God and Man at Cannes

The Mirror Has Two Faces

 CANNES, FRANCE—At the least, there are two Cannes Film Festivals. The best-known is a glamorous, star-driven affair that draws le public to what is basically a convention town built on a marshland. (Despite the sun and the Mediterranean sea air, the weather in Cannes is unhealthily humid and of benefit only to hairdressers and makeup artists, who labor day and night to cure celebrities of sudden skin eruptions and attacks of the frizzies.) This year, le public was disappointed that there were so few international (i.e., Hollywood) stars in attendance. Although the speakers flanking the famed red-carpeted entrance to the Grand Theatre Lumière blared the theme from Chinatown night after night, Jack Nicholson was a no-show for the European premiere of The Pledge. The fans and the TV crews (omnipresent though far fewer in number than in previous years) had to content themselves with sightings of Nicole Kidman, the inseparable couple Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, and Jodie Foster, who appeared unexpectedly at the closing night award ceremony, putting to rest the rumors that she had grievously widened the rift between the festival and the Hollywood industry when she decided that starring in David Fincher's The Panic Room (she replaced the ailing Kidman) was more important than acting as president of the Cannes jury. Griffith, the winner of the festival's lifetime achievement award, was feted at a ceremonial dinner where she seemed a bit bewildered to hear herself compared to Katharine Hepburn.

Hyperbole is not limited to the Cannes of stars and million-dollar promotional parties. It also infects the cinephiles' Cannes—same movies, same venues, but a different audience with a different perspective. Thus, at the mobbed press conference following the screening of Éloge de l'Amour, the film's director, Jean-Luc Godard, looked decidedly irritated when the effusive moderator introduced him as "God." A few minutes later, as if sending his unconscious into overdrive to prove his all-too-human vulnerability, he came out with a classic slip of the tongue, substituting the name of his former wife and star Anna Karina for that of the eponymous heroine of Tolstoy's novel about marriage and adultery. In and out of town within 24 hours, Godard fought against nostalgia, but could not help noting that the first time he came to the festival he ran into Jack Nicholson carrying cans of film into the projection booth. "That Cannes no longer exists. Today it's just people talking on cell phones."

For me, Éloge de l'Amour was the great experience of the festival, followed closely by Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux, an extended version of the picture that shared the Palme d'Or in 1979 with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum. A fusion of personal vision with the scale and virtuosity only Hollywood machinery can offer, Apocalypse is one of the monsters of '70s filmmaking, and it holds the screen even more powerfully today. The additional footage has its problems, and you can understand why Coppola dropped most of it in the first place; but by retarding the descent into madness and the arrival in Kurtz's village (which was too abrupt in the first released version), it improves the overall shape of the film. Clocking in at 193 minutes, Apocalypse flew by, one of those films that take possession of time and change your perception of it. The new print, made through the three-color dye transfer process that Hollywood phased out in the early '70s, is dark without being murky. Seen through Martin Sheen's shell-shocked eyes, the glistening blacks of the forest and the river in themselves suggest a psychic trip into the heart of darkness. Apocalypse Now Redux will be released in the U.S. in late August by Miramax (probably the first time the infamously scissors-happy Harvey Weinstein has gotten behind the long cut of a film).

Histoire du cinéma: Bruno Putzulu in Éloge de l’Amour
photo: Cannes Film Festival
Histoire du cinéma: Bruno Putzulu in Éloge de l’Amour

If Apocalypse has the expressive extravagance of a Wagner opera—and not merely because the swooping helicopter scene is set to the "Ride of the Valkyries"—then Éloge de l'Amour has the internal intricacy, precision, and above all, the tenderness of a late Beethoven chamber work. On one level, Éloge is about a filmmaker (a stand-in for Godard) who's trying to make a film that's like a piece of music ("a cantata for Simone Weil," he says at one point). Godard's program note suggests that the film once involved a series of love affairs that cut across three generations. But that aspect has pretty much fallen by the wayside, leaving only the filmmaker's obsession with the granddaughter of an elderly couple who fought in the French Resistance and who are about to sell their story to Hollywood, "which needs to appropriate the stories of others because it has none of its own to tell." Godard's angry but extremely witty attack on Hollywood imperialism—and in particular on Spielberg's Schindler's List—drew malicious laughter from the Cannes audience and may be the reason Éloge is being described as one of Godard's most accessible films. But, in fact, it's very much in the mode of his cinematic essays on history and memory (none of which have been released theatrically in the U.S.), the difference being that Éloge is more elegantly shaped and more subtly edited than anything Godard has ever made.

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