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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.)

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.

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.

Morris's subject does not come across as a grandstanding prevaricator like Henry Kissinger. But one may well wonder how a man as evidently brilliant and thoughtful as McNamara can claim to have been ignorant of certain historical dynamics (the antipathy between Vietnam and China, for example) that would have been readily available to any moderately aware high school student in 1966. On the other hand, one may also be amazed to hear the octogenarian powerhouse suddenly launch into a criticism of U.S. unilateralism. Curiously, that aside seemed to resonate more positively with American than foreign critics.

A skeptical review in Le Monde accused Morris of demonstrating too much sympathy for the devil. But more than providing the satanic McNamara with a human face, The Fog of War offers additional evidence that the road to hell—or, at least, the way to Dogville—is paved with good intentions. Who was ever better or brighter than Robert McNamara? Unfortunately, as the Vietnam debacle so abundantly demonstrated, intelligence hardly guarantees against its own failures—a maxim that might even apply to the Cannes Film Festival itself.


Related Articles:

"My Bunny Valentine: Vincent Gallo at Cannes—a Blow-by-Blow Account" by Mark Peranson

"Sim City: Indulging in Cannes's Desserts of the Reel" by J. Hoberman

"Van Sant Wins Top Prize at Cannes" by J. Hoberman

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