Tough Sells and Transported Cinephiles

In the Cannes

It was a cinephile's wet dream and a distributor's nightmare. Never has the gap between art and commerce seemed more vivid—and perverse—than at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival, where critics and festival programmers raced teary-eyed and choked up with pleasure from one screening to another while American distributors whined night and day that there was nothing to buy. Nothing, in other words, that would guarantee them big bucks.

And certainly, the great films of the festival—Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, Shinji Aoyama's Eureka, Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, and Chantal Akerman's La Captive—are not standard Angelika fare, although USA Films, which bought the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta at last year's festival even before it won the Palme d'Or, followed up this prestigious venture by acquiring In the Mood for Love on the basis of a 10-minute clip and the director's superhip art-house reputation. The most delicate and erotic of Wong Kar-wai's films, In the Mood for Love is a memory piece that takes place in the lost world of early-'60s Hong Kong, also the setting of his 1991 Days of Being Wild. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play next-door neighbors who are drawn together when they discover that their spouses are having an affair, but the film is less a narrative than a poetic evocation of desire. Cheung's swaying hips, Leung's smoldering looks, fragments of Latin dance tunes, and the walls of corridors and rooms that both confine and separate the lovers, each wall as uniquely textured and colored as an abstract expressionist painting—these primary elements are combined afresh in every sequence. As elliptical as a Bresson film, In the Mood for Love also has a jazzy, improvisational feel, as if it were a series of riffs on the romantic longing that is its main theme.

The film was shown on the last day of the festival with the sound mix not yet completed. At the postscreening press conference, the exhausted director, who had been editing down to the wire, said that production had been extremely difficult. His two stars complained that Wong changed his mind every day and that the shooting took much too long. Cheung said that she had been extremely frustrated and angry during the shoot but now that she'd seen the film, she realized that the director's method had paid off. Leung said he hoped that Wong would figure out how to work faster the next time. That was before he learned he'd won the best male performance award. In the Mood for Love also picked up the grand prize for technical achievement, given to the two cinematographers (Chris Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bing) and the production designer (William Chang Suk-ping).

Happy Together: Leung, Wong, And Cheung Get In The Mood.
photo: Henny Garfunkel
Happy Together: Leung, Wong, And Cheung Get In The Mood.

More than any other festival, Cannes has put Asian cinema on the international map. This year 25 percent of the films in the four official categories (the Competition, its sidebar, Un Certain Regard, and the relatively autonomous Director's Fortnight and Critics' Week) were from Asia. If In the Mood for Love was among the most highly anticipated films of the festival, Eureka, by the young, virtually unknown Japanese director Shinji Aoyama, seemed to come from nowhere. Shot in slightly tinted black-and-white Cinemascope, Eureka is an oddball combination of Ford's The Searchers and Kurosawa's Ikiru, but its intimate connection to its main characters, the survivors of a bus hijacking, is utterly contemporary. As the bus driver who dedicates himself to helping his traumatized fellow survivors—a preadolescent sister and brother who have not spoken since the incident—Koji Yakusho (best known as the star of Shall We Dance? and The Eel) exudes a rare compassion and honesty. Aoyama creates a world so absorbing and so antithetical to the frenetic spectacle of the festival itself that, at three and half hours, the film zips by. I was as reluctant to part with it as the director himself seemed to be; Eureka's only flaw is that it ends four times before the final fade.

The festival's main subtext: celluloid film's last stand as the expressive medium of motion pictures. Since Lars von Trier and his Dogma group hijacked Cannes 1998 with their bogus manifesto and their commitment to digital video, Cannes has been a hotbed of DV production and digital delivery systems. In the face of the inevitable electronic future, the most exciting films of the first Cannes of the 21st century pushed the limits of celluloid. The luminous colors and sensuous textures of In the Mood for Love and the panoramic landscapes of Eureka are made for projection on the big screen (and the projection in the Lumière, the festival's main venue, is unfailingly brilliant). Akerman's La Captive and Tarr's offputtingly titled Werckmeister Harmonies, both of which screened in the Director's Fortnight but deserved to be in the competition, are just as defiantly cinematic.

Twenty-five years after her monumental Jeanne Dielman screened in Cannes, and one month short of her 50th birthday, Akerman returned with a sombre meditation on sexual obsession that owes as much to Vertigo as to the Proust novel (the fifth volume of Remembrance of Things Past) on which it's loosely based. La Captive opens like a thriller, with a man trailing a woman by car and on foot through anearly deserted Paris, and climaxes with a car racing along a tree-lined country road at night, an image so dark that its details hover at the edge of complete blackout. The protagonist is a spoiled rich kid whose jealousy of his bisexual girlfriend's female friendships destroys their love affair. Akerman displaces passion from the actors, who move through the film like somnambulists, to the lush visuals and the surging Rachmaninoff-laden score.

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