CANNES, FRANCE—Posh and tacky in equal measure, the Cannes Film Festival kicked off its 54th installment last Wednesday night with Moulin Rouge, a movie that boldly embodies the event’s own chronic bipolarity. Set in 1900 Montmartre (or rather a time-warped parallel-universe version thereof), Baz Luhrmann’s thrilling rendition of La Boheme walks a perilously thin line between the vulgar and the sublime. This marks the second consecutive year that Cannes has served as launchpad for a confrontational postmodern musical. (Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark divided audiences, then walked off with the Palme d’Or.) A Titanic-scaled romance between boho poet Ewan McGregor and doomed courtesan Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge (which opens in New York on Friday) received a six-minute standing ovation at the opening-night gala, but many critics have been decidedly less enthusiastic; the French daily Liberation compared it to “the very worst Disney, only dripping in camp.” The movie’s voracious approach to pastiche is designed to jar, though: It absorbs a century’s worth of pop-cultural signifiers and recycles them in anachronistic, intertextual musical numbers. (The leads fashion a romantic medley by exchanging familiar lyric fragments: “All you need is love,” “One night in the name of love,” “Love lifts us up where we belong.”) To bemoan its hollowness is to miss the point. Moulin Rouge is a testament to the improbable power of hoary myths and silly love songs, a dazzling demonstration of how clichés gain resonance—through reclamation, reenactment, and mutual ownership.
For its opening-night bash, Twentieth Century Fox went as far as to re-create Club Moulin Rouge on the Old Pier of the Croisette. Reportedly to the disapproval of festival organizers, the studio constructed from scratch an enormous three-room replica and filled it with fire-eaters, jugglers, tumblers, cancan dancers, and boa’ed showgirls. Fatboy Slim manned the turntables; Luhrmann, Kidman, McGregor, and John Leguizamo (who plays Toulouse-Lautrec in the film) were in attendance. Not to be outdone, New Line pulled out all the stops for its worldwide launch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: a hot-ticket 26-minute sneak preview, a three-day junket, and a party at a hilltop château outside the city for which props and designers were specially flown in to reproduce the movie’s extravagant sets.
Even discounting the studio-manufactured splash, the Americans have been hogging the spotlight thus far. The Coen brothers made their near annual pilgrimage with The Man Who Wasn’t There—a rambling quasi noir about unhappy marriages and botched criminal schemes in late-’40s small-town U.S.A., doused in phony melancholy and undone by fatuous stabs at profundity. The noncompetitive Un Certain Regard showcase opened with Abel Ferrara’s R-Xmas, starring Sopranos regulars Drea DeMatteo and Lillo Brancato Jr. as respectable Upper East Siders who moonlight as smack dealers. A Capra fable abducted and held hostage in the New York narcotics underworld, R-Xmas is illuminated by the improbable glow of seasonal goodwill and set in the final month of David Dinkins’s mayorship (the director calls it a “period piece”).
A different sort of hell-raiser, Todd Solondz, returns with the diptych Storytelling, a declaration of war in the form of preemptive, disingenuous auto-critique. More dogged than ever in his desire to offend, the suburban avenger offers an anal sex scene featuring the refrain “Nigger fuck me hard,” a teen same-sex blowjob scored to Belle and Sebastian’s “The State I Am In,” and an alternative definition of rape (“It is when you love someone, and they don’t love you, and you do something about it”). Characters are mocked and attacked for being mean-spirited, racist, misogynist, and for harboring revenge fantasies, but the true object of ridicule is the poor fool who happens to be voicing these protests. Often hateful, on occasion hilarious, alternately defensive and combative, it’s Solondz’s most fascinating film yet.
The Coppola clan was out in full force over the weekend. The world premiere of Apocalypse Now Redux, a reedited extra-footage version of Francis Ford Coppola’s 22-year-old Palme d’Or winner, was followed by a screening of son Roman’s scattered but endearing CQ, a fetishistic ode to retro-futurist chic about the making of a Barbarella-like romp in 1969 Paris. Continuing the unofficial Coppola sidebar later in the week: Michel Gondry’s simian dramedy Human Nature, produced by FFC son-in-law Spike Jonze and written by his Being John Malkovich partner Charlie Kaufman.
With 10 of the 23 competition entries unveiled as of Sunday night, the consensus favorites are both border-crossing political allegories: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, a viscerally poeticized account of the Taliban-regime horrors in Afghanistan, and No Man’s Land, in which first-time Bosnian director Danis Tanovic glibly reduces the Balkan conflict to existential endgame. In this viewer’s opinion, though, the one to beat for the Palme d’Or so far is 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home, a patient, rueful, dryly funny memento mori that unerringly evokes the numb aftermath of loss and the sustaining comforts of habit. Its star, French veteran Michel Piccoli, is a clear early front-runner for an acting prize. Leading candidates for best actress: Kidman, for sheer star power (turning a diva composite into an avowal of her own iconhood), and Isabelle Huppert, who somehow triumphs over the most grueling debasements thrust upon her by Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest instrument of torture, the ridiculous sex-farce-of-sorts La Pianiste.
The festival has saved its big guns for the second half. Still to come: works by French old-timers Godard and Rivette and Taiwanese festival perennials Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang. The 10-person jury—headed by Liv Ullmann and including Terry Gilliam and last year’s Best Director winner, Edward Yang—will present the awards at Sunday’s closing ceremony.
The complete Village Voice series on Cannes 2001.