All or Nothing at the Cannes Film Festival

Uncertainty Principles

Cannes, FranceSay this for the circus of iron discipline and sun-baked self-indulgence that constitutes the Cannes Film Festival: It's a critic's way of knowledge, a 12-day peyote trip that more or less compels reacquaintance with the parameters of one's particular taste.

To judge from reviews, conversations, and daily polls, hardly any of the several thousand assembled critics would have awarded the festival's Palme d'Or to Roman Polanski's The Pianist, adapted from the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Neither, perhaps, would any of the nine jurors if they were act-ing individually. In sifting through a competition widely considered the strongest of recent years, David Lynch and his colleagues gave prizes to over a third of the 22 eligible films—albeit recognizing only one of the five competing movies that most impressed this writer.

I appreciate the jury awards to Aki Kaurismäki's engaging, relatively light comedy The Man Without a Past and understand the enthusiasm for Elia Suleiman's sardonic Palestinian fantasy Divine Intervention, but heading my personal gang of five (which also includes Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son, Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, and Manoel de Oliveira's The Uncertainty Principle) was David Cronenberg's sensationally grim Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a barely coherent schizophrenic off his meds and wandering through the rubble of his East London childhood.

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

Brilliantly adapting Patrick McGrath's first-person novel, Cronenberg handles his delusional hero's flashbacks and fantasies with total assurance. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, to which Spider was habitually compared, the rules that govern the protagonist's consciousness are scrupulously fair and the mood sustained throughout. The movie is as much designed as directed. The environment is drab but hardly naturalistic—a color-muted, emptied-out world in which an enormous gas tank serves as the presiding deity and various manifestations of Miranda Richardson come to embody all women.

Interestingly, Spider's dark humor, precise mise-en-scène, claustrophobic rigor, and unflinching dehumanization were closer to vintage Polanski than anything else in competition—even The Pianist. Still, Polanski's comeback opus was neither as familiar nor as bland as some would have it. The movie is hampered by awkward exposition and a slack script, but its violently absurd and vividly detailed representation of the Warsaw ghetto, re-created on a German soundstage, is unprecedented in its emphasis on class, crazies, and especially children. At its laconic best, this hour-long stretch equals anything that Polanski has ever done.

Several were put off by the movie's passive hero (played with beaky elegance by Adrien Brody), although the musician's random survival is part of the movie's point. The opening scene has Szpilman attempting to play the piano through the German aerial attack—displaying a composure that is scarcely ever broken until the deportation of his family sends him weeping through streets of ghetto detritus, stumbling over corpses and into a trashed hovel. There, he's unexpectedly saved once more—pulled by an acquaintance into a hidey-hole, where he lies upside down and babbling.

The subjectivity of The Pianist and Spider aside, the competition was ruled by social realism—in all its varieties. There was the beatified naturalism of Mike Leigh's All or Nothing—a sort of kitchen-sink baroque enlivened by a gallery of Dickensian grotesques—and the lyrical underdog daze of Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past (seemingly the festival's most critically beloved film). Although less ostentatiously minimal than classics like Ariel or The Match Factory Girl, this saga of Helsinki's down-and-out has passages as tense and spare as any 1950 programmer—although the movie's irresistible, One Big Union solidarity is rendered frivolous by a persistent sentimentality regarding dogs and rock bands.

Sharing little of Kaurismäki's humor, the Dardenne brothers are more didactic (and less collectivist). The brothers focus, as usual, on the nuts and bolts of making a living. But for all its quasi-documentary materialism, The Son is a religious tract on one man's desire to return good for evil—a story that requires a measure of faith on the part of the viewer. More conventional and considerably less moving, Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen has the look of verité and a narrative harking back to the Warner Bros. slum dramas of the late 1930s (albeit with a taste of Mean Streets, complete with crucial pizza parlor).

Loach's account of a good kid done in by bad surroundings seemed particularly tired in the light of Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, which, like his previous features Xiao Wu and Platform, elevates Chinese cinema to a new level. Two unemployed boys vegetate in the ugly provincial city of Datong—hanging around a rec center with the feel of a derelict factory, making occasional trips to cave-like discos, dank noodle houses, and tawdry video parlors. One seems addicted to a cartoon version of The Monkey King; the other pursues a pretty dancer with a Cleopatra wig who performs with the Mongolian King Liquor troupe. Meanwhile, TV transmits reports on the downed U.S. plane or a terrorist explosion in a local mill. Everything is crowded, shabby, and despoiled; everyone is mercenary or depressed. Jia's formalist social realism frames people in their environment and observes them in real time. Unlike Sweet Sixteen, which works neither as doc nor drama, Unknown Pleasures is triumphantly both.

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.)

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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