Figments of Your Hallucination

Bingeing and Purging at Cannes

An unpredictable sexual tension often creeps into the films of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. What Time Is It There? revisits the father-mother-son family unit of his previous features, but kills Dad off after the first scene. The son (Tsai's reticent muse Lee Kang-sheng, again playing a character named Hsiao-kang) sells watches out of a briefcase. Not long after a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) insists on buying the dual-time wristwatch off his arm before she leaves for Paris, he's mysteriously compelled to go around Taipei resetting all the clocks to Paris time. (This eventually occasions a terrific Harold Lloyd gag—among his other strengths, Tsai is a supreme choreographer of snail-paced, deadpan slapstick.) The film cross-cuts between Taipei, where Hsiao-kang's grieving mother is haunted by her late husband's reincarnation prospects (possibly in their fish tank), and Paris, where our heroine, newly arrived, is feeling lonely and unmoored. (She's hit on in a cemetery by none other than Jean-Pierre Leaud—around the same time that Hsiao-kang discovers a bootleg of The 400 Blows back in Taiwan.) What Time Is It There? was largely written off as a programmatic rehash of the director's well-established themes (alienation and longing) and formal hallmarks (fixed camera lingering for an eternity on an impeccably framed proscenium). But it's in fact a witty, considered, self-reflexive summation of Tsai's work to date—a logical end point that, in its dogged reiteration of the past, seems mainly to be about the desperate need for a new beginning.

Tsai's Paris is as much a source of disquiet as his Taipei. But elsewhere, the city was enjoying one major screen romance after another—from the nostalgic black-and-white streetscapes of Godard's Éloge de l'Amour (his first Paris shoot since Masculin-Feminin) to the visually cluttered, digitally abetted Montmartre fables Moulin Rouge and the indefatigably cute Amelie. Now a monster box-office hit in France but controversially left off the official competition lineup, the film was scheduled for an open-air screening until director Jean-Pierre Jeunet withdrew it altogether at the last minute. (Miramax, which bought Amelie on the basis of a four-minute reel, happily went ahead with press screenings.)

But perhaps no director knows his way around a Parisian arrondissement better than Jacques Rivette. His latest film, Va Savoir! (Who Knows!), observes a bittersweet return to Paris: A stage actress (Jeanne Balibar) who now performs with an Italian company is back in town for the first time in years, growing apart from her Goldoni-obsessed theater-director boyfriend (Sergio Castellitto), and tentatively reestablishing contact with her Heidegger-scholar ex (Jacques Bonnaffe). It's a spry, elegant, immensely enjoyable film, but in the Rivette oeuvre, a minor work—as the title would indicate, a shrug and a smile are about the right response. Still, plenty of grand claims were being made on its behalf, not least by Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, who, in acquiring the film for U.S. distribution, declared, "This is one of the greatest films in the history of the French cinema."

Lovely Rita: Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Drive
photo: Cannes Film Festival
Lovely Rita: Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Drive

Rivette's pet themes—artifice, meta-narrative, and role-play—are at the nucleus of the festival's single most electrifying experience: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. A kinky, tender lesbian love story, a Hollywood cautionary fable, a seamy tale of disillusionment and shattered romanticism, and above all an inspired structural stunt, Mulholland Drive originated as a TV pilot. But after it was dropped by horrified ABC execs, French producers Studio Canal stepped in, allowing Lynch to shoot more footage and fashion a stand-alone feature. The film's unique architecture was apparently dictated by its troubled evolution. For about 100 minutes, Mulholland Drive both obeys and mocks the expository responsibilities of a television pilot: A perky, blond aspiring starlet (Naomi Watts), fresh off the plane from small-town Canada, befriends a vampy, brunet amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring), who has decided to call herself Rita, after a poster of Gilda in the bathroom. And then, at a rupture point cued by a knockout rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" (by Rebecca Del Rio, in Spanish), the movie explodes—or, per Variety, "makes a severe and unwelcome turn down the lost highway." The film's vertiginous final 45 minutes do indeed mirror the second half of the criminally underrated Lost Highway—in that they function as a role-reassigning, portal-traversing, deck-shuffling sabotage of the primary narrative. But Lynch's intuitive nightmare logic here has a visceral clarity worthy of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Against the gaudy Cannes backdrop of mass consumption and prodigal waste, there was something doubly triumphant about a movie that represents so heroic a recycling of discarded material.

Related articles:

The complete Village Voice series on Cannes 2001.

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