God and Man at Cannes

The Mirror Has Two Faces

Defining 20th-century history as bifurcated by World War II and the coming of television, Godard splits the film into two parts, the first shot in fine-grain black-and-white 35mm, the second in video, the color as intense and oversaturated as in Fauvist painting. Bits of the voice-over text from the first part are repeated in the second, but their meaning is altered because of the differing expressive qualities of the film and video images. Godard, who once likened the relationship between video and film to that of Cain and Abel, resolves the conflict by pushing each medium to its limit within a single work of art.

Given that anti-U.S. feeling is stronger in Europe now than at any time since the war in Vietnam, Éloge de l'Amour and Apocalypse Now Redux had particular relevance. The smug provincialism of U.S. journalism makes it necessary to go abroad to discover how outraged the rest of the world is that a president whose election is viewed as dubious at best has, within three months, effectively overturned two treaties on which the fate of the world hangs and which took decades to negotiate—the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the Kyoto accord.

Various members of the jury were heard to say that the looming presence of the Coppola film (it was screened out of competition) made it difficult for them to decide on a winner. Which doesn't excuse their awarding the Palme d'Or to Nanni Moretti's bathetic, self-aggrandizing The Son's Room. Moretti's depiction of a family trying to come to terms with its grief at the loss of their teenage son is the middlebrow soap opera version of Todd Field's genuinely tragic In the Bedroom, which disappeared into the maw of Miramax after its Sundance premiere. In the Bedroom should have been in Cannes, and I only hope Miramax releases it before the American press falls for the Moretti film as hard as the French press already has.

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

Éloge de l'Amour destroyed my tolerance for the conventions of linear narrative, even when they're as artfully treated as in Jacques Rivette's charming Va Savoir, which has the brio of an 18th-century Italian bedroom farce—what the film eventually reveals itself to be. Only Shohei Imamura's wacky, life-affirming evocation of the oceanic experience of great sex, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge; David Lynch's genuinely scary Hollywood horror film Mulholland Drive (as amazing a piece of pop surrealism as Blue Velvet); and Claude Lanzmann's stern, stripped-down Holocaust documentary Sobibor, 14 Octobre, 16 Heures were stunning and original enough in their storytelling methods (or, in the case of the Lanzmann film, in the story it told) not to seem laborious or just old hat.

Sometimes it's the films that are only partially successful that haunt you after a festival is over. I'd welcome another chance to see Abel Ferrara's R-Xmas, a vertiginous, anti-Sopranos riff on middle-class drug dealers in which not a single shot is fired. In a festival that didn't stint on violence, Ferrara's uncharacteristic restraint and understatement registered as a unique accomplishment. Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, a vampire picture that crossed Ferrara with Mario Bava, set the standard for gore. As messy in conception as in its bloody mise en scène, it's the first misstep in her career.

One couldn't help noting the unusually large number of films with lesbian sex scenes—most hilariously in Mulholland Drive, most psychotically in Michael Haneke's The Pianist, where Isabelle Huppert tries to dry hump her mother. The Pianist rose to the top of the most-controversial-film list when it snatched three prizes, the same three won by Bruno Dumont's similarly disturbing L'Humanité two years before (best actor, best actress, plus the Grand Jury Prize, which is the runner-up to the Palme d'Or). The two films are in many ways mirror-opposite images of twisted sexuality. L'Humanité focuses on a semiliterate man, The Pianist on a cultured woman. That difference alone may explain why so many of my colleagues who were fascinated by the Dumont film found the Haneke absurd. I found The Pianist unpleasant but, as a case study of female desire, repression, and oedipal trauma, not at all outré. There was, however, no controversy about Huppert's extraordinary performance. Indeed, the single most indelible image in the festival may be the close-up of her face, contorted with rage and self-loathing, as she administers the coup de grâce. Similarly scorned as irritating and pointless, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo also bears the burden of being about a woman; here she's young, beautiful, rather stupid, and extremely shut down. Millennium Mambo is almost as one-note as a Warhol movie, but Hou complicates perspective by playing close-up imagery against a distancing voice-over narration that looks back at the present from the year 2010.

So with at least a half-dozen great or near great movies, why was Cannes 2001 as disappointing for cinephiles as it was for le public? Perhaps because there were only one or two discoveries, and none as exciting as last year's Eureka. Screening a day after Apocalypse, Zacharias Kunuk's three-hour Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner is an epic of a different order and a landmark in its own right. The winner of the Camera d'Or and the first Inuit language fiction feature, Fast Runner is a spare dramatization of a popular myth involving adultery, rape, pillage, murder, and eventual reconciliation. It's also a gorgeous landscape movie shot in digital video, which, since it gives equal focus to everything in the frame, turns out to be a terrific medium for depicting the vast, undifferentiated ice fields of the Great North.

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