by Harlan Kennedy




LOSING THE PLOT has become the great artistic development in late-century cinema. Raúl Ruiz, Lynne Ramsay, Léos Carax, Werner Herzog, and Bruno Dumont all did it at Cannes, in high style. They riffed away at multi-strand, multi-character yarns where the filmmaker brings the enigmas and the audi­ence provides – or had better do – the unity.


Losing the plot is one thing. Losing the stars was the inspired addition of the 52nd International Film Festival. For once, we critics walked along the Croisette without bumping into Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, or the Spice Girls. We didn't have to make those tiring excuses:    "Lovely to see you, Tom/Julia/Posh/Scary. Can't stop now. Press show. Let's have lunch!"


The Côte d'Azur spree made a virtue of Hollywoodlessness. Who – it for once empowered itself to ask – needs these mega-cost dinosaurs? The motif was even in the poster. Up on the red-orange image stretched across the Palais like a retinal apocalypse, two silhouette stick-figures chased stars (galactic kind) with butterfly nets. No one had told these Lotte Reininger lepidopterists – or perhaps they had and the pair carried on regardless – that "the stars have all stayed in Tinseltown – they aren't coming this year." We were told that a major US studio not unconnected with Star Wars cancelled its Carlton bookings just before the fest. (See, you can always find hotel rooms.) We were told that Cannes had tried but failed to get The Phantom Menace and Eyes Wide Shut (or even promo-bits) plus stellar players.


The real star, surely, was Narrative In Crisis. Nowhere did it shine brighter than in Raúl Ruiz's Time Regained (in competi­tion), closely followed by the Brit sparkler Ratcatcher (out of competition) and astral debris from France, Germany, and Spain. Ruiz was the cherished favorite of everyone who knew his film wouldn't win the Palme d'Or, being too weird. The Chilean pres­tidigitator exults in Proust's fugacity of form. It doesn't matter if you feel, and you do, that you should have freshly reread all fifteen books for the film. After versions by Losey – Pinter (never got off the page) and Volker Schlöndorff (never came off the screen), Ruiz is the first Marcel-wave spe­cialist to make the filmframe responsive to the roman fleuve.


He doesn't just film people catwalking their costumes and delivering beaux mots. From the first scene in Proust's bedroom we are into magic lanterns, theater gauzes, and images distorted by time, hallucination, or opera lorgnettes. When the author revisits the past he does it literally, he and his chair free-floating down from a window or up from the ground. When he looks towards Combray church from his bed, giant peepshow trees are shuffled magically outside the window, in a skit on changing perspective, and a distant cardboard steeple wheels into place.


This is hands-on make-believe. There is nothing rarefied even about Marcello Mazzarella's Proust. He looks like Inspector Clouseau lost in a stream of consciousness. Scenes that might have been sacred are played for comedy, like the writer spying voyeurishly on Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich) in a male brothel. And just to provide a montage with a difference, Proust is made to stumble on a Venice flagstone, at which point his involuntary half-forward plunge is "frozen" while different back­cloths whiz past behind him in a cycloramic Grand Tour.


Never mind that Ruiz's cast is variable. Malkovich and Marie-France Pisier (Mme. Verdurin) are terrific, even if Emmanuelle Béart as Gilberte and Catherine Deneuve as Odette are iconic French vacancies waiting for a story.


Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher was the best of several Britpix rejoicing in atomized story­lines and featuring large casts interconnecting fragilely in a cluster of satellite subplots. (Others: Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful PeopleBosnian immigrants mixing it with natives in modern Blighty – and Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, a Short Cuts for Londoners.) Ramsay had the best premise and period: Britain during a famous garbage strike when black bags strewed the land, including this movie's Glasgow, and moldering stasis became a form of existence. A boy drowns in a canal; a drunken father hits his wife; a teenage girl, the local tramp, acquiesces in gang sex; a SWAT team of kids armed with sticks beat the garbage bags for rats; a rodent tied to a red balloon goes into outer space.


Terence Davies might have made this ballad to spooked, parochial domesticity after a course of Teach Yourself Non Sequitur. Trained in short films, Ramsay uses disci­plined enigma to stimulate her audience. She binds the movie together not by story – only by the end do we fully know who relates to whom and how – but by harmonizings of sound and symbol. The rats are hell's policemen: they scurry about to ensure that everyone behaves for the worst in the worst of all possible urban crises. Yet the soundtrack is slyly redemptive, scored with timeless, poignant, often barely perceptible notes of humanity. School play­ground noises; the sighs of a railway shunting yard; birdsong when the movie makes brief forays to the countrified edge of town.


Britain having since cleaned up its garbage act, Ramsay had to build the filthy canal. It was the biggest thing in the budget, bigger even than the mocked-up moon on which the red-ballooned rodent lands. This moment of breakaway whimsy might have been disastrous in any other film. But Ramsay – it's her gift – has no time or space for standard notions of time or space.


Werner Herzog and Léos Carax came to town as old and young extremes of ETS: enfant terrible syndrome. The Cannes reac­tions to My Intimate Fiend and Pola X were pretty much the same: "Oh god, seen it all before, get a script, Werner/Léos, or alter­natively get a life." Get a new brain, festivaliers. There was more drama in these two self-deconstructing films – more story (summoned to be shredded), more life (enhanced by intimations of death) – than in any number of bouncy, affirmative, up-and-at-'em Cannes rivals. I include such putatively countercultural US pix as Tim Robbins's hymn to 1930s social idealism Cradle Will Rock (give us this day our daily Brecht), David Lynch's The Straight Story (sweet­natured folk wisdom and then some), and John Sayles's Limbo (rambling B-movie with random-access ending). I even include, with sadness, Takeshi Kitano's change-of-pace road comedy Kitijuro. This seems to want to prove that the words "Tati" and "Keaton" are both contained in the director's name. But so, on a bad day, are "shtik" and "hoki."


Pola X falls off in its second hour, as writer-hero Guillaume Depardieu sets up a ménage à désespoir with Katerina Golubeva in a garrety, shadowy Paris that might have been designed by Piranesi during a blackout. But the first hour is mesmerizing. Carax takes Herman Melville's Pierre and Gallicizes, nay gothicizes its ambiguities. The pic is about a man who cannot put a face on his own life. Everything exists in a state of nothingness. His beloved (Delphine Chuillot) is shot in moments of self-concealment: sweater pulled over her face (in erotic shower moment), head under a pillow, bridal-veiled for a wedding rehearsal. His "sister" Catherine Deneuve plays existential hide-and-seek in a giant, guilt-haunted chateau. And when a complete stranger, a girl with a near-impenetrable accent, trysts with Depardieu in a midnight wood, exposing a family past he never guessed at, Carax films their walk and talk with a back-tracking camera gifted with nightvision. It is eerie, nervy, queasy: one of the great creepy scenes of modern cinema.


The film is less an essay in losing the story than a declaration that there is none. Each time we try to I.D. our existences, our photo and credentials are snatched away and we must start again. This process of serial erasure and rolling self-abnegation doesn't make the movie easy. But it does make it quintessential pre-millennial viewing. Soon time itself will turn into three zeros, though at present it is alive enough to cry "Nein, nein, nein."


Herzog is simple as cornflakes by com­parison. His Klaus Kinski docu-portrait sug­gests that the actor spent an entire, tri­umphant career losing the script. On set it was "Klaus, please do this," resulting in Klaus unfailingly doing the other. Off set, the German gargoyle would storm at co­actors, threaten his director, and scream at presspersons till his veins bulged.


That he was once a pussycat to this crit­ic I take as a business decision rather than a sign of secret gentleness. At the end of a hitherto Kinski-less Nosferatu recce, I inter­viewed him at the Rotterdam Hilton after a chance sighting of his shaven pate in the tea room window as I was driving away from the location in my hired Trabant. In an ingratiat­ing Peter Lorre purr, Kinski proceeded to praise Herzog, reminisce expansively about Aguirre, and philosophize about vampires. Two weeks later in Cannes he exploded dur­ing a press conference and I caught some of the flying hate-spittle.


Kinski knew he was mythic; he kept making himself more so. My Intimate Fiend is not all new – much of the Fitzcarraldo location stuff is borrowed from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams – but it has a great mes­sage. It says: Movies are more than the sum of their wholes. They are precious for their aggregation of sub-myths, of screen subplots and actorly histories and hysterias. When the story stops, the life begins.


A HILTON HOTEL; a vampire; how things repeat themselves in our existences. Over at the Directors Fortnight in the Noga Hilton, entrance-queuers were husked daily by a giant inflatable cow with vampire teeth. (And you Statesiders thought you weren't missing anything.) It bucked and danced on its tie-ropes on a neighboring roof, advertising some Market movie about bloodsucking ruminants. It vanished on day 12 amid rumors that it had been torn from its mooring by a mistral and sent out to sea, where gasping sailors thought it a new constellation. We filmgoers merely embraced it as a metaphor. There we were, chewing the cud of film and siphoning the blood of filmmakers while being buffeted about by chance, shock, and serendipity.


The Quinzaine, under new management, sustains its flair for mixing fair-to-colorful efforts (Alex Winter's Fever, Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides) with cracking reve­lations. The Blair Witch Project, hosanna'd at Sundance, proves that in the next thousand years good auteur movies will be made so cheaply, so gymnastically, that the prophet Astruc's "camera-stylo" will become a reality and the new Danish directors (give a Dogma a bone) will be seen as a collective John the Baptist.


It is not easy being a visionary. There is pressure to toe the consensus, even that of the thinking Cannes multitude. For exam­ple: Was Almodóvar's lauded All About My Mother really so great? The popsicle colors and demimonde dementia are lov­able. But haven't we been here before? The father-who-turns-out-to-be-a-trans­sexual, the nymphomaniac nun, the AC/DC artistes, the high-color backstage bitching of the thea-tah folk.


I preferred the cooler, craftier attitudiniz­ing of David Mamet's The Winslow Boy, shown out of competition. And I much preferred the French Palm entry L'Humanité, which survived early jeers to win the Grand Jury Prize. Bruno Dumont, of La Vie de Jésus, films spiritual crisis in a small French town evidently twinned with the com­plete works of Emile Zola. A girl has been raped and murdered; the town's bucket factory is on strike. Faced with this, plus a sex-mad neighbor (Séverine Caneele, ex aequo Best Actress with Rosetta's Emilie Dequenne) who likes to rut in front of him with her boyfriend, the stricken detective hero (Emmanuel Schotté, Best Actor) spends much of the film staring into space.


With his big, bug-eyed face he resembles a somnambulant Lino Ventura. His police boss (Ghislain Ghesquiere) is even more arrestingly minimal. Dumont films the man's sweaty, pulsing neck and all but stetho­scopes his breathing patterns. Sometimes, with the majesty of two characters waking from a pause in a Beckett play, one will say to the other, "This is going to be difficult" or "A tough case, this."


Is L'Humanité a comedy? Perhaps not, though it is often hysterical. Yet we come to love its forlorn deliberations and spooked sto­icism, like those of a child attempting to make its first Bresson movie. And Dumont's pic was far more appealing than that by another dar­ling of minimalism, Aleksandr Sokurov's Moloch. All about Hitler and Eva Braun, this confirms what dissenters have always thought, that Sokurov is a Slavic Guy Maddin without a sense of humor. Give him a storyline, as here, as opposed to the feature-length smoke­-and-mirrors lacunae of Whispering Pages or Mother and Son, and his empty solemnity tumbles out like exposed innards.


European cinema was supposed to be in crisis before this fest began. The near-total absence of the Sunset Boulevard crowd was supposed to mean sunset for the Boulevard de la Croisette. We were expected to die from grief at not being able to see Obi-Wan Baloney. But there were enough flicks, especially from each side of the Euro-tunnel, to suggest that European cinephiles can get by very nicely on homemade prod­uct. (For Cannes scoop-snoops, Ingmar Bergman also announced a new project, The Faithless, his first feature in over seven years.)


As for storytelling, that theoretical mainstay of moviedom, especially in Lotusland California, it may be more expendable than we think. I didn't see the Palme d'Or winner Rosetta since I had to begin my hitchhike back through France. (Extend thumb; smile....) But I hear that the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, are theorists after my own heart. They say: "Telling sto­ries is an obstacle to [the characters'] exis­tence. The less we tell of a character, the more that character exists on screen. We tried not to narrate. Everything was done to avoid it, the direction, the editing. Rather than narrating the events, we tried to find the essential movements of the character."


Remember where you heard it first. On these pages thirty paragraphs ago. And so to Cannes 2000 and clinking champagne glasses. Make mine a double.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.