CANNES, FRANCE—If Cannes is cineaste heaven, as jury president Quentin Tarantino enthusiastically maintained in the 57th film festival’s opening press conference, then one might reasonably expect to hear the angels sing.
It’s the nature of this solemnly ritualized, incorrigibly hype-happy event that a critic always arrives expecting to see the best—and sometimes even imagining it. However it might later appear in the cold New York dawn, Pedro Almodóvar’s festival-opening Bad Education seems in this context to be the Spanish director’s strongest film in two decades—a noirish, deftly convoluted melodrama that harks back to the sexual pyrotechnics of Matador and Law of Desire.
Similarly, two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica’s Life Is a Miracle, an evocation of Balkan nationalism run amok, appeared to be his most powerful movie in the 10 years since Underground—at least for its first hour. Featuring an amazingly choreographed soccer match that turns into a riotous brawl, everyone dancing with a bottle in hand, Kusturica’s evocation of idiot nationalism is persuasively hellish until he tries to be human—hemorrhaging conviction with a pallid love story.
Halfway through the fest, the most rapturously received film has been the octogenarian Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé (Protection). Sembène, who more or less founded sub-Saharan cinema in the 1960s, has created a richly entertaining feel-good piece of agitprop on the subject of female circumcision. Drawing on the expressive gregariousness of a traditional West African village, Sembène makes his point through a “naturally” Brechtian combination of declamatory speech, intermittent musical numbers, and socially constructed characters—as the work of an old-fashioned Marxist, however, his apparent folk cinema is scarcely naive. One could imagine Moolaadé adapted as a Broadway musical—although the rousingly positive ending is more suggestive of a Chinese revolutionary opera.
A crowd-pleaser by a master in the twilight of his career, who is also a representative of Francophone Africa, Moolaadé would have seemed a natural for the Cannes competition. That it was downgraded to the secondary Un Certain Regard section is indicative of Cannes’s current defensive posture.
Last year’s festival was criticized, most stridently by Variety, as elitist and anti-American. The 2004 edition, the first to be fully programmed by Thierry Fremaux, has been almost touchingly obvious in its attempt to go inclusive. The Ladykillers and Shrek 2 are both in competition, along with Mamoru Oshii’s anime Innocence and the South Korean action director Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy. The two most radical films in the official section are safely out of competition: Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkably austere Five (after the number of shots) is a DV landscape study that might have been produced by a talented epigone of American minimalist Ernie Gehr. Jean-Luc Godard’s eloquent (and elegant) Notre Musique begins in hell with a sensationally edited found-footage montage, proceeds through the purgatory of a writers’ conference in Sarajevo, and ends in the U.S. marine-occupied heaven of an Israeli Jewish suicide bomber.
Oddly mellow, Notre Musique is another (and scarcely the least) of the filmmaker’s elegies—for 20th-century Europe, the cinema, and himself. Like Five, it made a statement simply by existing alongside other out-of-competition slot-fillers such as Troy, Dawn of the Dead, Bad Santa, Zhang Yimou’s kung fu epic House of Flying Daggers, and Kill Bill. Even more than the Kill Bill screenings, the sanctioned abundance of genre and Asian pop were widely imagined to have been programmed with an eye to the taste of the jury president. (Thus, Wong Kar-wai’s long-delayed and yet-to-screen 2046 is being touted as the film to beat.)
Tarantino himself offered several pugnacious disquisitions on the importance of star-driven cinema. The two-fisted director used his press conference to recall his first Cannes visit in 1992 and proudly take credit for precipitating a brawl outside the second screening of Man Bites Dog. “The fight became famous,” he crowed. “That was me!” Still, it was Michael Moore who took round one of the unacknowledged celebrity death match when he managed to join a French union protest and proclaim his solidarity with the local proletariat.
The most critically well-received movie in competition so far, albeit wanly, has been Agnès Jaoui’s character-driven comedy Look at Me; the most polarizing is another second feature by a woman director, Lucrecia Martel’s less ingratiating, more enigmatically populated, not-quite-comedy The Holy Girl. But the must-see movie is, of course, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which brought hordes of TV camera crews to interview critics exiting the hastily scheduled extra screenings.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is effective in undermining the Bush administration’s rationale for its invasion of Iraq, provocative in linking the House of Bush to the House of bin Laden, and often devastating in its montage of official mistruths. (Among other things, it demonstrates that the current administration’s officials are dogged, if inept, disciples of the patriotic bromide, military pageant, “big lie” combo pioneered by Nazi propaganda theorist Joseph Goebbels.) Although overlong and hampered by a sometimes rambling argument obviously updated to encompass the recent Senate hearings and abuse revelations, the movie is the least grandstanding and most purposeful of Moore’s career.
A master of PR, Moore may well be exploiting Disney’s refusal to distribute the movie—but that doesn’t make Disney’s refusal any less craven or political. Fahrenheit 9/11 has few new revelations, but it does make a compelling narrative and, as such, could even be an intervention into Bush’s campaign to finally get himself elected.