The 51st International Film Festival


by Harlan Kennedy



AT THE 51st  Cannes Film Festival it was delirium as usual. Sun shone, birds flew, corks popped. Critics trampled each other to get into movies and only occasionally trampled each other to get out. They sang in the rain, of which there was some. They danced in the sun, of which there was plenty. Everyone was happy.

But any great event – such as a premier filmfest beginning its second half-century – has to have a moment of gravity or existential reverb. At the American Pavilion there were two. On consecutive nights they tied a yellow ribbon round the old palm trees. First the last "Seinfeld" episode was satellited down to a weeping nation-in-exile. Then an even greater M.I.A. was announced: 01' Blue Eyes.

We gasped, shook our heads, and moistly recalled the old tunes. And on the evening of his death Sinatra's voice was blared round the Salle Debussy before the skedded screening of Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole: whereon that austere Taiwanese helmer, who favors films about people dying of surreal inanition, seemed to catch the mood. His Beckettish yarn about neighbor apartment-dwellers bonding weirdly during a monsoon season – you never saw so much rain outside a Ridley Scott picture – was punctuated with high-kitsch song-and-dance numbers. Sinatra would have been moved. Puzzled but moved.

This, though, was a festival with a sense of fun. Nothing could rain long on a competition that included two good Italian comedies (Nanni Moretti's Aprile, Roberto Benigni's La Vita è Bella), a pair of Danish booby-bombs, something sweet, deep, and Greek (Angelopoulos's Eternity and a Day), and a Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe) that was genuinely comical before turning genuinely tragical.

The Kennedy Theory, obtainable on all good cybernets, is that the human race has passed the point of pre-millennial anxiety and is now into a blithe, omnivorous acceptance of anything life throws at it. The charm of the characters in Loach's My Name Is Joe is that they try to engage with this new age of Zen Acquiescence even though their director first found voice in an era when the byword was Serious Radical Response. His new hero is a jobless ex-alcoholic (Peter Mullan) who falls for a health visitor (Louise Goodall) and then falls foul of old gang-land chums while trying to help a friend in debt. Twenty years ago this would have cued yards of onscreen Loach pamphleteering about the state's responsibility for the state of things and the individual's responsibility to pressure the state. Today Loach offers a different thesis: There is no simple answer to the mess Joe is in. He put himself there, and the nexus of cause and ill-effect is too intricate to solve with a political fiat. In addition, the film's limber realism – seamless cutting-on-movement, serendipitous reaction shots, telephoto lenses that flatten group scenes into egalitarian human frescoes – would fight tendentiousness even if Paul Laverty's screenplay (leagues ahead of his script for Carla's Song) didn't. Performances are terrific from an unknown cast unlikely to stay unknown, especially Mullan, who copped Best Actor prize.

The new positivism at Cannes also showed in a readiness to tackle previously taboo themes. Rape, pedophilia, incest: you name it, it was served up to the folk in tuxes and Givenchy dresses. Denmark was chief épateur to the bourgeoisie with two pix from the Lars von Trier – headed "Dogma 95" group. (This manifesto outlaws such middle-class no-nos as studio sets, camera tripods, artificial lighting, and directors who sign their own movies.)

So we had von Trier's own Idiots, a scabrously funny ensemble piece about commune-dwelling hoaxers who sally into the streets – or restaurants or museums – pretending to be insane. (The auteur hewed to his Dogma by not turning up at the press conference.) And before that we had Thomas Vinterberg's equally raw black comedy Celebration (Festen), which won a Special Jury Prize for its pains. A family reuniting at the ancestral pile for Dad's 60th birthday trades formality for dysfunctionalism, sanity for quarrelsome delirium. The first toast is toast almost before it is drunk. Son confronts father with his (Dad's) history of bisexual child abuse, blaming him, among other things, for a sister's recent suicide. The film is like Chekhov reworked by the Marquis de Sade. We hardly know which tormenter to side with as masks are ripped and social faces flayed. As subplot to the parent-child conflict we also have a workout for racism, with a systematically humiliated black guest. The audience watches agog, its only dark suspicion being that the whole movie is shaped and motivated by the number of titillating no-go areas Vinterberg can think up.

Each Danish offering had giddying handheld visuals – watching was like stepping into a rickety rowboat without even the safety of a taboo-proof lifejacket. Especially in Idiots. As well as an orgy scene whose "penetration shot" has already caused Copenhagen censors to keel over, crying out for akvavit or the works of Calvin, the film uses cruelty as a stalking-horse for truth.

Von Trier's picture of mental illness and our response to it is both funny and cauterizingly perceptive. First we giggle guiltily at waiters or shoppers discombob­ulated by pseudo-spastic pranksters. Then we grin more nervously at the scene where one scam artist is cornered in a public toilet by suspicious Hell's Angels (we fear a replay of the Ving Rhames comeuppance in Pulp Fiction). Finally we cringe in sympathetic embarrassment when the group's most likable, gullible female conscript "takes her work home" and tries it on a husband and family recovering from a recent bereavement.

Von Trier and Vinterberg come out on the side of the good – mercy and decency to those who deserve it, justice to those who don't. But they give the Devil a fair crack of the tail, too. The racy, maverick style of their cinema is suited to a vision of earth in which hypocrisy can run but cannot hide, and Heaven and Hell take turns at the time-share.

When the Danes had finished their iconoclasm, in came two Americans with satiric pickaxes. In Happiness and Velvet Goldmine the Todds Solondz and Haynes showed that it is (a) good to be gay, (b) okay to be sex-obsessed, and (c) – though only Solondz went on to (c) – even worthy of sympathetic understanding to be a pedophile shrink (Dylan Baker) hopelessly drawn to drugging and deflowering your son's male friends.

The Givenchy crowd didn't have to sit through Happiness. It showed in the 30th anniversary Directors Fortnight, proving that three decades after this counter-show was inaugurated by les événéments de '68 it still puts its choice of film where its radical mouth is. Solondz's movie is a Short Cuts for liberals with deep lungs. When not actually gasping – count the shots of flying semen – you need deep draughts of air to stay on the mountain heights of the director's mischievous tolerance. That he's funny as well as evangelistic in its plea for more open minds and hearts is almost too much to take in at one climbing.

Velvet Goldmine is loud and likable, but less integrated. Nostalgia is on overtime here. Must we go back yet again to the glam-rock early Seventies? Heels, glitter, flared trousers, and permissiveness without tears – it's like Austin Powers on acid. Still: the music's nice, Ewan McGregor is good as a bleached-blond rocker, Toni Collette better as a freelance music moll, and whenever Haynes finds a moment of true fairy-tale regression – camera panning down through stars, mythomanic nods to Kane's style of High Investigative Baroque – he is back at the pitch of Poison.

Ideally you need footnotes for a movie like this. You need them also for two other eye-grabbing films that plunder "real" cultural history. John Maybury's Love Is the Devil turns painter Francis Bacon, entertainingly but aberrantly, into a fairy queen of slaughterhouse Fauvism. Derek Jacobi sprays the camp bons mots around more as if auditioning for "Oscar Wilde, the abattoir years" than playing the haunted visionary who painted hallu­cinatory Popes and dripping-carcass nudes. Different and more controlled is Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, shown in the Cannes Market. Here Sir Ian McKellen plays James Whale, beached in Beverly Hills and battening on a hunky gardener (Brendan Fraser). Time, the mid-Fifties; style, BBC biopic. McKellen cuts a sweet, sly, sad figure as the silver-topped Frankenstein director reminiscing on his rise and fall, and Lynn Redgrave steals every kitchen scene as a crusty, slattern-haired "Vot you vant eat, Meester Vayle?" German housekeeper.

Even the rubbish at Cannes this year was lively. Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas burned retinas and broke decibel records. Alexei Guerman's Khoustaliov, My Car!, a political satire from Russia, was like escaped early Dick Lester. (Some of the audience escaped early, too). And Patrice Chereau's Ceux qui m aiment prendront le train is two hours of multicharacter confusion leavened by pop-up cameos from Vincent Perez and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

FILM FESTIVALS TEACH a great lesson. The more exuberant the movies, the more exuberant the world around them. Art doesn't imitate life, it infects it. So obviously two high-enchantment Italian comedies in mid-fest, RobertoBenigni's Life Is Beautiful (La Vita è Bella) and Nanni Moretti's Aprile, would create conditions for a Felliniesque epiphany on the Croisette.

It happened like this. On Monday, Benigni unveiled his commedia dell'arte take on The Great Dictator. Very funny in its first hour, with the director-star playing a waiter who puts his foot in it all over Mussolini's Italy. And far more bearable than booers suggested even in its concentration camp finale. Ten good persons and true agreed with me, giving it the Grand Jury Prize.

On Tuesday, Moretti took the five­year dustsheets off his career with a Dear Diary-ish auto-biopic about his travails as a father and filmmaker. Slow and a touch ramshackle, the movie is still irresistible whenever the comedian-auteur is on screen, suggesting as ever an El Greco saint who has strayed into the age of urban stress.

Then, soon after this double whammy, the whole Croisette went crazy-Italian. An Amarcord-style ocean liner glittered into the night bay, causing heads to turn, musical gasps to fill the air, and all the photos of Federico Fellini in the Palais to smile indulgently. ("Miracolo!" cried witnesses.) Although the ship itself wasn't Italian – it was the SS France, rented for the festival climax like a tuxedo – it was still the world's biggest working liner and it caused people to realize two things. One, all the world's a movie. Two, all the cinema's a voyage.

So the festival bowed out with two very similar films, a Theo Angelopoulos pic and Godzilla. Both make the point that what comes from the sea must go back to the sea, although the Greek director does it with Bruno Ganz and two hours of poetic stasis while Roland Emmerich does it with a monster, 8 million extras, and enough computer power to light up New York.

I liked Theo's version. It won a long-awaited Palme d'Or for a veteran who has been enigmatizing Cannes now for 25 years. In Eternity and a Day the cumbrous symbolism of some early films has been jettisoned for a game of lyric free association. Ganz's dying poet-in-exile meets all his younger selves – disguised as every-day characters as he wanders the misty roads and streets, now befriending a young Albanian boy pining for home, now stumbling on an alfresco wedding, now visiting the decayed family mansion that stores old memories, old loves, old whispers from the past inside and the lapping sea outside.

An amazing image landmarks the movie's hinterland. A scene by the Greek-Albanian border has bodies – are they alive? dead? we can hardly tell – frozen and spreadeagled at different heights all along the tall, long wire fence. They look like human musical notes thrown onto a giant stave. But these are notes that have been silenced by history. The scene comes, goes, vanishes. Yet it tells us more about the importunate, important spaces of the political and historical unsaid than any other image at Cannes.

The film seems to have filmed itself, to have been produced by parthenogen­esis. As in life, nothing is still even when nothing seems to move. Angelopoulos's camera shifts continuously and minutely, inching onward in its contrary-motion track-zooms that seem to say, "Every pace forward is a pace back, and every retreat an advance. And the sea that wraps the globe is just the circle of birth and death to which we all belong." It was a good flick.

Actually the sea that wraps the globe also served as blue carpet on prize night to the audience and the jurors led by President Martin Scorsese. The event was set to take place – in a gesture of startling grandeur and excess (if you have a Palais des Festivals, why not throw it away?) – on the SS France. Nervous glances assured all guests that the event was not being filmed by James Cameron, although Billy Zane had been seen in town earlier, disguised with a shaven pate.

The deserving who won exchanged polite smiles with the deserving who didn't. First category included John Boorman, nabbing Best Director for his briskly anarchic yarn shot in scouring-bleach monochrome about a Robin Hood-ish supercrook The General – based on real-life Dublin crime boss Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) – and Elodie Bouchez, named Best Actress (along with co-star Natacha Regnier) in the favorite French flick The Dream Life of Angels (La Vie revée des anges). Directed by first-timer Erick Zonca, this tale of two flatmates split by one girl's amour fou for a handsome disco-slob has a zinging immediacy, and so does La Bouchez.

The deserving who didn't win included Lars von Trier, Ken Loach, and my friends the Cannes restaurateurs Madame Y and Monsieur Y-not (names changed to protect venue from overcrowding). On Sinatra night Madame Y prepared for me what she insisted was a traditional mourning dish – lemon meringue pie lapped on one side by sweet custard, on the other by a tart raspberry coulisand after tasting it, who was I to complain or question?

It seemed to sum up the whole of Cannes. Douce et amer. Colorful. Crunchy when you got to the deeper layers. And leaving an aftertaste that insists on your coming back next year to try more.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.