Mixed Blessings

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here are the two things I most regret not seeing with my own eyes at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. First, the Yugoslav booth in the huge, bustling film market—"empty," a friend told me, "except for a handwritten sign, 'See you after the war."' Second, Rosetta by the Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, which screened on the last day of the competition when many participants, myself included, were already headed to the airport.

Unlike most festivals, Cannes has been known to program serious contenders in less than prime-time slots. Last year's Palme d'Or winner (Theo Angelopoulos's Eternity and a Day, which opened last week) played as late in the competition as Rosetta. But we probably won't have to wait a full year to see the Dardenne brothers' film in New York since it has already been bought by USA Films (the new and eager Barry Diller–owned company put together from the shards of October and Gramercy) even before it cleaned up at the awards ceremony. If Rosetta is anywhere as good as the Dardennes' La Promesse, it deserved to win. Had I seen it then and there, I might have felt more positive about the festival as a whole and would be in a position to defend the much-maligned jury, headed by David Cronenberg, whose selections were booed by the audience at the award ceremony and dissed as perverse by most of the press.

The popular favorite by a mile was Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, which had to make do with the Best Director award. (It's already on Sony Pictures Classics's slate.) One of the only comedies at an unusually dour festival, All About My Mother combines the subversive gender fuck of Almodóvar's early films with the sleeker surrealist-pop production values of his recent work. Anarchic and life-affirming, but never cute or pandering (his problem of late), it's the richest and maybe the best film he's made, and the womanly ensemble cast is a joy to watch.

If prizes were given for parts of films rather than for films in their entirety, then my choice would be the first hour of Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Starring Forest Whitaker as a hired gun who shares a New Jersey tenement rooftop with a flock of tame pigeons and who has pledged his services to the decrepit mafioso who once saved his life, Ghost Dog is an attempt to make the film equivalent of rap music at its most poetic and tragic. The score by RZA is brilliant, as is Robby Müller's lyrical cinematography, and the performances by Whitaker and Isaac de Bankole (in a tiny role as an ice cream vendor who's the hit man's only friend) are heartbreakers. But just when it seems as if Jarmusch is on his way to making a serious film about the myths that young black men live and die by, he cops out and turns it into a formalist parody of a samurai flick.

Other films in the competition that I took seriously even if it wasn't exactly a pleasure to sit through them were Arturo Ripstein's No One Writes to the Colonel, an exceptionally controlled and thoroughly agonizing depiction of an elderly, once middle-class couple living in extreme poverty in some Mexican backwater, and Alexander Sokurov's Moloch, which evokes, in murky black-and-white video transferred to 35mm, a 24-hour period in the relationship between Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler. Moloch won the prize for best screenplay, a strange choice given that the German-language text was dubbed over the performances of the Russian cast. But the more I thought about it, the more the choice seemed exactly right; the dubbing adding to the layered and distanced effect that's crucial to Sokurov's representation of history.

Better than I might have suspected were Tim Robbins's rousing semi-musical about the 1930s Federal Theater Project, The Cradle Will Rock, which, though clumsily directed, has a witty script packed with contradictions about art, politics, power, and money, and Raoul Ruiz's star-studded Time Regained; Marcel Proust on his deathbed recollects his life as filtered through his classic roman à clef. The most potent quote in the film comes not from Remembrance of Things Past but from another early-20th-century novel, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. It has to do with the impossibility of separating oneself from the time in which one lives. Oddly enough, an almost identical line (this one taken from the Japanese text The Way of the Samurai) figures prominently in Ghost Dog. In such synchronicities does the sleep-deprived critic detect a subterranean order beneath the daily festival chaos: a magical dog in Ghost Dog and also in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam; cunnilingus, twice in a single day, in Leos Carax's Pola X, where it's stunningly erotic, and in Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, where it's as dull and contrived as everything else in the film.

Had the competition list not seemed so promising, the festival might not have been such a disappointment. But as it turns out, Pola X, the sex scene excepted, is a mess or, as a dismissive editor labels the hero's half-written novel, "a raging morass." If Carax had courage, he would have set the entire film in the cavernous abandoned factory building he barely begins to explore and would have let the group of Glenn Branca–like musicians who've made it their home bang away throughout. David Lynch's The Straight Story is as stupid a piece of fake Americana as Forrest Gump; Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey is, even more than the director's earlier films, an attempt to rework Peeping Tom, but the result is just a hollow, manipulative serial-killer movie. (Peeping Tom, which screened in the Film d'Amour retrospective, was an ur-text for the festival.) Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro is a children's film too attenuated for any child to sit through; Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women seems seriously senile; Manoel de Oliveira's The Letter, a contemporary adaptation of La Princesse de Cleves, is badly miscast—with her placid, slightly doughy face, Chiara Mastroianni is incapable of playing one of the great intellectual heroines of French literature.

Easily the most controversial film was Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, which hardly anyone liked and hardly anyone could stop talking about, even before it won three awards: the Grand Jury prize, the Best Actor prize to Emmanuel Schotte for his portrayal of an unlikely policeman involved in the investigation of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, and the Best Actress prize to Serverine Caneele for her portrayal of the policeman's object of desire (Caneele shared the award with the star of Rosetta). Like Dumont's first film, The Life of Jesus, L'Humanité is a study of the frustrated passions smoldering beneath the routines of small-town life. But unlike the earlier film, it's jammed with allegorical and art references. The naked body of the murdered girl is positioned to suggest Duchamp's Etant Donnés; there's a close-up of Caneele's cunt that suggests Courbet's The Origin of the World. (Caneele deserves her award not least for her poise in several explicit, ugly sex scenes.) The film is filled with ambiguities right to the very end, when a two-second shot may or may not transform the meaning of everything that's come before. Ambiguity generates conversation, but it's not necessarily a virtue in itself. I reserve judgment on L'Humanité until after I've suffered a second screening.

Excepting the Almodóvar, the most pleasurable films at Cannes were to be found outside the competition. Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's succinct Sicilia! has a rare clarity and depth of feeling. Spike Lee's Summer of Sam has the tabloid energy and chutzpah of a Sam Fuller film. Steven Soderbergh's The Limey is an extremely clever evocation of the '60s—sometimes elegant, sometimes over-the-top, blending tenderness and violence throughout. (More about these two when they open later this year.)

My only real discovery (a film I saw by chance and with no expectations) was Emilie Deleuze's Peau Neuve. Deleuze, who is the daughter of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, is a new addition to a dazzling roster of French female directors whose films seldom make it to the U.S. Judging from this debut feature, she has remarkable insight into what makes men tick. Peau Neuve is about a guy with a wife and a kid who makes a good living testing computer games. Having decided to change his life, he enrolls in a training program for operating big construction machinery. A colleague described Peau Neuve as "Top Gun with bulldozers." I don't think the line does the film justice, but if it piques the interest of an American distributor, I'm all for it.

Still the only movie at Cannes that thrilled me beginning to end was Kevin Smith's personal and quirky pop-culture religious pageant, Dogma. When I wrote about the film last week, I neglected to mention that what seems to upset people is not only its irreverent obscenity and hilarious vulgarity but also its complicated and unsettling depiction of violence and of how it is that shit happens. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are damn scary as pretty-boy killers—or rather as fallen angels trying to prove themselves worthy instruments of God's wrath. Everyone complains that Smith isn't a very visual director (his big talent is making dialogue as exciting as action), but it's a week after Cannes and I can't get the image of those torn, bloody angel wings out of my mind.

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