CANNES, FRANCE—Hollywood ending? Not quite yet. “Thank God the French exist,” Woody Allen’s character exults when the movie he directed while temporarily blind is hailed as a masterpiece in France. There’s as much hostility as affection in the joke, but when Allen last week graced Cannes—where Hollywood Ending was the opening-night film—the French press chose to interpret his gibe as an unambiguous love pat.
Woody shlumped into his press conference, looking a bit rumpled and unhappy, to explain that Americans find it “amusing and endearing that the French discover American artists before we do.” Asked about the Cannes boycott called by the conservative American Jewish Congress (publishers of Commentary, a magazine Allen once imagined merging with Dissent to become Dysentery), the director brushed off the wave of French synagogue burnings to praise the results of the recent election. Soon the reporters were asking him to “psychoanalyze” the French taste for frogs and snails. (“Whatever works,” he genially allowed, adding that he himself never ate vermin.)
Cannes’s 12-day combination of Oscar night and the Super Bowl, religious pilgrimage and national spectacle, is certainly unique, and Un Certain Regard, the festival’s noncompetitive section for the up-and-coming, also opened with a mash note to French culture. Dai Sijie’s quasi-autobiographical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress applied la mode retro to the Cultural Revolution while demonstrating the positive impact of 19th-century French literature on the consciousness of the doughty rural heroine (Zhou Xun, even more cloying here than as the ingenue in Suzhou River).
The edgier Directors’ Fortnight (actually a separate, simultaneous festival) also chose to open with an homage to France—albeit in the form of a French film, Catherine Breillat’s Sex Is Comedy. The protagonist of this self-referential movie is an imperious, aphoristic director infamous for her sexually graphic films. “They can’t even kiss right,” she complains of the actors playing teenage lovers she’s directing on a freezing, supposedly summer, beach.
Sex Is Comedy is enjoyable but light, until it becomes apparent that Breillat is not simply waxing narcissistic but fashioning a simultaneous critique, explication, and demystification of the most remarkable scene in her strongest movie—the lengthy, near single-take defloration from Fat Girl. The haughty Roxane Mesquida re-creates her virginal role opposite Grégoire Colin, while glamorous Anne Parillaud plays a satiric, idealized version of Breillat. (One might argue that Breillat should have taken the part herself—but then who would direct her?) Sex Is Comedy received a mixed response. Indeed, its burning question—how did Breillat direct that scene?—may be most interesting to Fat Girl‘s fans. This unusual example of auto-auteurism appends, even as it remakes, one’s response to Breillat’s earlier film.
Had Sex Is Comedy been chosen for the main event it might have been a contender in several categories. Cannes’s first week has brought solid—if somewhat familiar—entries by two-time Palme d’Or winner Mike Leigh, the apparently ageless Manoel de Oliveira, and the increasingly minimalist Abbas Kiarostami. A return to the director’s trademark prole miserablism, Leigh’s All or Nothing oscillates between bleak human comedy and tragic troll opera before going unaccountably sentimental. De Oliveira’s bracing palette cleanser, The Uncertainty Principle, has the director amusing himself with 18th-century narrative conventions, 19th-century stagecraft, and 20th-century ambiguities—sublimely confident that, at 92, he can do whatever he pleases. So, too, Kiarostami. Godard famously remarked that all you need to make a movie is “a girl and a gun.” The Iranian master revises that formula to a woman (or two) and a car—literally. His digitally shot Ten is a structuralist countdown that reiterates the oppression of Iranian women, using a series of fixed-camera conversations between a car-driving divorcée and her various passengers.
Recognizable auteurist accomplishments, all three have their partisans, but midway through the festival, the most enthusiastic notices have been garnered by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the first documentary in competition since 1956 (when—perhaps an omen—Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau took the Palme d’Or for The Silent World and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso received a special jury prize).
A less grandstanding psychodrama than Moore’s The Big One, Bowling for Columbine uses the 1999 high school massacre as the pretext for an essay on violence in America. The movie can be devastating and at times hilarious in bracketing Columbine with the Oklahoma City bombing and a school incident in Moore’s hometown of Flint, where one six-year-old shot another. But Bowling for Columbine (which was immediately acquired for American distribution by United Artists) is poorly structured and a half-hour too long—as well as increasingly self-congratulatory as Moore films himself hugging needy victims, and against all odds, succeeds in inspiring pity for doddering NRA flack Charlton Heston, whom he dupes into an at-home interview.
Bowling for Columbine makes a strong argument for enhanced gun control (or, as Chris Rock suggests, “bullet control”), but shamelessly roping in the events of September 11, Moore has his eye on the big picture and founders on the reef of American exceptionalism. The U.S. is not only held responsible for all the carnage in the world, but Americans themselves are uniquely violent humans. Canada (praised for its lack of social tensions, if not for bankrolling the movie) has nearly as many guns, Germany has a more murderous past, Britain administered a larger empire. Their murder rates are far below ours. (Third-world bloodbaths in Turkey, Rwanda, or Cambodia are discreetly omitted as reference points.) So what’s America’s problem, Moore wonders, fixing the blame on free-floating anxiety and the fear-mongering media that so ecstatically greeted his movie. Leaving the theater, American journalists were accosted by microphone-waving French TV crews asking, “Is is accurate—this depiction of your country?” (Lucky the Canadian who could just say no.)
If Miramax has its way, the American media will be responsible for the success of—if not the situation represented in—the Brazilian Un Certain Regard entry City of God, which revels in the spectacle of gun-toting children shooting up Rio’s favelas. Fernando Meirelles’s overlong (but easily fixed) example of post-MTV third-world neo-new-wave brutalism seems certain to equal the success of the similar Amores Perros and perhaps even cross over as an exotic gangsta epic.
The 2002 Competition is unusually political, and not just because of Bowling for Columbine. Marco Bellocchio’s My Mother’s Smile—which arrived in Cannes pre-condemned by the Italian church—starts promisingly as a sort of Catholic Kafka story with the hero discovering that his mother has been nominated for sainthood, but it ultimately chokes on its posh atmospherics. Amos Gitai’s inept but not inapt Kedma is an anti-Exodus (and anti-Saving Private Ryan) that takes a radically diasporist view of Israel’s existence. It’s balanced, so to speak, by Elia Suleiman’s better, if less ideologically nuanced, Divine Intervention. Like his Chronicle of a Disappearance, Suleiman’s new film evokes the “absurd” Palestinian position, albeit with a greater degree of apocalyptic rage. (In a Hong Kong-inspired F/X sequence, the film’s silent, L’Oréal-girl heroine turns terrorist ninja.)
Divine Intervention seems a good bet for some sort of jury prize—helped by the decision to screen Atom Egoyan’s Ararat out of competition. For all Egoyan’s intelligence, his evocation of the 1915 Turkish extermination of their Armenian population—its presence in Cannes already officially protested by Turkey—labors painfully under its burden of positive representation. The filmmaker would have had to be as loose as de Oliveira to handle the outrageous narrative of his convoluted script.
One suspects (and hopes) that the 2002 Palme d’Or winner has yet to screen. The Competition is intentionally backloaded, with new films by David Cronenberg, the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismaki, Roman Polanski, and Alexander Sokurov, not to mention Gaspar (I Stand Alone) Noé, Alexander (Election) Payne, and especially Jia (Platform) Zhangke still in the offing. Biggest early disappointment: Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover, a murky multinational meditation on digital anime and cyber porn that strives for 10-minutes-into-the-future hipness but seems years behind Cronenberg’s 1983 Videodrome.
The oddest entry so far, without a doubt, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love—a small romantic comedy long on incongruous charm for starring Adam Sandler. The most avant-garde thing about it is that, albeit a less daring elaboration of the Sandler persona than Little Nicky, Punch-Drunk Love actually is an Adam Sandler film—the star playing a Happy Gilmore-type nebbish barely in control of his ultraviolent impulses. Moreover, for much of the movie, Anderson demonstrates as uncluttered and classic a visual style as Albert Brooks’s. Sadly, Punch-Drunk Love is an elegant vehicle that, hampered by a weak script and a total absence of chemistry between Sandler and co-star Emily Watson, ultimately pulls up lame.
Will the movie appeal to the French taste for unfunny comedy? Could Sandler—who has been coiffed and directed to resemble Geisha Boy-era Jerry Lewis—even be embraced, along with Woody Allen and Michael Moore, as a misappreciated American icon? As with the Palme d’Or, only a fool would dare predict.