10 May 2005 – 2:40 P.M. EST

10 May 2005 – 2:40 P.M. EST





by Harlan Kennedy


At night the sky fizzes with stars like celestial champagne bubbles. By day a different brand of stars – human stars – whoosh up a famous red staircase, uncorked from limos, effervescing for the paparazzi, happy to intoxicate those ever-faithful consumers known as the Cannes crowd.

It is easy to get drunk at Cannes without touching a drop of alcohol. You just quaff the sidereal showmanship. And at the slightest hint that the fizz might be flattening during the quinzaine – actually 12 days but at Cannes even time gets hyped and carbonated – the management lays on a firework display.  More stars, pyrotechnical, are sent rocketing into the sky to crackle, fizz and glitter. 

At this year’s festival stars even featured in the title of the biggest movie: STAR WARS PART III: THE REVENGE OF THE SITH (And I hadn’t even known that Mr SITH was angry, let alone vengeful.  Still you live and…so on). The virtual whole of Constellation Lucas – a cluster usually found in a galaxy north of San Francisco – descended upon Cannes and premiered their film on one of the biggest screens in Europe. The SITH hit the fans big time. Lucasites were bowled over, knocked senseless and generally ravished (“Is that a light sabre or are you just pleased to see me?”) by this part of the sextet’s epic. Later, Team Lucas took off for a party on the Queen Mary 2, no less, a floating Babylon lying at anchor just beyond the bay, resembling a twin sister of the mighty, steepling-tiered ‘Bunker’, as the festival palais is affectionately known.  

But you knew it was STAR WARS Night because there was a noise of amplified heavy breathing on the Palais steps. This was supposed to be Darth Vader. The sound was created by something resembling a giant vacuum machine tended by white-coated minions. It could have been scary if you were two streets away and didn’t have a notion what the sound was. You might have thought that some cosmic heavy breather – possibly God Himself, playing a prank – had put himself on speakerphone from the beyond.

But isn’t that what life in 2005 is like?

Are we not at the mercy of ominous destinies; of sinister kismets preparing acoustics of doom; of a world in which history is showing every sign of evading human control. We certainly are if you believed the most reverberant early movies in the competition.

These were Michael Haneke’s HIDDEN, Lars Von Trier’s MANDERLAY and Gus Van Sant’s LAST DAYS.  Praised by many, they each shook a glittering small-change of stars all over the critics’ charts in the daily trade magazines, those zodiacs of what must be seen. Each film suggests that even in the third millennium AD, after enough revolutions (industrial, cultural, scientific) to have created umpteen Utopias here on Planet Earth, we are still a frightened lot cowering sub specie aeternitatis. And we need all the help from great artists and filmmakers that we can get.

Cynics will say that’s why they paint the gloom so thick. Art is a protection racket. It offers us insurance from terrors of art’s own devising – or at least its own exaggerating. HIDDEN suggests we in the West are all at the mercy of guilty conscience attacks. Hence the fright with which married couple Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche receive anonymous videos through their door: videos impassively recording the exterior of their townhouse and, later, places from Auteuil’s boyhood. Who is the surveillance spook? Why are the cassettes accompanied by childlike drawings of slashed throats or mouths coughing blood?

BENNY’S VIDEO and FUNNY GAMES proved that this French-based Austrian was fascinated by the psychopathology of the practical joke (lethal variety). THE PIANIST and TIME OF THE WOLF showed he could widen sadism into apocalyptic visions of a planet where torture – personal or political – is the last great passion. You needn’t agree with that view to admire HIDDEN, as it lures its hero on through mazes of anxiety to that final mirror where he sees his own past. Hatred, betrayal and racism are the charges. Incubated in childhood to be punished in adulthood. And the punishment can be as simple and horrific as standing in a room while the long-lost friend you once turned into an enemy draws out a pocket knife and – well, let’s just say, provides the Cannes festival’s single most terrifying image.

LAST DAYS reboots the mesmerising style and structure Gus Van Sant employed for ELEPHANT, and before that GERRY. Long tracking shots, looping narrative lines by which late scenes cross earlier ones, and a sometimes near-wordless soundtrack whose articulations lie in the unsaid. In the film’s hieratic movements and gestures the mute is made eloquent, the dumb becomes all but motormouthed.

Actually the film’s Kurt Cobain-inspired hero (Michael Pitt), a rock star in mid-burnout licking psychic scorchmarks in an up-country American Gothic mansion, talks a lot: but mainly in peripatetic, long-shot monologues that are largely inaudible. (At Cannes the French subtitles did a lot to fill us in). The film’s eloquence comes from its lyrical landscapes – the Edenic forests, streams and reed-lush marshlands that form an earthly paradise around the chateau – and the way minor characters are multi-hued beasts in this peaceable kingdom. Their strong but simple colours form the rainbow bridge on which the protagonist begins to cross over to his very own (let’s not resist the Cobain echo) nirvana.       

The picture of America in Trier’s MANDERLAY is less lyrical but no less weirdly exhilarating. Except, of course, to some American critics. Yet again, two years after DOGVILLE, they chastised the Danish director for lecturing the USA on its own history. Have they learned nothing? Don’t they know that this goads Trier to keep on doing it?!  (Number three of his Soundstage America trilogy, chronicling God’s country on a studio floor with token props and chalk marks indicating invisible scenery, will be called WASHINGTON. It will grab the formative years of US government warmly by the throat. But first Trier is taking a year or two off to do homework).

Besides, the Hanseatic helmer could argue, wasn’t there once an English-speaking playwright who poked his nose into Danish history to rather famous effect? “How dare Mr William Shakespeare expatiate on a country he has never visited” (Variety 1580 no doubt commented, under the headline “Bard Goes Danish But Fails to Bring Home Bacon”). “Mr Shakespeare has bitten off more than he can chew. This Elsinore snore is likely to be limited to small off-Globe art theaters.” 

The idiocy of these commentators is highlighted by an even perfunctory comparison between the sophistication of Trier’s two-hour essay on slavery – which has clearly been to school with Plato, Swift and Tom Paine, to name but a triumvirate of political thought – and any Hollywood treatment you care to name. Are we supposed to bow down in reverence for their insight and scholarship before MANDINGO, FREEDOM ROAD, even Spielberg’s A-for-uninspiring-effort AMISTAD?

With amazing Grace back as heroine, this time played by Bryce Dallas Howard after Nicole Kidman fled to higher things (THE STEPFORD WIVES, THE INTERPRETER), MANDERLAY spends two hours floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Make that a swarm of bees. Freeing a bunch of slaves 70 years after emancipation, in dying Lauren Bacall’s Alabama plantation, Grace tries to teach them democracy and self-determination. But since even civilised super-states haven’t got those ideals right, even in 2005 (never mind MANDERLAY’s 1933), what possible hope does well-read gangster’s daughter Grace have?

Natural disasters, from dust storms to bird attacks, spew across the stage in the miracle of UYI (Use Your Imagination), Trier’s own patented visual process. Universal suffrage on the plantation results in universal travesties of justice, including the vote for a death penalty for a food-stealer. And Grace’s interest in the innate nobility of Afro-Americans may have something to do with her interest in hunky, glistening black stud Timothy (Isaach De Bankole), who wastes no time in returning her interest with dividends.

For my money there hasn’t been a wittier film about society-building in the history of – well –  society. Add the prankish brilliance with which the film deploys its minimal décor and the superb cast – Bacall, Willem Dafoe, Danny Glover and a don’t-blink drove of cameo players including Chloe Sevigny and Jean-Marc Barr – and it is manifest that the only reason detractors have looked this gift horse in the mouth is that they think it’s a Trojan Horse. That it is some frightful plot by cine-subversives across the sea to smuggle their ruinous vision of reality inside the sacred walls of Bush’s Freedomland.

Trier topped off the whole insulting enterprise by calling the American president an “asshole” at the Cannes press conference. For, of course, the bandying of good intentions in the prosecution of a disastrous endeavour, and the use of the word ‘freedom’ in pursuit of a specious or self-interested emancipation, takes us by no long strides from MANDERLAY to Iraq, from foolish Grace to worse-than-foolish George W.

Elsewhere at Cannes, films had a weird habit of coming in twos. The Palais became Noah’s Ark, and the red carpet the gangway up which perfectly cast pairings processed. Here were two movies about fathers seeking lost sons, made by alliterative directors: Wim Wenders’ DON’T COME KNOCKING and Jim Jarmusch’s BROKEN FLOWERS. Here were two films about children more literally lost, under sail at sea or by sale on land, in Marco Tullio Giordana’s ONCE YOU ARE BORN and the Dardenne brothers’ THE CHILD. Here were two US flicks hurling graphic novels at us in a sudden mid-festival seizure of popcorn populism: Robert Rodriguez’ SIN CITY and David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.

The best of all these was the Jarmusch, the worst the Cronenberg. The man who made VIDEODROME and SCANNERS has been canoeing without a paddle for years now and this film capsizes with few survivors, least of all a dull Viggo Mortensen as the mobster trying to go straight in Smalltown, USA. Cronenberg’s mundane mise-en-scene makes the hectic rampagings of SIN CITY – pulsing music, slashing torrents of black and white, Mickey Rourke redivivus – almost seem great art.

Jarmusch deploys the surest way to delight audiences, even before they get around to the script and plot. He hires Bill Murray to be Bill Murray. The ex-ghostbuster acts today on a supernatural level of Zen impassivity. He operates barely any facial machinery except his eyes, which twitch sombrely and reproachfully at the centre of the martyred features. Murray’s demeanour is as accusing as a wounded animal’s yet also as transcendent as a saint’s. He has taken his problems, you feel, to a higher authority – to some anger management guru in the skies – so that what is left is merely, but exquisitely, the effluvium of dismay, the outward rind of disillusion.

When an unsigned letter by an unnamed mistress informs him he is about to be visited by an unseen son (the fruit of their romance), Murray ups and doorsteps all the main suspects. His national tour, by planes and maps and hired cars, is as dolefully funny as Jack Nicholson’s Winnebago odyssey in ABOUT SCHMIDT. Since the suspects include Sharon Stone (trailer trash) and Jessica Lange (“animal communicator”), the film is Jarmusch’s starriest outing ever. But it is so subtly funny, so reticent, so wittily occluded that it seems more like an art film than a mainstream comedy. 

Does Murray find his son? It depends on how you define ‘son.’ It depends on how you define ‘find’. And of course it depends on how you define Murray – as a lost soul or as a wisest, most far-seeing burnout on the planet.

You’d think Wim Wenders, collaborating on a kindred plot with PARIS, TEXAS scribe Sam Shepard, would have struck some kind of energy source here, even in the unpromising context of a German-American coproduction. Lost spirits seeking lost spirits – well, that’s a Wenders specialty, isn’t it? ALICE IN THE CITIES, KINGS OF THE ROAD, WINGS OF DESIRE….?

Yet DON’T COME KNOCKING  is a calamity. We start with the implausibility of the main character, a modern-day ‘western star’ (Sam Shepard) in an age when no one makes westerns. We transition to the teeming contradictions of a plot in which Shepard is recognized as a famous actor – a marquee myth – by everyone except his own son; even though the boy hangs out with waitress mum (Jessica Lange) in a café adorned with memento movie images. We end with so many consanguineous reunions in Butte, Montana, including a bonus daughter carrying mum’s urn of ashes (Sarah Polley) from scene to scene, that if blood isn’t thicker than water, we conclude, it can clearly imitate the same tsunami relentlessness when it wants. Shepard himself, a capable actor in small parts, is overstretched by a role that tries to be all things to all mythomanes: mainly, a macho Willy Loman mixed with the Harry Dean Stanton hero of PARIS, TEXAS.

Even in the rich chaos of the 2005 Cannes competition, no one expected the Dardenne brothers’ THE CHILD to leap up like a seal and grab – almost while no one was looking – the Golden Palm for Best Film. Six years after the frond-winning ROSETTA, with its plain but poignant tale of redemption in the streets and its handheld style suggesting Bresson gone cine-verite, the Belgian siblings judder their camera again: this time in the wake of a star-crossed boy and girl and the baby he (Jeremie Regnier), a tousle-haired petty criminal, rashly decides to sell for a ton of cash.

Not surprisingly the girl freaks. The boy, for the first time in his life, stops to think. And then the writer-directors press the “rewind for salvation” button as the plot goes into reverse to repair the seemingly irreparable. Performances are good. A climactic chase could teach lessons to Hollywood (in not over-egging a simple, headlong action-and-suspense sequence).

Yet there is too facile a pirouette at the centre of this moral dance. Can a main-chancer with no vision except immediate gain suddenly turn full circle to become a convert to far-seeing selflessness?  Isn’t the tears-and-remorse finale too facile? Wouldn’t a little more cautious plotting, a little more ambiguity and real-time rawness and irresolution, have made the Dardennes’ ascent to a still rare Cannes platform – that of two-time Palm winners – seem less a freak of judgment from a jury led by one of those very double victors, Emir Kusturica?

But this was a race you wouldn’t have risked a shirt on. From the start, and right to the finish, there were too many riders bunched together. No film found enough fame, or felt enough of a favourite, to have its name shouted and debated the length of the Croisette (like Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11 last year). The two ends of the Cannes promenade have never seemed more like two separate worlds. The air around the Bunker is thick with obscure European names, reconditely preceded by definite articles. (Have you seen “the Haneke”? What did you think of “the Trier”? Is there an extra screening of “the Giordana”?)  But the ether around the Carlton is thick only with madness and razzmatazz.

Gaudy hoardings for WAR OF THE WORLDS  – Spielberg directs Cruise! – told everyone what they were missing by burying their noses in subtitles. Limousines the length of the Ticonderoga purred past, probably on reluctant route to a tenue de soiree competition tryst. On the Carlton Terrace, fat producers clinked Kirs with so-svelte-it-hurts starlets. And across the road there was more showbiz still, as luxury launches offloaded Sharon Stone, Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Bill Murray or Tommy Lee Jones, to be ego-massaged by interviewers – right there on the dock – before their trip to the Palace of Pain and Self-Denial.

Only two of these stars, this year, bestrode both ends of the cultural spectrum that is the Croisette. Bill Murray, bringing BROKEN FLOWERS, was for 48 hours both the people’s and the critics’ darling. (Jarmusch’s film won the Grand Jury Prize after a brief honeymoon as popular favourite for Golden Palm). And Tommy Lee Jones, whose grizzled bullet-head in a tuxedo looked a bit like a giftwrapped hand-grenade, brought a directing first feature of which no one had high hopes. Yet THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA won him friends the length and breadth of Cannes. It’s a cracking modern western: the tale of an aging cowboy, played by Jones, taking epic pains to avenge a Mexican friend’s death, killed by a border patrolman (Barry Pepper) in a loose-trigger accident. 

In a blind tasting you’d think the film was Chateau Peckinpah. But Jones just takes a fine script by Guillermo Arriaga of AMORES PERROS and guides it gently but forcefully towards grandeur. Jones also took the Best Actor prize; Arriaga the Best Screenplay. If there had been a Best Cinematographer nod it would surely have gone to British lenser Chris Menges, finding a scorching beauty in the border country locations.

In the sideshows, and on the edges of the competition, there were curios galore and a few class acts. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THREE TALES makes the screen incandesce as he alone can. Jewel-bright colours pick out three stories of love set in 1966, 1911 (with silent movie intertitles) and 2005. Carlos Reygadas’s BATTLE IN HEAVEN has landscapes to die for – as in his JAPON – and makes dying itself seem a geological upheaval, vast and awesome, of the human body.

But no movie on the festival fringe cast a grander spell, or more captivating shadow, than Christi Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU. Since it won the prize for best film in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, might Romania have its first arthouse super-hit? For 2½ hours we watch with incredulous fascination as the most depressing plot in memory plays out: the dying hours of a lonely old man (So-So) stricken one night by panic, headaches and the coughing of blood. (The downing of a self-confessed “metre” of cheap brandy that evening hasn’t helped). Carted off by ambulance from his humble cat-strewn flat, after raising a health alert with neighbours, he is trundled from hospital to hospital as the clock ticks away the night and his own tenuous hold on coherence and consciousness.

With only a fiftyish woman paramedic to fight his corner, he is bombarded with lectures about his drinking plus orders to get a brain-scan, a liver scan, a biopsy and anything else a poor, failing, sixtyish flesh-machine can yield up. If the film wasn’t funny occasionally – the gum-chewing smart-aleck radiographer (“These neoplasms are Discovery Channel stuff”), Lazarescu’s own recurring astonishment at the torments a single night can invent – it would be unbearable. Instead it’s mesmerising: a reminder that even in sunny Cannes in the month of May, amid the stars and gilded palms and champagne celebrations of cinema’s annual renewal, winter lies dormant in every spring and death is curled foetus-like inside every life.

We should point out, however, that the hero doesn’t actually die at the end of this film. ‘Lazarescu’ is a name rather suggesting the opposite tendency. And many of us are looking forward to Cannes 2006 as a possible chance to renew acquaintance with a character – or at least a filmmaker – who was one of the great revelations of 2005.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.