All or Nothing at the Cannes Film Festival

Uncertainty Principles

A movie that pretty much sets its own pace and agenda, Unknown Pleasures was unsurprisingly ignored by the jury. A more shocking omission, however, was Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark—a 96-minute tracking shot in which a stray 19th-century Frenchman superciliously accompanies a group of dead souls through the Winter Palace in Petersburg. Building in intensity toward a mind-boggling finale, Sokurov's movie seemed destined to win at least a prize for technical achievement, if only for the fantastic pageantry of its final 10 minutes.

Mistaken by some as an exercise in czarist nostalgia, Russian Ark is far more concerned with evoking Russia's sense of national unreality and cultural inferiority. This extreme film could only have been made with a digital camera. So too Kiarostami's Ten—an essay on Iran's "woman question," played out over a series of one-on-ones between a glamorous, assertive divorcée and the various passengers she chauffeurs in her car. The film is splendidly economical. Unfortunately the first sequence—a prolonged argument between the protagonist and her son, 10 years old and already a fully formed little man—is so powerful that the rest of the movie feels like an afterthought.

Cannes's prevailing ideology is a curious mixture of auteurist and anti-auterist. Thus former Palme d'Or winners like Leigh and Kiarostami can be dismissed for doing superior versions of what they always do, while Spider was criticized for being insufficiently Cronenbergian (as though Dead Ringers and Crash were dependent on special effects). The Son meanwhile was compared unfavorably to Rosetta—a movie that caused widespread dismay in some quarters when it unexpectedly won the Palme d'Or in 2000. (The Son is inferior to Rosetta only in that the Dardenne brothers' stampeding camera style offers no revelation of the protagonist's character.)

Key Witnesses: The Pianist's Brody and Polanski
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Key Witnesses: The Pianist's Brody and Polanski

The phenomenon of several hundred eager-to-vent journalists simultaneously exiting the same packed world premiere lends itself to instant analysis and groupthink. Mixed feelings are typically subsumed in ridiculous polarization. People love or they hate—and who's to tell them why? I suspect that Olivier Assayas's ambitious and much maligned Demonlover is not quite as terrible as many seemed to think. (But neither is it as great as the beleaguered few maintained.) Old movies add to the haze. The Pianist gets confused with Schindler's List; The Son is interpreted through the vigilante prism of In the Bedroom.

Conventional wisdom runs rampant. Still, the parade of highly touted movies continually serves to confound expectation. Thus, the most "Jewish" comedy was directed by a Palestinian and the most "Christian" film belonged to two Belgian Jews. The most violent movies—Demonlover and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible—were both French, and the most audacious experiment was Paul Thomas Anderson's attempt to place Adam Sandler between quotation marks. The most avant-garde narrative strategies were deployed by 93-year-old de Oliveira. Had his Uncertainty Principle appeared anonymously in one of the non-competitive sections, alongside such certified whatsits as Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's bizarre and touching jungle romance, Blissfully Yours, or Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas's nearly as eccentric and unpredictable back-to-nature jaunt, Japón, it might have seemed like a masterpiece.

Given a daily routine where hope (however briefly) springs eternal, exhaustion is endemic, and overstimulation constant, those movies that traffic in overt sensation—be it the dour emotional manipulation of Sweet Sixteen or the flash pyrotechnics of another juvenile crime piece, Fernando Meirelles's City of God—tend to be better received than they otherwise might be. This, however, was not generally the case with Irreversible. The festival's designated provocation (shown to the public at midnight, complete with warning label) boasts backward chronology, a vertiginous corkscrew camera, and—most viscerally—a nine-minute sequence in which gorgeous Monica Bellucci is first anally raped in a fetid Paris underpass and then graphically beaten to a bloody pulp.

Noé's follow-up to his confrontational I Stand Alone wants to induce nausea, moral indignation, and—with its gratuitous stroboscopic closer—epilepsy. Leaving the theater, you're less inclined to denounce the movie than scrape the bottom of your shoe.

Midway through the festival, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein materialized on the Croisette with a 20-minute trailer for Martin Scorsese's work-in-progress Gangs of New York. "Put your money on now," the Maxman advised of Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar chances. "I'm telling the other guys to leave town."

You can tell them, but will they listen? Cannes's most talked-about performance was Jack Nicholson's masterful turn as an unhappily retired insurance executive in Alexander Payne's bleak comedy About Schmidt. Nicholson's least sarcastic, most controlled performance since he had his head clamped to play Jimmy Hoffa is an American archetype out of Sinclair Lewis country—Schmidt's clueless stream of consciousness infusing an uninviting terrain of malls, trailer parks, and historical monuments with hilarious pathos. Despite, or perhaps because of, the movie's satire of Reaganesque rhetoric and New Age nonsense, Nicholson struck a chord, mainly with Americans. Endearingly, the French seemed to prefer the hitherto unknown (to them) Adam Sandler.

One wonders what the locals made of Michael Moore, who responded to the special prize given his satiric documentary on American gun culture, Bowling for Columbine, with a lengthy memorized statement in extravagantly mangled French. Interpreted variously as Dada performance art or grotesque grandstanding, Moore's five-minute presentation occasioned incredulous hilarity among the press corps while offering what seemed to be a uniquely enunciated Cannes mantra: egalité, liberté, fantaisie.

Related Article:
"Cannes Festival Roundup" by J. Hoberman

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