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Riviera of No Return
June 7, 1994
Here I am back in the land where a taxi driver carries not a weapon but the two-volume Brothers Karamazov. Mine is two-thirds the way through volume I and clearly anticipating II. Can it be that this urge to read accounts for the national system of taxi stands rather than New York’s gas-guzzling cruising? J’aime aussi Dostoyevsky, I offer as he deposits me at my hotel unfashionably facing the train station.
This hotel is one of those Cannes stories. Last year another journalist and I turned over $250 apiece to a perky, Paris-based but purely American publicist — call her Miss P — who said she’d found us coveted lodging. Someone was selling rights to two festival reservations he’d “owned” for years, she said, and now we would have the rooms “for life” or could sell them if we so chose. During our stay, a friendly desk clerk informed us that the hotel, under new management, had been closed the previous year for renovation, and that Miss P herself had simply reserved our rooms. After we went home, the concierge later reported, she stopped by to reregister us, in case we’d merely assumed “owner’s rights.”
This year, in my peripheral vision, the unapologetic perp — Miss P, since relocated to NYC — scurries hither and thither barking importantly into her cellular phone. She’s young, she means to get somewhere. No longer a Cannes story, it’s the universal one — a tale reflected in the festival’s more intriguing films. This is a year when most plots revolve around vicious circles — people in pain who can’t sit still.
On the day I arrive, the competition film is Edward Yang’s A Confucian Confusion, a drama dealing so nakedly with moral breakdown that it risks being embarrassing. What happens, Yang asks, when Confucian-trained societies are suddenly based on money, pleasure, and personal power? Set in a sleek Taipei PR firm owned by a beautiful, confused woman, the film centers on various employees and clients, all of whom dress in chicest black.
“Don’t ever underestimate people in the arts,” someone warns. “They know how to fuck with your mind and your emotions.” The art of illusion equals the art of manipulation. The trick is discovering not whether but how someone is using you. Under suspicion, for example, is a charming Audrey Hepburn–type gamine (down to the protruding ears) always counted on to smile and help others. Keeping up a persona becomes a burden.
To his credit, Yang attempts tentative answers to these questions about the relation of genuine to ersatz. One of his funnier philosophical lines: “If there were not real Rolexes, why would there be fakes?”
Also worrying over the corruptions of capitalism, the clash between communist anti-materialism and democratic materialism, is Andreï Konchalovsky whose charming competition film, Ryaba My Chicken, is an irony-laden revisit to the real village of his 1967 film, Asya’s Happiness — banned until glasnost. (Taking a safer, noncontemporary tack, Konchalovsky’s brother Nikita Mikhalkov weighs in later in the competition with Burnt by the Sun, a gorgeous chronicle of the end of a Russian family’s idyllic summer in the ’20s. Somewhat similar is Romanian Lucian Pintilie’s political period piece, An Unforgettable Summer, featuring a luminous performance by Kirstin Scott-Thomas.)
I have to make a visit to the market to find neocon Whit (Metropolitan) Stillman talking up democracy’s values as if they haven’t been tainted. Stillman’s Barcelona, about Ted and Fred, two young Americans abroad — one a sales rep, the other a naval officer and NATO liaison — was conspicuously passed over for the competition, probably for its pro-U.S. biases. The truth is that it has more of a voice than many pictures that made the cut. Wearing a tie in the daytime and classic pj’s at night, its hero manages to find nothing but flaws in speedy, post-Franco Barcelona and nothing but virtues in the land he left behind. Still, it’s refreshing to find someone in movies defending puritanism, even if no one but him is practicing it.
It doesn’t take a button-down like Stillman to point out how hypocritical about American culture the French can be. The Palme d’Or, as everyone knows by now, goes to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction even while France is denouncing pulpy American violence and Hollywood hegemony. To have it both ways, Michel Blanc is awarded best screenwriter for his pleasant, Woody Allenish Grosse Fatigue (Dead Tired) which, at the very end, suddenly turns into a parable lamenting American movies and fast food.
The story: a boor from Provence who looks just like actor-director Blanc begins impersonating him in places like malls and bars, then eventually succeeds in usurping both his private life and career. (Much of the comedy’s fun is seeing personages, like Blanc’s “best friend” Carole Bouquet or Cannes director Gilles Jacob, play themselves.) In the film’s final scene, fellow out-of-work actor, Philippe Noiret, discloses to Blanc that doubles have taken over everywhere, a “doubly” sad affair since the public seems not to know the difference. At dawn we see the two pals march up an empty Champs Elysees, Noiret pointing out left and right junk food replacing gourmet and, in the cinemas, Hollywood’s fuck-shit-bang-bang doing in French film.
In other words, the genuine, i.e., French, has been driven out by the fake, i.e., American. The two veterans bow their heads and the Palais audience howls gleefully. They go on to get hired as extras on a Polanski shoot.
In a further turn of the screw, Blanc’s film — depending too much on one’s recognition of French actors for Americans to get — will probably be remade as a Hollywood comedy. What then will be the final message? Probably something like Stillman’s: nostalgia for chastity and real burgers on the grill.
Meanwhile and at cross-cultural purposes, Cannes rewards U.S. films; the Festival wants American stars to excite the throngs and make the evening news. Except perhaps for Pulp Fiction, which brings Bruce Willis and the resuscitated John Travolta, most U.S. films here are low on stars and have the drawback of being overly familiar to the American press: Opening the main competition is the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, already trounced back home, and closing things down is John Waters’s Serial Mom, ditto. (A premiere of Crooklyn would have been an improvement on either.)
Besides Pulp Fiction, the other U.S. premiere, Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, about the members of the Algonquin Round Table, is an elegant but esoteric effort hampered by an untranslatable, and often unintelligible soundtrack. Evidently, Dorothy Parker (played studiously by Jennifer Jason Leigh), in obscuring her New York Jewish roots, decided no longer to enunciate. It’s a wonder anyone caught those bons mots.
Sidebar competitions bring in films seen at Sundance and New Directors like Fresh, Clerks, and the disturbing Clean, Shaven by Lodge Kerrigan, as well as some we haven’t seen, including Hal Hartley’s surprisingly comic Amateur, starring Isabelle Huppert; Kayo Hatta’s picturesque Picture Bride, billed as the first film by an Asian American woman; Darnell Martin’s loud and colorful I Like It Like That, “the first studio film by an African American woman”; and Rory Kelly’s Sleep With Me, a thirtysomething (no, not Generation X) comedy of remarriage. The consensus on the Croisette is that Eric Stoltz, here in Sleep With Me and Pulp Fiction, has been overexposed.
What Pulp Fiction has going for it at Cannes, besides Tarantino’s undeniable talent, is a direct homage (no, not a steal, an homage) to the French New Wave. Wearing a black Anna Karina wig, crisp white blouse, trench coat slung low on her shoulders, Uma Thurman in one breathless scene dances the blithe little poolroom number from the end of Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. Thurman has never been so appealing. Tarantino also nods toward Europe by having Travolta fresh from living in Amsterdam (like the director himself) and by casting two Brits, Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, as Brits, Maria de Madeiros as Bruce Willis’s French girlfriend, and Gallic heartthrob Rosanna Arquette as the drug dealer’s wife.
So, given that Cannes, for reasons of commerce and prestige, appears determined to bestow its grand prize on young Americans (four out of the last six years), it isn’t surprising that Pulp Fiction wins. The positioning is right; it captures the buzz. The film provides a couple of electrifying jolts that send you out hyped. One critic calls Tarantino a fascist director, but even he seemed to enjoy the movie. I call Tarantino a master of Inventive Violence.
He says to think of his pictures as “modern-day rock and roll spaghetti westerns.” The trouble with the phrase is that you immediately know he isn’t Sergio Leone, who probably never won any prizes at all.
Although the first 25 minutes or so — featuring Tarantino’s trademark rants — are weak, the pace picks up, partly by means of music. A totally divine twist contest has a slightly pudgy Travolta literally on his toes. More comic and less abrasive than Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction is ingratiating, gory entertainment. By ending each of its chapters on an “up” note, it mostly manages to disarm you, make you swallow your qualms, and forget you’re laughing at the representation of something awful.
It’s rumored (though Miramax denies) that some nasty business with a sword was cut out even before the Cannes opening. When the movie opens at home in late August, it will most certainly be missing glimpses of an anal rape. In a press conference Tarantino says he respects the rating board, finding it both reasonable and mindful of artistic integrity. People who don’t like movie violence aren’t jerks, he said. “My mother,” for instance.
The obvious scandale of the awards is that Kieslowski’s Red is shut out. For the first half of the festival most people were naming Red their favorite film (even Tarantino pronounced it “a masterpiece, by the way”); at the same time those in the know were predicting Cannes would use any excuse not to honor Kieslowski. Some speculated that Jean-Louis Trintignant, making a return to acting, might grab a prize. But Kieslowski has been a haughty gastwerker in France, outspoken in his contempt for the local culture. At his press conference, asked about the general lousiness of French cinema, he replies that since French society is “not in good moral health,” it isn’t surprising that its cinema is unhealthy too. (More on Kieslowski next week when I review White.)
Patrice Chereau’s La Reine Margot, a Claude Berri production starring la reine Isabelle Adjani and billed as France’s supercompetition film, is generally greeted with hoots and jeers. No doubt this response is especially galling not just to local supporters but to Miramax, which had bought the film before the festival opening. Variety‘s Todd McCarthy says he received a good deal of flack for his negative review. A violent film (talk about Yanks!) — you could call it Queen Margot and the Really Vicious Circle — it seems to me a decent enough entertainment. I relish the Jacobean flourishes — a series of bizarre poisonings, including one of a dog who seems to have been tricked into reading a book.
One of my favorite festival films happens to be French, though it’s one no one else appeared to notice: Olivier Assayas’s L’eau Froide (Cold Water), playing in the side competition Un Certain Regard, centers on two delinquent teens in the ’70s and uses as its score what I’d call “my music”: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nico, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Its centerpiece is a tribal dance around a bonfire to Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” The former editor of Cahiers du Cinema and the man credited with introducing Hou Hsiou-Hsien to the West, Assayas has a coterie following in France, though this sweet, sad, quasi-Bressonian Dazed and Confused could be his breakthrough film in the U.S. Okay, so there’s an unhappy ending.
In the end, leave it to poor, despised Italy to produce the film loved by practically everybody: Nanni Moretti’s intimate, funny Caro Diario (Dear Diary). Of its three chapters, probably my favorite is the first, “On My Vespa,” in which the deadpan Moretti — a national hero in Italy and now Cannes’ Best Director — rides through Rome and environs, musing about architecture, how people live, and movies. He likes Flashdance (that’s nothing — in Red Kieslowski endorses Dead Poets Society) and coincidentally runs into Jennifer Beals and Alexandre Rockwell on the street. He jokes about Italian movies. He hates Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and tracks down a critic — seen cringing in his bed — and forces him to listen while he reads a review the critic wrote praising Henry, Silence of the Lambs, and (former Palme d’Or winner) Wild at Heart.
The chapter ends with Moretti’s voiceover stilled, the camera following the Vespa from behind as the white helmet bobs and weaves along the center line. He’s riding to the spot out along the shore where Pasolini was killed. On the soundtrack is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. For me, this is probably the most ecstatic moment of the festival. How gratifying to know that such a personal, small-scale movie can still be made and people will lose their hearts to it. And so the escape from the vicious circle is complete.