CANNES, FRANCE—It was somehow appropriate that the illusory, use-once-and-destroy pop plaything known as Moulin Rouge, curtain raiser for the 54th Cannes Film Festival, had all but lapsed from collective awareness by the end of this year’s 12-day movie binge. (The willfully obscene three-room simulacrum of “Club Moulin Rouge” that 20th Century Fox erected on the Croisette especially for the opening-night festivities vanished almost immediately after.) Love it or loathe it, Baz Luhrmann’s bulimic, scattershot fantasia set the tone for an event that thrives on excess and enforces its own form of attention-deficit disorder. Each successive day offers a string of increasingly hallucinatory choices: The new Todd Solondz or the, um, Ethan Hawke? Roaring Dragon, Bluffing Tiger or Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger (to cite but two of the CTHD-inspired titles screening in the bowels of the concurrent film market)? A dinner for Jean-Claude Van Damme (in town to promote a Ringo Lam-directed vehicle titled The Monk) or a screening of veteran Italian director Ermanno Olmi’s medieval-warfare competition entry, The Profession of Arms? (Your correspondent dutifully opts for the latter, much to his regret.)
In this frenetic carnival atmosphere, no movie turned down the volume and pace more gratifyingly than 92-year-old Manoel de Oliveira’s latest memento mori, I’m Going Home. The film opens, serenely and patiently, with a lengthy excerpt from a production of Ionesco’s Exit the King. Later, backstage, the elderly lead actor (Michel Piccoli) is informed that his family has perished in a car crash. This rueful, dryly humorous film charts a wary return to normalcy, but it’s unsentimental enough to acknowledge that coping mechanisms do break down, and that (as the title suggests) a categorical retreat is sometimes the only way out.
Shell shock proved a dominant theme—whether served raw or processed into emotional laxative, as in Nanni Moretti’s feel-good-about-feeling-bad Palme d’Or recipient, The Son’s Room, a shamefully unworthy winner for any number of reasons: the bland staging and massively rigged conception, the TV-weepie strong-arm tactics, the assaultive soundtrack crescendos, the platitudinous certitude that wounds will heal and lives will go on (in time for the end credits). All of which made it more difficult to stomach than even, say, a film as murky and misshapen as Shinji Aoyama’s truly anguished Desert Moon. As much as Eureka, the momentous post-traumatic saga Aoyama unveiled at Cannes last year, this new film—about the fallout from a nuclear family explosion—feels like an organic act of coming to terms, though this time his searchers discover no state of grace, just a shrill affirmation of family values.
Eureka was made in response to the Aum Shinrikyo nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway—as was this year’s competition entry by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Distance. Less emotionally direct and yet, in many ways, more restorative than the director’s previous grief-management workshops (Maborosi and After-life), it’s set on the anniversary of a bio-terrorist attack by a religious sect. Four relatives of deceased cultists journey to a lake deep in the woods where the group originated. The subsequent flashbacks are too hazy for catharsis; the film’s surreptitious power derives from its fragility and muted empathy, and from the startling lyricism of its concluding images. If Distance momentarily derails midway, it’s largely due to the slackness of the improvised dialogue.
The actors were also, for the most part, working without a script in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo, perhaps the most enigmatic of this year’s competition films. At his press conference, Hou explained that he had intended to make a verité portrait of Taipei’s youth, but conceded that the result was best viewed as a modern-day version of his 19th-century-brothel chamber piece, Flowers of Shanghai. Which is to say, Millennium Mambo is another story of female entrapment, this one scored to a constant techno thump, with a glazed third-person narration both predicting and preempting the action. The thick neon smear and the generous use of voice-over seemed at first like a friendly concession to the many art-house patrons who tolerate Wong Kar-wai but not Hou. The gesture is soon retracted, though, as Millennium Mambo settles into a lulling, virtually plotless state of agonized suspension. The briefest hints of joy are reserved for fleeting detours to, of all places, a snowy mountain town in Hokkaido—the site of a film festival no less.
Wong, meanwhile, was in attendance to deliver la leçon de cinéma—though it seemed counterintuitive to invite such a notoriously impulsive director to expound on his working methods. He brought with him a new treat, an eight-minute short called In the Mood for Love 2001, culled from outtakes of a fetish object that just keeps on giving. Apparently a remnant of one of the Three Stories About Food (ITMFL‘s original title), this miniature Chungking Express links mustachioed 7-Eleven owner Tony Leung and ravenous customer Maggie Cheung in a gastronomic romance—a tale of cake crumbs, beer stains, and lipstick traces. The Wong short was one of the festival’s rare word-of-mouth items. The fastest-circulating bit of buzz was created when Jean-Luc Godard issued a ringing endorsement before the assembled international press for a 50-minute French film, Alain Guiraudie’s Ce Vieux Rêve Qui Bouge (Real Cool Time). Sure enough, it was one of Cannes 2001’s few real discoveries—a witty, concise experiment in narrative pliability. Beginning as a naturalistic account of a young man arriving at a factory to dismantle a piece of heavy machinery, it shape-shifts before your disbelieving eyes into something altogether more, well, erotic.
An unpredictable sexual tension often creeps into the films of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. What Time Is It There? revisits the father-mother-son family unit of his previous features, but kills Dad off after the first scene. The son (Tsai’s reticent muse Lee Kang-sheng, again playing a character named Hsiao-kang) sells watches out of a briefcase. Not long after a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) insists on buying the dual-time wristwatch off his arm before she leaves for Paris, he’s mysteriously compelled to go around Taipei resetting all the clocks to Paris time. (This eventually occasions a terrific Harold Lloyd gag—among his other strengths, Tsai is a supreme choreographer of snail-paced, deadpan slapstick.) The film cross-cuts between Taipei, where Hsiao-kang’s grieving mother is haunted by her late husband’s reincarnation prospects (possibly in their fish tank), and Paris, where our heroine, newly arrived, is feeling lonely and unmoored. (She’s hit on in a cemetery by none other than Jean-Pierre Leaud—around the same time that Hsiao-kang discovers a bootleg of The 400 Blows back in Taiwan.) What Time Is It There? was largely written off as a programmatic rehash of the director’s well-established themes (alienation and longing) and formal hallmarks (fixed camera lingering for an eternity on an impeccably framed proscenium). But it’s in fact a witty, considered, self-reflexive summation of Tsai’s work to date—a logical end point that, in its dogged reiteration of the past, seems mainly to be about the desperate need for a new beginning.
Tsai’s Paris is as much a source of disquiet as his Taipei. But elsewhere, the city was enjoying one major screen romance after another—from the nostalgic black-and-white streetscapes of Godard’s Éloge de l’Amour (his first Paris shoot since Masculin-Feminin) to the visually cluttered, digitally abetted Montmartre fables Moulin Rouge and the indefatigably cute Amelie. Now a monster box-office hit in France but controversially left off the official competition lineup, the film was scheduled for an open-air screening until director Jean-Pierre Jeunet withdrew it altogether at the last minute. (Miramax, which bought Amelie on the basis of a four-minute reel, happily went ahead with press screenings.)
But perhaps no director knows his way around a Parisian arrondissement better than Jacques Rivette. His latest film, Va Savoir! (Who Knows!), observes a bittersweet return to Paris: A stage actress (Jeanne Balibar) who now performs with an Italian company is back in town for the first time in years, growing apart from her Goldoni-obsessed theater-director boyfriend (Sergio Castellitto), and tentatively reestablishing contact with her Heidegger-scholar ex (Jacques Bonnaffe). It’s a spry, elegant, immensely enjoyable film, but in the Rivette oeuvre, a minor work—as the title would indicate, a shrug and a smile are about the right response. Still, plenty of grand claims were being made on its behalf, not least by Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics, who, in acquiring the film for U.S. distribution, declared, “This is one of the greatest films in the history of the French cinema.”
Rivette’s pet themes—artifice, meta-narrative, and role-play—are at the nucleus of the festival’s single most electrifying experience: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. A kinky, tender lesbian love story, a Hollywood cautionary fable, a seamy tale of disillusionment and shattered romanticism, and above all an inspired structural stunt, Mulholland Drive originated as a TV pilot. But after it was dropped by horrified ABC execs, French producers Studio Canal stepped in, allowing Lynch to shoot more footage and fashion a stand-alone feature. The film’s unique architecture was apparently dictated by its troubled evolution. For about 100 minutes, Mulholland Drive both obeys and mocks the expository responsibilities of a television pilot: A perky, blond aspiring starlet (Naomi Watts), fresh off the plane from small-town Canada, befriends a vampy, brunet amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring), who has decided to call herself Rita, after a poster of Gilda in the bathroom. And then, at a rupture point cued by a knockout rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” (by Rebecca Del Rio, in Spanish), the movie explodes—or, per Variety, “makes a severe and unwelcome turn down the lost highway.” The film’s vertiginous final 45 minutes do indeed mirror the second half of the criminally underrated Lost Highway—in that they function as a role-reassigning, portal-traversing, deck-shuffling sabotage of the primary narrative. But Lynch’s intuitive nightmare logic here has a visceral clarity worthy of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Against the gaudy Cannes backdrop of mass consumption and prodigal waste, there was something doubly triumphant about a movie that represents so heroic a recycling of discarded material.
The complete Village Voice series on Cannes 2001.