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Roads to Perdition

Doomsday Visions and Ugly Americans at the Cannes Film Festival

 CANNES, FRANCE—The appropriate Hollywood ending for the Cannes Film Festival would have been a Palme d'Or garland for Clint Eastwood's Mystic River. Directed by a 73-year-old legend, rhapsodically received by French and American auteurists alike, this character-driven crime thriller offered an opportunity to end a lackluster festival with a burst of manufactured glamour.

Even more interesting, a winning Mystic River—which, like many of Eastwood's movies, can be read as a meditation on lone-wolf, vigilante justice—would have provided a suitably ambiguous conclusion for the much discussed Franco-American tensions that, as explicated in the pages of Variety and the leftish French daily Libération, provided this festival with its particular narrative. Instead, the jury (evidently as unhappy with the quality of the competition films as the press) opted for Gus Van Sant's Elephant—a poetic evocation of a Columbine-like American high school shooting that was attacked by Variety's Todd McCarthy as "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst" and proved markedly more popular with French critics than Americans.

Elephant, though stronger on formal values and surface tension than social context or psychological analysis, was scarcely the least movie that the jury, headed by French director Patrice Chéreau (Intimacy) and including Americans Steven Soderbergh and Meg Ryan, might have decorated. Strictly in terms of passion, originality, and sustained cinematic chutzpah, however, Lars von Trier's allegory Dogville towered over the competition. Since von Trier had just won the Palme d'Or in 2000 (for his altogether less successfully realized Dancer in the Dark), Dogville was clearly a long shot for the top prize—although, by the festival's closing days, one could only get even odds on its winning.

As steeped in suffering as Sister Carrie: Nicole Kidman in Von Trier's Dogville
photo: Rolf Konow
As steeped in suffering as Sister Carrie: Nicole Kidman in Von Trier's Dogville

Working with a handheld camera on a nearly bare stage, von Trier invents an abstract American community, populated by an assortment of stock American figures, as the strikingly austere arena for a provocative parable of Christian charity and Old Testament revenge that's as steeped in suffering as Sister Carrie and corrosive enough for Mark Twain. In the Hollywood scenario, Clint and Mystic River would have arrived out of the West at the last possible moment to shoot Dogville down in the street—although, if the truth be known, von Trier's bad-town scenario has distinct points of contact with Eastwood's nastiest western, High Plains Drifter. Not surprisingly, Variety aggressively championed Mystic River and McCarthy reserved his greatest disapproval for Dogville's anti-Americanism: "Von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world." Turned out that the jury didn't much care for Dogville either, denying the movie even a single award.

As the first Cannes to feature post-9-11 films, the competition was filled with doomsday visions. Elephant and Dogville, both of which end with massacres, were only the most obvious examples. Others featuring similarly explosive closers included Hector Babenco's overwrought and underwhelming Brazilian prison spectacular Carandiru and even Raúl Ruiz's underrated dark comedy That Day, which wound up littering a Swiss chateau with corpses. André Téchiné's respectable World War II drama Strayed depicted the breakdown of social order in the French countryside; Michael Haneke's ultimately dull, but not abusive, World War III (or maybe IV) fantasy The Time of the Wolf articulated a similar situation in often identical terms. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's disappointing Bright Future imagined a soft apocalypse of proliferating jellyfish, and despite its grandiose title, Denys Arcand's excruciatingly facile crowd-pleaser and jury screenplay winner, The Barbarian Invasions, imagined the world's end in a single middle-aged cancer death.

The competition was strewn with failures, culminating in Peter Greenaway's arch, inconsequential, and painfully unfunny The Tulse Luper Suitcases—Part I, The Moab Stories. For me, Chinese director Lou Ye's perversely stylish Purple Butterfly was the most resonant flop. Following his misty Suzhou River even further into genre territory, Lou's overly perfumed, wildly impressionistic, rather too Wong Kar-wai period thriller—set before and during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai—boldly conflates HK gunplay, a moody Herrmannesque score, symphonic achronological structure, and a highly ambiguous love story. Fabulously morose, filled with time-wasting gazes and cigarette-shrouded silences, devoting long, rack-focused moments to shifts in the light, Purple Butterfly has an abundance of close-ups and a paucity of dialogue. The only constants are the perpetual monsoon soaking Shanghai and actress Zhang Ziyi's tragic beauty.

Like the jury's runner-up—the Turkish drama Uzak (Distant), belatedly recognized as one of the competition's strongest films—Purple Butterfly had a deliberate pacing that occasioned scores of noisy walkouts during its press screening. Afterward, the bafflement was so pervasive that not even Cannes insiders seemed sure if 20 minutes had been or would be cut from the movie. At the very least, Lou's ambitious misfire offered one of the festival's great scenes: Following a bloody operation that each thinks they have orchestrated, two duplicitous, mutually disinforming lovers (a Japanese agent and a member of the Chinese underground) execute a steamy foxtrot to an endless Shanghai ballad. Little is said but much is revealed; as successive waves of emptiness and paranoia wash over their faces, covers are blown, then minds. Finally, as gunfire breaks out, the entire dancehall erupts in a dance of death. (The only scene in the festival to compare is the real-time, fixed-camera jewelry-store robbery that begins and ends Iranian director Jafar Panahi's deadpan dark comedy Crimson Gold, included in the festival's Un Certain Regard section.)

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