Roads to Perdition

Doomsday Visions and Ugly Americans at the Cannes Film Festival

But no film maudit could compare to The Brown Bunny. Notorious well in advance of its mid-festival screening, the film was reported to feature a lengthy act of oral sex performed by Chloë Sevigny on the film's producer, director, scenarist, editor, designer, star, and only credited camera operator, Vincent Gallo (see interview). The blowjob is there—although the precise object of its attentions would be a matter of some conjecture.

Giving new meaning to the phrase "the one and only," The Brown Bunny proved no less monomaniacal than Gallo's Buffalo '66, albeit more minimalist in execution and romantic in intent. Playing sweet and lost, Gallo—as an itinerant motorcycle racer called Bud—drives across the country from New Hampshire to L.A., searching for, wooing, and then rejecting a succession of lonely young women who all happen to be named for flowers. (In St. Louis, he varies the routine to visit a pet store and fondle the bunnies.) Seemingly shot in 16mm, often through a dirty windshield, and mainly resembling a parody '60s road film, this leisurely exercise in enervation cannot be said to lack integrity. No one will ever accuse Gallo of pandering to anyone other than himself. The director treats his star's most banal activities—feeding a Coke machine or brushing his teeth—as monumental, if not world-historic, activities.

Cumulatively hilarious, and perhaps the most narcissistic psychodrama in film history, The Brown Bunny features a borderline-autistic performance at once self-aggrandizing and withholding—not least when he has his big scene with Sevigny, who abruptly materializes as a crack-smoking Little Mary Sunshine. (Actually, her name is Daisy and she's been previously glimpsed in flashback, groping Bud as they ride a bicycle not precisely built for two.) "Can I hug you, Bud?" Daisy asks abjectly. He's not sure. In the scene that follows, Sevigny not only has to make like she's sucking her director's cock but is berated for her efforts throughout this thankless labor of love.

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

Indeed, Gallo's whining extended beyond the film's climax and lachrymose coda. Perhaps taken aback by the press's openly derisive response, Gallo apologized for his movie (albeit revoking his regrets the next day). Although this 1,000-to-1 long shot to win the Palme d'Or achieved the lowest rating ever in the history of the Screen International critics' jury, The Brown Bunny did have its champions—many of them, not surprisingly, French. Informed of this enthusiasm, all-American Gallo was not impressed. The approval of a few Parisian snobs was, he ungraciously noted, "salt in the wound."

As fascinating in its pathology as The Brown Bunny, Alexander Sokurov's Father and Son posits a wildly eroticized filial relationship. The movie begins with the sound of heavy breathing and a series of anatomical close-ups suggesting father and son in intimate embrace. "A father's love crucifies," the twentyish child muses of his frequently bare-chested progenitor, a ruggedly handsome dude who seems scarcely 15 years older than he. Often resembling two statues, the guys spend much of the movie staring into each other's eyes and exchanging long, tender hugs. Such narrative as exists is precipitated by the son's jealousy of a friend who seems entirely too interested in his dad; the possessive lad is smacked by another Oedipal broadside when his vixenish girlfriend, herself jealous of his relationship with father, leaves him—so she says—for an older man.

Because Sokurov is Sokurov, this wacky scenario is amazingly staged, inventively edited, and rich in audio layering, with camera placements that sometimes verge on the Brakhagian. But the filmmaker's exalted idea of the mythic love he was depicting seemed largely lost on his audience. Outraged by questions regarding the movie's blatant homoeroticism, Sokurov treated the press to an angry lecture on the preoccupations of the decadent west. This patriotic defensiveness mirrors the film's. That both father and son are soldiers (and Sokurov himself was an army brat) adds to the mix an element of devotion to the fatherland and a backbeat of what Germans call the Männerstaat—the nation as expression of masculine authority. Indeed, the hunky father is explicitly a wounded veteran—but of what? Afghanistan is here the war that dare not speak its name.

Speaking of unpopular foreign entanglements, the most topical and perhaps the most universally admired movie in Cannes's official section was Errol Morris's The Fog of War—a documentary portrait, shown out of competition, of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Culled from 20 hours of interviews and amply annotated with archival footage and declassified White House tapes, The Fog of War allows this impressive and disarming 86-year-old raconteur to once again recount the lessons he learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis (empathize with your enemy and don't put your faith in rational behavior) and detail his lesser-known experiences as one of the contributors to the firebombing of Japan during World War II as well as the pioneer of the automobile seat belt.

The Fog of War glancingly raises some powerful issues. McNamara several times broaches the subject of war crimes and appears prepared to re-examine his own mistakes, even as he seems remarkably unwilling to accept any personal responsibility. Given his double bind, he tells Morris, "I'd rather be damned if I don't." A key Morris notion—that seeing may be believing, but both belief and sight are often wrong—shadows McNamara's account of the hopeless Vietnam War. Distressingly, the very lessons that McNamara purports to have learned at John Kennedy's side, eyeball to eyeball with Nikita Khrushchev, seemed utterly forgotten once his new master Lyndon Johnson inherited the White House and the Indochinese quagmire.

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