by Harlan Kennedy 





Once more unto the beach:  it is the 54th Cannes Film Festival.  We haven’t yet recovered from the  53rd, but Cannes hands are used to that.   Among the deux ou trois choses we know about the greatest cine-junket on earth is that it never stops.  The Actual Event (two weeks) is just the visible part of a submerged Virtual Continuum (52 weeks), much like the two humps that are all you ever see of the Loch Ness monster.


Cannes busies itself through the year processing triumphs past, fanfaring the selections to come, sending apparachiks to other fests, above all inscribing its name on film posters.  Amazing the number of movies that wreath themselves in golden palmfronds claiming top glory when all they won was, say, Best Gaffer or the Prix Superieur de Mattework.  But Cannes has the cachet.  The Palm is an icon on the level of the Grail.  Everyone wants its radiance and everyone gets mystical about the event at which it reveals itself.  Near-hysterics can still be produced – in the year 2001 – in anyone hearing that you will be attending the festival.  “Oh gosh. All those stars! All those parties!  Vainly will you insist that the rumored American stars are from Dreamworks animation pic SHREK and who wants to sit next to a cartoon character at a Carlton Beach lunch.  (The conversation would at best be two-dimensional).


Meanwhile the stroboscopic alternation between reality and illusion – between life outside the Cannes theaters and life inside – can produce a form of mental scream.  What is the truth and what is make-believe?  Two hours of dour onscreen social realism from Ken Loach, a Cannes regular, seem far more like life than the deranged fol-de-rol performed daily on the Palais des Festival’s red carpeted steps.  The glittering famous ascend the stairway strafed by flashbulbs, screamed at by fans, yet pretending that all is cool in the Coolest of universes, as they turn to swish their Valentino gowns or smooth their Armani dinner jackets.


At Cannes there have only been two certainties: death and tuxes.  Every year a great director is mourned, reminding us that this super-festival, like the Pyramids, will outlive all its votaries while also providing a place where they can be praised, immortalized, beautified, properly and awesomely brought to rest.  (Roll that retrospective).  It is frightening to think that only yesterday – no, yesteryear; no, yesterdecade – this writer sat at the barnstorming feet of Klaus Kinski, giving one of his blanched, demented rants to a hack asking a harmless question.  Hack:  Mr. Kinski, how did you study for the role of Fitzcarraldo? Kinski: ***%$$#!!!!fucking***$451 !!!!goodbye! (Exit pursued by a Herzog).


Or that he (this writer) was there when Tarkovsky and Bressonou sont les auteurs d’antan? – shared a platform and a lifetime award ceremony. Or when Ingrid and Ingmar Bergman first met at a public party, a Trimalchian feast of champers and reindeer meat.


But the tuxes pass from generation to generation from old to young, expired to inspired.  And some veterans never grow old at all; for them death shall have no run at the Dominion.  Jean-Luc Godard is still annoying us at age 70 and has a film in this year’s fest,  ELOGE DE L’AMOUR, said to be more mainstream than recent work.  We will not expect the Amazon.


The ageless Ermanno Olmi – no popped wooden clogs for him – contributes THE PROFESSION OF ARMS.  Japan’s twice-palmed Shohei Imamuri is back with LUKEWARM WATERS UNDER A RED BRIDGE (“Er, Shohei, about this title, we at MGM/Miramax/Sony Classics think….”).  And how can we suppose there won’t be a film from Manoel de Oliveira,  Portugal’s famous ninetysomething, and Raul Ruiz, France’s most famous Chilean.


Hollywood, not being outdone, if not actually sending the Seventh Fleet, nobly dispatched ex-Palm winners Francis Coppola, David Lynch and the Coens.  Coppola’s extended version  of APOCALYPSE NOW (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning, afternoon and evening”) shows hors concours; Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE is in competition along with Joel and Ethan’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.


It isn’t just the main event at Cannes that can make you feel as if you are standing under a celluloid avalanche.  There is also the Directors Fortnight – the program whose countercultural credentials are proved by the unheardofness of most of its filmmakers – and ‘Un Certain Regard’,  another sidebar, this time favoring films that might in another year, under another stellar conjunction, have been in competition.


My Gucci dinner jacket is back from the cleaners.  My cameramen have theirs and their assigned places on the Palais steps so… Let’s go!







Dressing up to address the great questions of life and death.  That’s what festivalgoers do:  thousands spent on finery to confront  the nakedness of the human condition.  Yet don’t good movies perform the same sleight of self-manifestation?  Isn’t art’s achievement to make despair gleam like a diamond, to make tragedy uplift and inspire?


Nanni Moretti’s LA STANZA DEL FIGLIO (THE SON’S ROOM) strode off with the Golden Palm, a perfect movie shaped from the serendipity of human misfortune.  The bearded, lamppost-tall Italian of DEAR DIARY and APRIL – Moretti looks like a Passion Play Christ attenuated in a fairground mirror – plays a psychotherapist who fails to cure himself  after the trauma of a son’s death.  Wife and daughter crack up around him;  patients role-reversingly try to help;  and the itinerary of grief is mapped with a miraculous awareness of both pathos and bathos.  A bereaved person’s illogical recourse to guilt and reproach is part of the comedy, as well  as tragedy, of loss:  it makes Moretti’s mournful humor as appropriate as his willingness to coax the filmgoer’s tears.  Harrowing moments like the father and daughter witnessing the welding of the metal underlid onto the coffin – sealing the son away forever – jostle with scenes of liberating black farce like the patient who switchbacks, second by second, between dutiful condolence and viperous vituperation.


The triumph of the noncompetitive fest was another movie that looked into the abyss of human experience and found gleams in the darkness.  ATANARJUAT THE FAST RUNNER is the first Inuit feature film and it wouldn’t matter if it was the last. This stunning 2 ¾-hour epic is based on an old Eskimo legend. Two brothers at war with a neighbor clan; one brother brutally slain; the other bounding naked over miles of ice to vanish (suppose his foes) forever; final showdown between survivor-hero and villains.  Looking on are the community’s women – who kicked off the trouble with their overabundant charms (sex rivalry, dynastic feuding, climactic rape) – and the omni-wise oldies who have seen it all before and probably expect some repeat performances before closure.


 Director Zacharias Kunuk films Paul Angilirq’s folklore-culled script in dazzling locations on digital Betacam.  He is lavish with the widescreen vistas of snow, ice and water: no expanse is spared.  Simultaneously giant close-ups catch each glimmer of thought and emotion in this make-believe pageant. (Only Werner Herzog found as much rogue humanity in the camera-wary primitives he filmed).  The movie would be hailed as a classic if it spoke English and carried  a known signature:  Stroheim, Griffith, Ford.  Instead we may have to wait till the west’s distributors decide that world audiences can take the strain of Olde Inuit with subtitles,  though the film’s prospects must have been helped by winning the Camera d’Or for best feature film.


More of the best from the rest.


THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.  Wonderful.  I go with the verdict ‘masterpiece’.  Joel and Ethan Coen must have realized that their joint name rhymes with James M. Cain (almost).  The mid-century sleaze auteur who put the ‘litter’ into literature clearly inspired this 40s-set sex-‘n’-murder plot in which reticent Santa Rosa barber Billy Bob Thornton kills store-owner James Gandolfini for making the two-backed beast with Billy Bob’s wife Frances McDormand.


Who gets sent to Death Row?  By a dodgy slip of fate,  McDormand.  Which divers characters get called in to solve problems or multiply them?  Jon Politi in a hilarious wiggy cameo as the inventor of dry cleaning – or  an inventor of dry cleaning – who dies before he can get rich on his patent. (Give this actor the Akim Tamiroff Award for excelling at fat, sweaty exotics).  Tony Shalhoub as an edgy top lawyer bathed in searing celestial light.  (Cinematography by that great Coen regular Roger Deakins).  And talking of searing celestiality, our hero falls platonically for a piano-playing girl, a neighbors daughter whose renditions of Beethoven’s Apassionata sonata seem like a ticket   to salvation until that climactic, fellatio-interrupted car crash….


What a story.  Yet it moves unlike any thriller, more like a Camus novel with serie noir trimmings.  Shot in black-and-white so shiny you could see your face in it, the film moves hypnotically.  The dialogue exchanges about the uncertainty principle, positing inter alia that perception changes the nature and composition  of what you perceive, slyly enrich the tale of a man for whom Nothing Adds Up.  (The hero ends up in jail himself, but for the wrong murder).  And Thornton himself is a wonderfully doomy Coen hero: the taciturn barber haunted by his own fundamentalist thoughts (especially about the life, afterlife and growing patterns of hair) and by a yearning-for-beauty that feeds on its own unfulfilment.  The Coens in press conference poked fun against the movie’s philosophical sonorities: “Our distributor told us not to call it a film noir because it would be difficult to market.  But I really think ‘existential dread’ may help us sell some tickets, at least in France.”  Out of the mouths of babes and jokers.  Joel Coen ended by sharing a Best Director Prize with David Lynch, lucky to grab half a guerdon with his MULHOLLAND DRIVE, an untidy collision between TWIN PEAKS and LOST HIGHWAY.


Michael Haneke’s THE PIANIST (not to be confused with soon-to-arrive Roman Polanski’s THE PIANIST, postered all over the Cannes Croisette) received an embarrassment of gongs, including runner-up Grand Jury Prize and both performance awards.  The film puts the S-&-M into that old British melodrama THE SEVENTH VEIL, in which James Mason bashed up the hands of pianistic pupil Ann Todd.  Martinet teacher Isabelle Huppert (Best Actress) has frozen her own emotions to liberate those of her students.  Or has she?  Perhaps her Arctic spirit is less missionary than sado-masochistic.  Perhaps it’s the result of a pent-up life flat-sharing  with mum (Annie Giradot, looking not a day over 100).  Either way she first repels, then raveningly invites the love/lust of a young student (Benoit Magimel, Best Actor) who learns that pain, blood and humiliation are big on Huppert’s wish list.  Haneke, who made the terrifying FUNNY GAMES (a sicko tortures and kills three vacationers), plugs into the whole  history of movies in which schadenfreude rhymes with Steinway – as the only instrument capable of going voluptuously solo, the piano is the great emotional workout machine – but gives the subgenre a new, unnerving, sexual voltage.  Huppert has never been braver or better.


MOULIN ROUGE, SHREK and TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER.  Please lift your glasses – those on your nose – to focus your eyes in disbelief.  This is what digivisuals can do today.  In the new world of campy-populist nostalgism Baz STRICTLY BALLROOM Luhrmann discovering Disneyworld in fin de a hosiecle Paris is closely related to Dreamworks discovering that fairytales are really a giant theme park.  In both cases postmodernism simultaneously confers ironic distance and burlesque energy.  In both cases, too, computer visuals provide an architectural/kinetic richness undreamt by previous musicals or pre-TOY STORY animation  features.  Luhrmann throws everything at the screen, including a frightened-looking Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, in a homage to the belle époque that encompasses Can-Can girls.  Toulouse-Lautrec, Puccinian consumption… you name it, the pixellated palette can handle it.


The only question was whether the audience could.  Cannes-goers tended to prefer SHREK’s gentler way with folklore makeover.  The 3D contouring we loved in TOY STORY has become even more sculptural and chromatically lifelike: the human characters look like real people.  Then there are the kindly ogres and funny donkeys (Eddie MULAN Murphy re-doing the vocal rent-a-shtik) and an entire refugee population from fairytale literature. (Loved the breakdancing Three Pigs). The movie has an initially overanxious PC agenda, requiring the ex-sleeping-beauty heroine to be a feisty martial artist, the ugly ogre to have a heart, soul and love life etc.  But even this breaks down, endearingly if contentiously.  Short people will be offended – let them grow by ignoring or overriding it – by the jokes about the staturally challenged villainous Prince, though if Dreamworks cartoon chief Jeffrey Katzenberg (5 feet nothing much on good days) can take it, presumably anyone can.


In TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER first-time-officially-invited Thailand blew the roof off the Salle Bazin, home from home for world critics (for months we wake up thinking we are still in this airless mauve hangar going blind for art), with this Vancouver-Filmfest-prizewinning high camp actioner cum love story.  Young helmer Wisit Sasatanieng must have grown up on TV matinees of old Tyrone Power movies.  How else explain the ecstasy felt and conveyed in a pinup bandit, with hair oil and wash-and-shine charisma, who rides through ersatz-handtinted landscapes or across Expressionist Yellow sunsets to court the governor’s daughter, whose hobby is pining in a magenta-hued gazebo in the middle of an eye-ravishing lotus-filled lake?  Digital colorization has reached Siam, and how.  Add editing so hepcat and inventive that John Woo and Robert Rodriguez will look on enviously and you/we/God /everyone is in our/His/his/her Seventh Heaven.


Ermanno Olmi’s THE PROFESSION OF ARMS (IL MESTIERE DELLE ARMI) is a pre-nuclear parable of Armageddon:  16th century history rendered as both truth and teaching fable. ‘Brechtian’ is the parola justa for Signor Wooden-Clogs’s fearless determination here to Address the Audience.  The main aristos and warriors enacting the 1526 conflict between Papal Italy and invading Germany (Emperor Charles V) are first introduced with bottom-screen captions – names, dates – and licensed to mutter thoughts straight to camera.  Soon we know that Captain Giovanni de Medicis will be our throughgoing hero, a young Papist braving the Huns, bellowing at collaborators’ castles, finally bouleverse’d by a ball from a newfangled cannon.  He loses his leg, never recovers, dies in a stunning melancholic finale, rife with dream and hallucination, in a myth-frescoed bedroom.  What’s it all about?  Life, death and God.  History as an ineluctable war machine, trundling up to the walls of the present.  And – most evangelistically – about the folly and inevitability of weapon escalation.  The portable cannon was this war’s Latest Thing, a tool that seemed as demonic as our nuclear bombs.  In a caustic postscript, Olmi  tells us that after Giovanni’s death all the Generals and leaders swore never to use the cannon again. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme folie.



Time is a big thing at film festivals.  We don’t just jump about in it in the movies, vaulting between weeks, years, centuries.  We clockwatch for real every day, wondering how to pack in, say, Godard at 2, Rivette at 4, Tsai Ming-Liang at 6, and still find time to scream between each. (The mark of a true film critic).


All three movies were, in different ways,  about time, especially the Taiwanese trinket.  The director of VIVE L’AMOUR and THE HOLE is an enigmatist with a silent-comedy style and a loyalty to the same fictive family, featuring in each film.  Here the son (Ming-Liang’s house star Chen Shiang-Chyi) copes with a freshly widowed mother going loonier by the day, and with his own obsessional urge to change all Taipei’s clocks to conform with time in Paris, whither has departed a girl he met too briefly to fall for but still fell for. (That’s love.  Vive l’amour).  Imagine Samuel Becket mixed with Lao Tzu, then double the schizophrenia you first thought of.  Small but entertaining.


New Wavers Godard and Rivette defied time – 40 years of it – by bringing films as idiosyncratic as in their heyday.  But hey, couldn’t you say Rivette’s heyday was today?  The Frenchperson recently did the all-hailed LA BELLE NOISEUSE, seen by more bums on seats even than his halcyon PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT, and his latest VA SAVOIR (GO FIGURE) is even more approachable.  In a seriocomic six-hander three Paris couples pursue their desires – from others love partners to a lost Goldoni manuscript and missing diamond ring – across 2 ½ Beaumarchais-like hours.  Warm, witty, winning.  Could we say that of Godard’s ELOGE DE L’AMOUR (EULOGY OF LOVE)?  Only by lying.  Jean-Luc offers an episodic meditation on history and memory, ‘unified’ by a plot about filmmakers trawling through the story of a real World War 2 Resistance couple.  An hour in formal black-and-white is followed by 40 minutes in high-saturation digicolor (sometimes as sumptuous as Sasanatieng’s).  The images are like shards of thought, but the thoughts are often like shards of sophomore one-upmanship.  When in doubt – which Godard seldom is – quote the wise saws of Sartre or Simone Weil.



The winds blowing from Iran brought three fine screen samizdats:  fiction poised on the edge of fact from Mohsen Makhmalbaf (KANDAHAR),  fact poised on the edge of fiction by Abbas Kiarostami (ABC AFRICA), fable balanced on faction(alism) from Reza Mir-Karimi.  She won the Critics Week prize with her UNDER THE MOONLIGHT.  Man on quest meets outcasts railing at fate; they join forces in a talky last act too much like a Persian LOWER DEPTHS.  Many a flicker, though, of quirky character fire.  KANDAHAR points a tragic lens at the halt, lame and dispossessed on the Afghan border, alternating between unsparing docu-observation and reality as surreality.  We can scarcely believe the airdrops of artificial legs billowing Magritte-like from a blue sky.  A mere continent away Kiarostami combs the Aids crisis in Uganda, determined to find joy’s survival in the waves of HIV-orphaned kids smiling at the camera or singing – in one scene oceanically – for the sound-mike.


Was it my fancy or did the new Cannes controllers stream official entries so that same-country flicks showed on le meme jour or almost?  Thus Jacques and Jean-Luc fought for France between the same sunrise and sunup (though four other Gallic guns were trundled into view during the concours; perhaps Germany is right to shriek about its exclusion for eight successive years while their Euro-rivals bask in the privileges of proprietorship?)  Olmi and Moretti eyeballed each other in the same 48 hours.  So did America’s David Lynch and Sean Penn, the second bringing his Jack Nicholson vehicle THE PLEDGE,  whose plot wouldn’t pass a roadworthiness test though his bit players (Rourke, Redgrave, Mirren, Stanton) were good enough to win a cinematic Indianapolis 2001.


The final movie-herding was Oriental.  Taiwan’s MILLENNIUM MAMBO and Japan’s DESERT MOON,  AVALON and LUKEWARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE were whipcracked onto the dusty Cote d’Azur plain with a cry of “Take ‘em to Liv Ullmann!”  (This year’s elegant, beautiful Swedish jury prez).  Best of the four were the first, from Hou Hsiao-hsien, and last, from Shohei Imamura.  Hou had a recent Cannes success d’estime with FLOWERS FROM SHANGHAI, though walkers-out were as numerous as welcomers for that opaquely tenebrous period pic.  MAMBO will be a revelation for nonconverts.  In this burningly beautiful film the Taiwaner’s impassively gazing or slow-panning camera for once catches the pulse of its protagonist’s passion: a girl (Shu Qi) gripped by love for an abusive, junk-addicted nightclub DJ whom she cannot shake off – from her life or her heart and mind – even though she drifts through other partnerships, including a gangster sugar daddy and a kid from a snowbound town that hosts a film festival. (Must be   Sundance East).  Lyrical even in torment, the movie re-conjures Hou’s great beginnings (A SUMMER AT GRANDPA’S,  A TIME TO LIVE AND A TIME TO DIE) and makes us wonder why he’s spent so many middle years being mystifcatory-mandarin.


Imamura could have won a third Fronde d’Or to judge from the applause for his latest pic.  The red bridge is where the lovers meet: the lukewarm water – hold on to your credulity – is what geysers from the heroine’s private parts, by the gallon rather than the liter, whenever she makes love.  Filling up with H2O between sessions, she mirror-flashes a lust SOS to the fisherman hero who promptly downs nets, jumps to land and outraces the local Afro-American Olympic trainee (don’t ask) to get to the lady in time.  Is this a tale of fountaining  amour fou a metaphor for something Japanese?  Goodness knows. (Goodness has nothing to do with it”. M. West).  We only know  that is this weirdly wondrous comedy gets western distribution, it will surely need a catchier title. MEMOIRS OF A GUSHER?   


Cannes was not all triumph, though the stratospheric scorings for Competition films in the trade-mag critics charts – an annual guide and helper in Palm prediction – make nonsense of some hacks’ complaints that this was a dud festival.  We did have to stay alive through rubbish like TAURUS (Lenin dying by the minute in a swirl of fog from Russian auteur Alexsandr Sokurov) and DESERT MOON (klunky anti-capitalist tract from Japan).  And we did wonder why Cannes sent a  gold-inlaid  invite to prankish twaddle like HUMAN NATURE, in which scripter Charlie Kaufman fails to repeat BEING JOHN MALKOVICH  in a nature/nurture romp starring T. Robbins, P. Arquette and digital mice.


But at the end of every day – such is Cannes even when troubled – the sun sets, the harbour lights came on, the ships and yachts wink in the bay like seductresses. “Want a good time?” they seem to say.  Mostly, we could answer that we were having one thank you very much.  Press Officer Christine Aime ensured the finest welcome.  New programmer Thierry Fremaux and mentor Gilles Jacob, long-loved Cannes eminence, ensured fine movies.  We even gave our full attention to daffy sideshows like Wayne Wang’s THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (love, sex and the whole damn thing Chinese-American style),  Francesca Archibugi’s DOMANI (teenage crisis Italian-style) and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY, which shows that actors who turn  directors don’t always come up with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER or UNFORGIVEN. Cannes 2001, though, - good hunting almost from start to finish – can be forgiven anything.   Roll on, 2002.








©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.