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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.

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.

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.

One or two finds are not enough to suggest that there's a vital new generation of filmmakers to take the place of the old masters. Almost all the great films in Cannes were by obsessive, wily, courageous old codgers who find a way to continue working even though they've outlived the collective vision that inspired them to make movies in the first place. No one believes any longer, as in the '60s, that film can transform the world. That's what Godard is saying when he ends Éloge with the line "Perhaps I said nothing." And it's more than passing sad.


Related articles:

The complete Village Voice series on Cannes 2001.

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