By Aaron Hillis
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CANNES, FRANCEIt was somehow appropriate that the illusory, use-once-and-destroy pop plaything known as Moulin Rouge, curtain raiser for the 54th Cannes Film Festival, had all but lapsed from collective awareness by the end of this year's 12-day movie binge. (The willfully obscene three-room simulacrum of "Club Moulin Rouge" that 20th Century Fox erected on the Croisette especially for the opening-night festivities vanished almost immediately after.) Love it or loathe it, Baz Luhrmann's bulimic, scattershot fantasia set the tone for an event that thrives on excess and enforces its own form of attention-deficit disorder. Each successive day offers a string of increasingly hallucinatory choices: The new Todd Solondz or the, um, Ethan Hawke? Roaring Dragon, Bluffing Tiger or Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger(to cite but two of the CTHD-inspired titles screening in the bowels of the concurrent film market)? A dinner for Jean-Claude Van Damme (in town to promote a Ringo Lam-directed vehicle titled The Monk) or a screening of veteran Italian director Ermanno Olmi's medieval-warfare competition entry, The Profession of Arms? (Your correspondent dutifully opts for the latter, much to his regret.)
In this frenetic carnival atmosphere, no movie turned down the volume and pace more gratifyingly than 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira's latest memento mori, I'm Going Home. The film opens, serenely and patiently, with a lengthy excerpt from a production of Ionesco's Exit the King. Later, backstage, the elderly lead actor (Michel Piccoli) is informed that his family has perished in a car crash. This rueful, dryly humorous film charts a wary return to normalcy, but it's unsentimental enough to acknowledge that coping mechanisms do break down, and that (as the title suggests) a categorical retreat is sometimes the only way out.
Shell shock proved a dominant themewhether served raw or processed into emotional laxative, as in Nanni Moretti's feel-good-about-feeling-bad Palme d'Or recipient, The Son's Room, a shamefully unworthy winner for any number of reasons: the bland staging and massively rigged conception, the TV-weepie strong-arm tactics, the assaultive soundtrack crescendos, the platitudinous certitude that wounds will heal and lives will go on (in time for the end credits). All of which made it more difficult to stomach than even, say, a film as murky and misshapen as Shinji Aoyama's truly anguished Desert Moon. As much as Eureka, the momentous post-traumatic saga Aoyama unveiled at Cannes last year, this new filmabout the fallout from a nuclear family explosionfeels like an organic act of coming to terms, though this time his searchers discover no state of grace, just a shrill affirmation of family values.
Eurekawas made in response to the Aum Shinrikyo nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subwayas was this year's competition entry by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Distance. Less emotionally direct and yet, in many ways, more restorative than the director's previous grief-management workshops (Maborosi and After-life), it's set on the anniversary of a bio-terrorist attack by a religious sect. Four relatives of deceased cultists journey to a lake deep in the woods where the group originated. The subsequent flashbacks are too hazy for catharsis; the film's surreptitious power derives from its fragility and muted empathy, and from the startling lyricism of its concluding images. If Distancemomentarily derails midway, it's largely due to the slackness of the improvised dialogue.
The actors were also, for the most part, working without a script in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo, perhaps the most enigmatic of this year's competition films. At his press conference, Hou explained that he had intended to make a verité portrait of Taipei's youth, but conceded that the result was best viewed as a modern-day version of his 19th-century-brothel chamber piece, Flowers of Shanghai. Which is to say, Millennium Mambo is another story of female entrapment, this one scored to a constant techno thump, with a glazed third-person narration both predicting and preempting the action. The thick neon smear and the generous use of voice-over seemed at first like a friendly concession to the many art-house patrons who tolerate Wong Kar-wai but not Hou. The gesture is soon retracted, though, as Millennium Mambosettles into a lulling, virtually plotless state of agonized suspension. The briefest hints of joy are reserved for fleeting detours to, of all places, a snowy mountain town in Hokkaidothe site of a film festival no less.
Wong, meanwhile, was in attendance to deliver la leçon de cinémathough it seemed counterintuitive to invite such a notoriously impulsive director to expound on his working methods. He brought with him a new treat, an eight-minute short called In the Mood for Love 2001, culled from outtakes of a fetish object that just keeps on giving. Apparently a remnant of one of the Three Stories About Food (ITMFL's original title), this miniature Chungking Express links mustachioed 7-Eleven owner Tony Leung and ravenous customer Maggie Cheung in a gastronomic romancea tale of cake crumbs, beer stains, and lipstick traces. The Wong short was one of the festival's rare word-of-mouth items. The fastest-circulating bit of buzz was created when Jean-Luc Godard issued a ringing endorsement before the assembled international press for a 50-minute French film, Alain Guiraudie's Ce Vieux Rêve Qui Bouge(Real Cool Time). Sure enough, it was one of Cannes 2001's few real discoveriesa witty, concise experiment in narrative pliability. Beginning as a naturalistic account of a young man arriving at a factory to dismantle a piece of heavy machinery, it shape-shifts before your disbelieving eyes into something altogether more, well, erotic.
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