job and (b) the return of her fostered-out son. The little boy’s grandpa-in-law Nick Nolte doesn’t want to let him go. Cheung, now Europe-based, doesn’t intend to give him up. Heigh-ho, we’re into a moral battle of wills as subtle, steely and ocean-straddling as a Henry James novel. Will Megs win Cannes Best Actress? Yup. She will.

·        THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS. Geoffrey Rush ‘is’ the British goon turned millionaire prey of charlatan clairvoyants, overbearing mothers and serial wives. Poor Peter Sellers. Once – as this film based on Roger Lewis’s biog shows – he all but was the Boulting Brothers, Blake Edwards and Stanley Kubrick. They were filmmakers sensible enough to surrender to this one-man show when he was on song. But ah, it all went wrong. Cue rage, tears, divorce, bad behaviour, and Brechtian alienation whoopee (with Rush playing Sellers phantasmically playing Blake, Stan and Mom). Rush is brilliant. You can’t tell him apart from either Sellers or Sellers’s creations: Strangelove, Clouseau, Chauncy Gardiner. Will he win Cannes Best Actor? Nope. Sorry.

·        THE LADYKILLERS. Well, as remakes go, it’s not a great comedy. Is it? Ealing did it better. But Coen see what you think. Star Tom Hanks was in Cannes, if they thought of handing out a guerdon to a famous Hollywoodite. And his quietly, orotundly spoken southern gen’l’man, a criminal mastermind who drawls “This is most irr-eg-ular” whenever someone is shot, stabbed or strangled in his presence, surely had a chance at Best Actor? After all, Cannes has always loved Joel and Ethan’s movies. But no. Not even shy at it. But what do you know?  Irma P. Hall (not to be confused with Irma Vep) did get a Cannes award for her portrayal of the garrulous black lady in the same film who hosts and then shops Hanks’s gang! She got a special Jury Prize for her pains, ex  aequo with, of all things, the previously mentioned Thailand movie TROPICAL MALADY. Most irr-eg-ular, but also most interesting.

In the event the Best Actor prize went to 14-year-old Yagira Yuuya in Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s NOBODY KNOWS from Japan: a fair if hardly fireworky performance in this tale of a mother-abandoned family battling to survive in Tokyo.

The Far East cleaned up the few column inches any critic had left. The Grand Jury Prize went to Chanwook Park’s mad-as-a-hatter OLD BOY from Korea: a Tarantino verdict if ever there was one. Plot concerns a man who has been incarcerated by persons unknown for 14 years and comes out to wreak a terrible revenge. If there is a limb left unlopped on screen, or a head unhammered, or a brain undamaged, it was surely an oversight.

Violence is more stylised in Zhang Yimou’s sumptuous HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS. Shown noncompetitively, it was ineligible for prizes. But it wins My Private Bundle of Silver award. Zhang offers al fresco coups de cinema to complement compatriot Wong Kar-Wai’s domestic dazzlements in 2046. Duels, dances, battles, and aerial combat scenes atop bamboo trees that for balletic panache equal CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

I personally left Cannes after leaping from top to top of the palm trees along the Croisette, distributing my messages of thanks and felicitation to a well-conducted festival, presided over as ever – for the appreciative press corps – by the gracious Christine Aimé.

At the city limits I turned back one last time to the sight of gleaming bay and seafront lined with colourful festival posters. Making sure my gesture preceded my utterance, as tutored by Max von Sydow, I waved it in loving valediction and exclaimed, in the words made immortal by General MacArthur and Governor Schwarzenegger, “Je reviens!







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.