Tough Sells and Transported Cinephiles


It was a cinephile’s wet dream and a distributor’s nightmare. Never has the gap between art and commerce seemed more vivid—and perverse—than at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival, where critics and festival programmers raced teary-eyed and choked up with pleasure from one screening to another while American distributors whined night and day that there was nothing to buy. Nothing, in other words, that would guarantee them big bucks.

And certainly, the great films of the festival—Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, and Chantal Akerman’s La Captive—are not standard Angelika fare, although USA Films, which bought the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta at last year’s festival even before it won the Palme d’Or, followed up this prestigious venture by acquiring In the Mood for Love on the basis of a 10-minute clip and the director’s superhip art-house reputation. The most delicate and erotic of Wong Kar-wai’s films, In the Mood for Love is a memory piece that takes place in the lost world of early-’60s Hong Kong, also the setting of his 1991 Days of Being Wild. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play next-door neighbors who are drawn together when they discover that their spouses are having an affair, but the film is less a narrative than a poetic evocation of desire. Cheung’s swaying hips, Leung’s smoldering looks, fragments of Latin dance tunes, and the walls of corridors and rooms that both confine and separate the lovers, each wall as uniquely textured and colored as an abstract expressionist painting—these primary elements are combined afresh in every sequence. As elliptical as a Bresson film, In the Mood for Love also has a jazzy, improvisational feel, as if it were a series of riffs on the romantic longing that is its main theme.

The film was shown on the last day of the festival with the sound mix not yet completed. At the postscreening press conference, the exhausted director, who had been editing down to the wire, said that production had been extremely difficult. His two stars complained that Wong changed his mind every day and that the shooting took much too long. Cheung said that she had been extremely frustrated and angry during the shoot but now that she’d seen the film, she realized that the director’s method had paid off. Leung said he hoped that Wong would figure out how to work faster the next time. That was before he learned he’d won the best male performance award. In the Mood for Love also picked up the grand prize for technical achievement, given to the two cinematographers (Chris Doyle and Mark Li Ping-bing) and the production designer (William Chang Suk-ping).

More than any other festival, Cannes has put Asian cinema on the international map. This year 25 percent of the films in the four official categories (the Competition, its sidebar, Un Certain Regard, and the relatively autonomous Director’s Fortnight and Critics’ Week) were from Asia. If In the Mood for Love was among the most highly anticipated films of the festival, Eureka, by the young, virtually unknown Japanese director Shinji Aoyama, seemed to come from nowhere. Shot in slightly tinted black-and-white Cinemascope, Eureka is an oddball combination of Ford’s The Searchers and Kurosawa’s Ikiru, but its intimate connection to its main characters, the survivors of a bus hijacking, is utterly contemporary. As the bus driver who dedicates himself to helping his traumatized fellow survivors—a preadolescent sister and brother who have not spoken since the incident—Koji Yakusho (best known as the star of Shall We Dance? and The Eel) exudes a rare compassion and honesty. Aoyama creates a world so absorbing and so antithetical to the frenetic spectacle of the festival itself that, at three and half hours, the film zips by. I was as reluctant to part with it as the director himself seemed to be; Eureka‘s only flaw is that it ends four times before the final fade.

The festival’s main subtext: celluloid film’s last stand as the expressive medium of motion pictures. Since Lars von Trier and his Dogma group hijacked Cannes 1998 with their bogus manifesto and their commitment to digital video, Cannes has been a hotbed of DV production and digital delivery systems. In the face of the inevitable electronic future, the most exciting films of the first Cannes of the 21st century pushed the limits of celluloid. The luminous colors and sensuous textures of In the Mood for Love and the panoramic landscapes of Eureka are made for projection on the big screen (and the projection in the Lumière, the festival’s main venue, is unfailingly brilliant). Akerman’s La Captive and Tarr’s offputtingly titled Werckmeister Harmonies, both of which screened in the Director’s Fortnight but deserved to be in the competition, are just as defiantly cinematic.

Twenty-five years after her monumental Jeanne Dielman screened in Cannes, and one month short of her 50th birthday, Akerman returned with a sombre meditation on sexual obsession that owes as much to Vertigo as to the Proust novel (the fifth volume of Remembrance of Things Past) on which it’s loosely based. La Captive opens like a thriller, with a man trailing a woman by car and on foot through anearly deserted Paris, and climaxes with a car racing along a tree-lined country road at night, an image so dark that its details hover at the edge of complete blackout. The protagonist is a spoiled rich kid whose jealousy of his bisexual girlfriend’s female friendships destroys their love affair. Akerman displaces passion from the actors, who move through the film like somnambulists, to the lush visuals and the surging Rachmaninoff-laden score.

Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies is set in a small, frozen Hungarian town where the routine of daily life is disrupted by a traveling circus whose only attraction is the carcass of a gigantic whale. Visitors congregate in the central square to view the whale and his mysterious keeper, whose fascist rants fuel their anger. Joining ranks, they march through the town, destroying buildings and clubbing most of the inhabitants to death. Shot with a constantly tracking camera in Tarr’s signature grainy, deep-focus black and white, the film slowly gathers force, and the eruption of violence in the last half hour is terrifying and transcendent. In a festival that didn’t lack for memorable images, Werckmeister Harmonies contained two of the most haunting: a low-flying helicopter circling the Mishkin-like protagonist as he flees along a disused railroad track; and the whale lying abandoned, his huge gray body nearly swallowed up in the mist enveloping the wreckage of the town.

Next to the Tarr, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, the preordained winner of the Palme d’Or (a week before its first screening, everyone including my hotel manager was certain that it would win) seemed like the work of a pretentious amateur. I attribute the hysterical hype around Dancer to the fact that it’s virtually a commercial for Sony (the musical numbers were shot simultaneously by 100 small DV cameras). “One hundred cameras and he couldn’t get a shot of Joel Grey with his head and his dancing feet together in the frame,” muttered a British critic who loathed the film as fully as I did. But we were in the minority. A cross between The Green Mile and MTV, with touches of Lillian Gish silent melodramas, Dancer in the Dark is grossly manipulative and so incoherent that anything and everything can be projected onto it. Most of the French critics read the central character played by Björk—a blind, immigrant single mother and factory worker who sacrifices her life to save her son’s eyesight—as the Virgin Mary. And since France is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, this reading was enough to guarantee that Björk, making what she claimed was her first and last acting appearance, would win the best female performance award. I dislike the film on two grounds: first because it uses the spectacle of a suffering woman to ensnare its audience (von Trier saw Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc at an impressionable age and has since been trying to make a film that would give him as big a hard-on), and second because it’s visually boring and inert. Unlike Arturo Ripstein, whose unassuming contemporary Medea (one of the highlights of Un Certain Regard) is cannily art-directed to take advantage of the murky colors and flattened space of DV, or Agnes Varda, whose moving documentary The Gleaners and I takes advantage of the intimacy and improvisation afforded by tiny cameras, von Trier has become such a DV proselytizer that he ignores the medium’s expressive limitations.

Sleep-deprived, with emotions jangled by the experiences of three or four narrative arcs per day (you have only the occasional break to sort through your mail or grab a pizza), critics far more restrained than I have been known to respond hyperbolically to the films they view in Cannes. But until DV technology vastly improves, I’ll stick with Brian De Palma, who remarked in his press conference for Mission to Mars (the only big studio release in the festival, trounced as thoroughly as in the U.S.) that DV is best used by novice directors who no longer have to wait five years for someone to take a chance on their projects. The problem then becomes sorting through first films when there are as many of them as first novels.

In addition to the films mentioned above, Edward Yang’s A One and a Two, a novelistic mapping of a midlife crisis that made grown men in the audience weep, is restrained in form and brilliantly detailed in depicting the connections among some dozen characters, ranging in age from eight to 80. The Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli followed up her great The Silences of the Palace with The Season of Men, an equally devastating depiction of the repression of women in a conservative, misogynist society. Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep (winner of the Grand Jury prize) is set during the Japanese occupation of China but plays more like an Eastern European black comedy than a Chinese historical drama. It includes a spectacular shot from the point of view of a freshly severed head as it bounces off the executioner’s sword. And Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, though conventionally constructed, is a thoroughly engrossing, politically astute biopic (it doesn’t shy from black-on-black violence) graced by a marvelous performance by Eriq Ebouaney, who turns the martyred leftist leader into a hero without neglecting his vulnerability.

Most of the American films paled in comparison with this international array, but Michele Rodriquez’s star turn in Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight mesmerized the audience at Cannes as much as at Sundance. And E. Elias Merhige’s confused genre hybrid Shadow of the Vampire has the weirdly compelling premise that Max Schreck, the actor with the massive head who played the title role in Murnau’s Nosferatu, was in real life a vampire. Willem Dafoe delivers a wildly inventive black-comic performance as the bloodthirsty Schreck, who at one point grabs a flying bat in his teeth and swallows it whole. After such a tasty appetizer, what could he want for a main course? “Next,” he explains, “I eat ze script girl.”

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