Tough Sells and Transported Cinephiles

In the Cannes

Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies is set in a small, frozen Hungarian town where the routine of daily life is disrupted by a traveling circus whose only attraction is the carcass of a gigantic whale. Visitors congregate in the central square to view the whale and his mysterious keeper, whose fascist rants fuel their anger. Joining ranks, they march through the town, destroying buildings and clubbing most of the inhabitants to death. Shot with a constantly tracking camera in Tarr's signature grainy, deep-focus black and white, the film slowly gathers force, and the eruption of violence in the last half hour is terrifying and transcendent. In a festival that didn't lack for memorable images, Werckmeister Harmonies contained two of the most haunting: a low-flying helicopter circling the Mishkin-like protagonist as he flees along a disused railroad track; and the whale lying abandoned, his huge gray body nearly swallowed up in the mist enveloping the wreckage of the town.

Next to the Tarr, Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, the preordained winner of the Palme d'Or (a week before its first screening, everyone including my hotel manager was certain that it would win) seemed like the work of a pretentious amateur. I attribute the hysterical hype around Dancer to the fact that it's virtually a commercial for Sony (the musical numbers were shot simultaneously by 100 small DV cameras). "One hundred cameras and he couldn't get a shot of Joel Grey with his head and his dancing feet together in the frame," muttered a British critic who loathed the film as fully as I did. But we were in the minority. A cross between The Green Mile and MTV, with touches of Lillian Gish silent melodramas, Dancer in the Dark is grossly manipulative and so incoherent that anything and everything can be projected onto it. Most of the French critics read the central character played by Björk—a blind, immigrant single mother and factory worker who sacrifices her life to save her son's eyesight—as the Virgin Mary. And since France is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, this reading was enough to guarantee that Björk, making what she claimed was her first and last acting appearance, would win the best female performance award. I dislike the film on two grounds: first because it uses the spectacle of a suffering woman to ensnare its audience (von Trier saw Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc at an impressionable age and has since been trying to make a film that would give him as big a hard-on), and second because it's visually boring and inert. Unlike Arturo Ripstein, whose unassuming contemporary Medea (one of the highlights of Un Certain Regard) is cannily art-directed to take advantage of the murky colors and flattened space of DV, or Agnes Varda, whose moving documentary The Gleaners and I takes advantage of the intimacy and improvisation afforded by tiny cameras, von Trier has become such a DV proselytizer that he ignores the medium's expressive limitations.

Sleep-deprived, with emotions jangled by the experiences of three or four narrative arcs per day (you have only the occasional break to sort through your mail or grab a pizza), critics far more restrained than I have been known to respond hyperbolically to the films they view in Cannes. But until DV technology vastly improves, I'll stick with Brian De Palma, who remarked in his press conference for Mission to Mars (the only big studio release in the festival, trounced as thoroughly as in the U.S.) that DV is best used by novice directors who no longer have to wait five years for someone to take a chance on their projects. The problem then becomes sorting through first films when there are as many of them as first novels.

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

In addition to the films mentioned above, Edward Yang's A One and a Two, a novelistic mapping of a midlife crisis that made grown men in the audience weep, is restrained in form and brilliantly detailed in depicting the connections among some dozen characters, ranging in age from eight to 80. The Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli followed up her great The Silences of the Palace with The Season of Men, an equally devastating depiction of the repression of women in a conservative, misogynist society. Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep (winner of the Grand Jury prize) is set during the Japanese occupation of China but plays more like an Eastern European black comedy than a Chinese historical drama. It includes a spectacular shot from the point of view of a freshly severed head as it bounces off the executioner's sword. And Raoul Peck's Lumumba, though conventionally constructed, is a thoroughly engrossing, politically astute biopic (it doesn't shy from black-on-black violence) graced by a marvelous performance by Eriq Ebouaney, who turns the martyred leftist leader into a hero without neglecting his vulnerability.

Most of the American films paled in comparison with this international array, but Michele Rodriquez's star turn in Karyn Kusama's Girlfight mesmerized the audience at Cannes as much as at Sundance. And E. Elias Merhige's confused genre hybrid Shadow of the Vampire has the weirdly compelling premise that Max Schreck, the actor with the massive head who played the title role in Murnau's Nosferatu, was in real life a vampire. Willem Dafoe delivers a wildly inventive black-comic performance as the bloodthirsty Schreck, who at one point grabs a flying bat in his teeth and swallows it whole. After such a tasty appetizer, what could he want for a main course? "Next," he explains, "I eat ze script girl."

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