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Cannes 2002 – Part 1 – The Competition
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Poster     The critical consensus was that the 2002 Cannes Film Festival was a terrific success, though that’s where the consensus seems to have come to an abrupt end. Particularly for American and French critics, for whom the consensus might be said to have ended at the water’s edge. It wasn’t that the respective critical communities retreated into shell-like chauvinism – not completely anyway.

     On the contrary, when it came to mounting cinematic satires of America, for example, the difference between the two camps was over how, not whether. For that matter, the two best movies at Cannes were an Italian movie, Marco Bellochcio’s L’Ora Di religione (Il Sorriso di Mia Madre), and the Finnish Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä (Man Without a Past) by Aki Kaurismäki.

     For their part, the Gauls completely looked past one of the festival’s great triumphs, Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. Payne, who moved from contemptuous class-baiting in his second film (Citizen Ruth) to hilariously jagged, but subtly sympathetic burlesque in his third (Election), emerges as a profoundly mature observer of mid-American mores in his fourth. The movie, which describes the late-life wanderings of a panicky, unmoored 65-year-old man, jumps from humor to pathos not out of calculation, but from an inborn spontaneity.

     If that weren’t enough, it also features Jack Nicholson’s best performance in 21 years (look it up). As Warren Schmidt, Nicholson begins the movie counting down to a retirement that’s supposed to include secure "golden years" years with his faithful wife, adoring daughter, and travel – not to mention an equally secure self-assessment as a good, successful man. Sequentially, all this vanishes in nearly a comic nonce. But Payne, who emerged as a comic stylist (with co-writer Jim Taylor) before a humane observer, admits that Schmidt may develop one salvational gift: Self-awareness. The resulting film is a broad assessment of human capabilities that, frustratingly, didn’t win a single prize for Nicholson.

     Bizarrely, while the French thought About Schmidt condescended to Americans, they thought Michael Moore’s agit-prop Bowling for Columbine did a fine job of capturing the soul of the American working class. Moore works his usual tricks here. After presenting his credentials as a member of the working class by asserting he was National Rifle Association member from childhood, a prize-winning marksman, and can still handle a rifle, he then hurries out to interview three members of the Michigan Militia and allows themselves to act like a trio of kooks.

     This an emotional tone setter. The intellectual stuff comes when Moore, who narrates the film, intones that America lives under a "Culture of Fear" that’s responsible for everything from the Cold War to the murders of high school students by high school students. What exactly the "Culture of Fear" is he never says; is it a culture engendered by fear, or a fear produced by the culture at large? Worse, the film’s technique is merely sequential: String images and sequences together and they must have a relationship. As a leftist/liberal, I quake whenever I see Moore come up with this stuff.

     The French loved it enough to give Moore a special prize, or they did until Moore stood up to it and mumbled an excruciatingly endless acceptance speech in halting high school French with a gosh-gee-whiz look on his face. The French hate it when Americans mangle their language. They’d much rather just have them speak English and go through a translator. And Moore’s poor boy act wasn’t fooling anyone either; the guy’s loaded and everyone there knew it. Moore made either the first, or one of the first, acceptances of the evening, and almost every speaker thereafter made a contemptuous aside about his performance.

     Oh well, back to the good stuff. Oddly, that included what some called Paul Michael Thomas’s latest movie (no one’s ready to call him P.T. Anderson yet, despite the flack campaign to do so), and a few others an Adam Sandler movie. In any case, Punch-Drunk Love was a pleasant shock for those who had given up on Anderson after the insufferably pretentious Magnolia and on Sandler after they watched him on Saturday Night Live.

     The movie’s crucial moment is its first, a scene that takes place on a street in an industrial section of either North Hollywood or Sun Valley in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. It’s hard to describe the sun-drenched, concrete ordinariness of the place, and the line of wholesale businesses and auto body shops that line these treeless avenues. Boredom reins like a household goddess, so inevitably, Barry Egan (Sandler) who runs a bathroom accessory business, strolls from his business, through his parking lot and out to watch the sparse traffic. All of a sudden, for no reason, a speeding van upends for no reason, a spectacular one-car accident breaking the pervasive nothingness. This notion of life as boredom followed by unexpected bouts of violence – whether physical violence or such sublimated into.

     What follows is mainly a romance with Emily Watson, and a weirdly innocent encounter with a phone sex operation run by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson has found something Jerry Lewis-like about Sandler and, perhaps, something Frank Tashlin-like about himself. Within the space of about 12 hours, Punch-Drunk Love went through a rave, backlash, it-was-fine-within-limits reaction at the festival, which was pretty justified. Hollywood’s not set up to promote the sort of development either Anderson or Sandler would need to get anywhere with their collaboration (two or three movies a year for three years), so we’ll have to enjoy this while we can.

     Speaking of comedies, the French provided some of the biggest laughs of the Competition section: Olivier Assayas and Gaspar Noé, though they were purely unintentional.

     Assayas’s film, Demonlover, is a story of corporate intrigue in the video game business and is so absurd in the face of the director’s achievements – dating back to Désordre in 1986, and including L’Eau froide (1994) and Irma Vep (1996) – that it can be safely overlooked. Assayas seems to have just found out about hentai (porno anime) and is shocked – so shocked that he has constructed a movie based around its exploitation. Some of Assayas fans, confronted with such a bad movie, have tried to fall back on arguments of style, insisting that the movie is so boring because Assayas is constructing an anti-thriller. That may be, but why he should have is another matter.

     Noé’s film, Irréversible, is his first since Seul contre tous (U.S. title I Stand Alone). I have to admit that I thought, and still believe, that that movie was a hard to take, but satisfactorily brutal assault on good taste and the ugliness of passion. But Irréversible may be the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.

     Constructed in reverse order, it begins with the murder of a man in a homosexual sado-masochistic club, where the order of the day seems to be the alternately graphic and lyrical description of anal penetration. This might be disturbing were it not so obviously meant to be so just as Noé’s camera might be disorienting were it not so obviously meant to be so (it just makes everything look like a set). Soon enough, the action moves slowly, inevitably, backwards, revealing the prejudices and accidents of the three men who, out for a night on the town, end up just where we found them to begin with.

     A script-oriented critic might say "Paddy Chayefsky meets John Rechy," but the literal-minded assessment wouldn’t be far off for once. Chayefsky’s scripts were not just grist for the TV mill, but for movie directors with grimly mechanical, TV-style editing. For all of Noé’s hand-held folderol, he’s essentially turned himself into a television filmmaker, just a 21st-century one.

     In this modern, contemporary technique, there’s speed, and even baroque combination, but no cumulative effect. Each successive image may help the narrative limp forward, but it also obliterates most of the image that precedes it. The Russians – Pudovkin, Eisenstein – would have been fascinated to see their theories turned on their heads. Pudovkin’s relational editing, in which images got their meanings from those which followed them, has become non-relational editing in the hands of video typists like Noé. Images now lose their meanings from those that follow them. What a moron.

     Given the failures of such ambitious artistic ventures, it was relatively pleasant to fall into the arms of conventional French commercial cinema. Nicole Garcia’s L’Aversaire. The previously-filmed story of Jean-Claude Romand, who, in 1993, murdered his wife, children and parents because he was afraid they’d discover he wasn’t the public health doctor he’d claimed to be for 18 years, the film was hardly an eye-opener, but had a welcome professionalism. Whenever it threatened to become slick, there was always the performance of Daniel Auteuil to rile things up.

     The triumph of Francophone cinema was Belgium’s Le Fils, from the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. After a distinguished documentary career and especially the features Rosetta (1999) and La Promesse (1996), it has become crystal clear that the les freres have become wedded to a milieu and style. The milieu, of course, is the Belgian working class, particularly around Brussels, and the style one that depends on hand-held cameras that frequently end up following characters down stairways, through corridors, across fields, etc, as if they were panting process servers.

     If they were glorified journalists, continuing their social documentaries by other means, this would be mere artifice. But the Dardennes have chosen milieu for background and not just for its picturesque value; for them, it’s a dynamic range of social and moral forces constantly in flux, multiple class forces and individual responses in an endless array of conflicts. Each of their films just happens to pick out one.

     This time the protagonist is a former carpenter, Olivier (Olivier Gourmet, who has appeared in nearly all, if not all the Dardennes features, and who won the festival’s best actor award this year). Olivier has suffered a work injury, not devastating, but serious enough to banish him from the work site to a training school, where he’s discovered a rewarding new career teaching young apprentices. But at the same time, he also suffers constantly because his own son was murdered several years before when still a child.

     In a melodramatic turn, which the Dardennes treat realistically but which – in purest terms, remains melodrama – the boy who murdered Olivier’s son is paroled and enrolls in the carpenter’s class. The boy, Francis, has no idea who Olivier is and the older man doesn’t tell him. The film goes on to chart Olivier’s fascination with Francis, and his internal struggle, barely visible except to the camera, over what to do with him.

     To accept Le Fils is to accept the Dardennes satisfaction with what they’re doing. Is it complacency? Clearly not yet. For as a moral drama, the movie is riveting to the end.

     As a psychological drama, the same might be said of Spider, David Cronenberg’s 85-minute adaptation of the novel by the wonderful Gothic novelist, Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the screenplay). Once the movie gets underway, the movie is a subtly amusing, if morally horrifying, interplay of psychosis, featuring Ralph Fiennes as a man who murdered his parents as a child. Now released to a halfway house run by Lynn Redgrave (joining the ranks of Bette Davis, Shelly Winters, and other bizarre ladies), he battles to reassert either the fantasy or reality of his youthful, er, endeavors.

     At its best, Spider is far more satisfactory than Existenz or M. Butterfly, but it has two serious drawbacks. One is an opening half hour that is so repetitious that it seems to be an unsuccessful attempt at hypnosis. The other is Fiennes, a moaner and a groaner of the worst theatrical type.

     The surprise of the competition was the Korean Chihwaseon, from Im Kwon-Taek. Now Im had wowed audiences (those who had the intelligence to go) last year with Chunhyang, a gorgeous, moving period piece that incorporated a kind of operatic folk song into its beautiful love story. So why should this new film have been a surprise.

     For one thing, it was advertised up and down the Croisette with a poster designed to make critics cringe, boasting the film was about an artist who loved to swill wine, make love to women, embrace life, blah, blah, blah. We weren’t about to see Zorba the Artist were we?

     Chihwaseon’s answer was a resounding no. While this story of the painter "Ohwon" Jang Seung Up (1843-1897) couldn’t completely transcend the limitations of the artist biography, it was a compelling and beautiful film that, thanks heavens, avoided all the clichés threatened by its poster. Ohwon was an outsider artist in a society whose salon classes prized training and acceptance above all else, but his command of technique and sheer talent was too much to deny. Yet, the painter carried so many grudges, and was so suspicious of the day’s social order, that he remained an outsider by choice. Im’s career doesn’t mirror Ohwon’s, but there are analogs that make them similar. Im’s own technique, which is superbly under control, is also largely self-taught. This is an extremely subtle irony, almost invisible, but a powerful one once you know it.

     The English were present in dour splendor at Cannes, prominent among them Ken Loach with Sweet Sixteen. As is the case with most Loach films, you’re tempted to discuss plot and acting and then move on (a teenage boy tries to raise some money before his mother is released from jail, hoping to take her away from her life of crime; paradoxically, he must commit crimes to get the money). The director, after all, does function mostly as a producer, selecting his screenwriter – in this case, Paul Laverty – and cast and then filming mostly long takes that seem to have less to do with dramatic dynamic than budgetary restraints learned 40 years ago in television.

     There’s a chill to Loach’s style one doesn’t find in the work of his disciples, or demi-disciples, such as Stephen Frears, who admits to being inspired by Loach’s work (especially the 1965 BBC film, Cathy Come Home, which effected a change in the UK’s social welfare laws).

     Sweet Sixteen is different in that regard, just barely recalling Kes, his 1969 film about a poor boy who trains a falcon. Loach’s best-reviewed films are his chummy ones (Riff-Raff ) or earnest ones (Land and Freedom). But it’s when Loach lets his guard down and allows himself an indulgence in loss and loneliness that his movies have any sort of heat. He likes and admires survivors, but he seems to feel like a loser.

     Mike Leigh showed up with All or Nothing, essentially a 128-minute downer version of Life Is Sweet. This time Timothy Spall, who played supporting tragic relief so well in the earlier film, takes center stage. Now he’s even more tragic, a cab driver watching his wife lose interest in him as his son – obviously mentally ill to anyone except those in the film – wreaks havoc in the family, which also includes his daughter. They live in a big, dark, looming housing project where everyone else also has terrible personal problems.

     Leigh brings nothing to bear on the situation. He just sits back and gloomily thrusts it at the audience. It’s remarkable how a filmmaker who can pierce so often to the heart of a situation can just as often sit back and decide he’s God’s messenger. Well, thank goodness God inspired him to cast Ruth Sheen in the movie, since she takes the few laugh lines in the movie and stretches them out to create a character of humor and – nearly uniquely for this film – depth.

     We bid adieu to sorry England for the warm, sunny shores of Italy and the peculiarly lit country of Finland. For there, two veteran masters with mixed records of late have come up with what we might dare to call masterpieces, the one comic and the other, well, comic.

     We’ll start with the comic one, the fourteenth feature film from 45-year-old Aki Kaurismäki, Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past). Kaurismäki’s mastery is apparent in the movie’s conception and narrative, but it makes itself felt most keenly in tone and rhythm. Similarly, the director handles his actors in a way that is as nearly radical as (though utterly different from) the way Bresson managed his (Kati Outinen won the festival’s best actress award). These are the places where the movie’s soul resides, where the director’s philosophy makes itself felt.

     Briefly, a man – no name – arrives by train in an unnamed city where he’s immediately set upon by hoodlums and beaten to death. There’s no mistake; he’s dead. But he arises from his slab at the morgue and walks away, wandering to the city’s outskirts and into a makeshift encampment of homeless people. He’s welcomed by them and the Salvation Army unit which caters to them. He returns their help by coming up with various schemes to improve their lives, not so much materially but in ways that you might call spiritually.

     Spiritual elements are ever present partly because Kaurismäki fills his exteriors will plenty of sky; life is never just what is on the ground, at least not all the time. There’s plenty of apparently unfilled space involved in the action. And the man, in his second life, has some moderately special powers; extremely quick reflexes among them. But there’s also an unaccounted-for unity to everything, a unity that makes itself felt in a very funny mechanical rhythm to everything, including the characters’ gaits. Cineastes will immediately think of the oddball, but rhythmic motions of silent film comedies. Has Kaurismäki identified a spiritual element there? This movie will make you think of giddier things.

     There are marvelous moments in the movie. A mean-looking landlord’s agent with a tiny guard dog. A music segment that should be anthologized for years to come, in which the man teaches the tiny Salvation Army band a little bit about rock and roll.

     It’s a superb comedy, in the sense that, say, The Navigator is, though it tends to generate giggles more than Buster Keaton-style belly laughs.

     Marco Bellocchio’s L’Ora Di religione (Il Sorriso di Mia Madre)[The Religious Hour (My Mother’s Smile)] isn’t as simple a case to explain, largely because Bellocchio’s style relies on absences and quiet. But those who fondly remember the 62-year-old’s China Is Near (1967) and In the Name of the Father (1971) will recognize both Bellocchio’s structures and targets. They’ll also probably be relieved to find the director purging himself of psychoanalytic abstractions.

     As with China Is Near, the new film revolves around the exertions of a family to gain social stature through ideology, though in this case its Roman Catholicism rather than Marxism. Crucially, however, Bellocchio views these shenanigans from the perspective of a "detached" intellectual who is legitimately horrified at the process.

     Ernesto Picciafuoco (Serio Castellitto) is a divorced painter and illustrator and a confirmed atheist who is already worried about exposing his nine-year-old son to the influences of his wife’s religious family when he hears devastating news. Without informing him, one of his brothers, a monsignor, has started the curial wheels turning necessary to make their mother a saint.

     Aside from disdaining the church’s passion for saints, Ernesto couldn’t stand his mother, whom he found cruel and at the center of a nexus involving all three of his brothers, including one who was mentally ill. His determination to stop the process, though, plunges him into a strange web on intrigue. On the one hand, there are the mundane suggestions of his aunt, that he let the family regain the social stature it once had and that a saint in the family could bring.

     But there are other, weirder happenings. Falling asleep at a party, Ernesto wakes up to find himself surrounded by elderly men discussing Royalist and Fascist politics. When he smiles, he finds himself challenged to a duel by an elderly but apparently deadly count, an invitation he can’t refuse. That invitation isn’t the only one. Again and again, Ernest finds himself dragged out of his large, comfortable apartment to meet with a bishop in cafeteria for the poor, with his wife in their crowded old house, in the jammed hospital room of his mentally ill brother.

     Ernesto’s well-appointed apartment, filmed in cool, shadowy deep-focus, forms the central visual motif. Here the atheist artist – who balances private work (as a painter) with commercial assignments (as an illustrator) – extends his ego limitlessly. Only the ideological ventures of others manages to stir him from this comfortable lair.

     There seems little doubt that Bellocchio expects us to side with Ernesto against his interrupters and interlocutors. He’s an attractive man in every way, his arguments seems faultless, and he never insists on forcing his views on others, just that they never force theirs on his.

     The one exception concerns his relationship with his young son. To Ernesto’s concern, the boy is sliding towards some sort of religious belief. Part of it may be social, fitting into a Roman social fabric by adopting familial or social habits. But the bright and sensitive boy has real questions and emerging convictions that Ernesto has to contend with. The external pressure of his disliked mother’s impending spiritual elevation confounds his patience, intrudes on his relationship with his beloved son, and makes everything so much more complicated. And that’s not to mention the duel…

     All this builds in a hush, as if it were being narrated in a corner of a church. Yet, climax of one sort seems inevitable, at least to us. Maybe not to Bellocchio, though.

     Of all the films shown in competition at Cannes this year, Bellocchio’s L’Ora Di religione (Il Sorriso di Mia Madre)[The Religious Hour (My Mother’s Smile)] and Kaurismäki’s Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past) are especially the works of peculiar genius, not-transferable spirits and talents. Yet, their peculiarity doesn’t diminish either the profundity of their understanding nor the breadth of their grasp.

Henry Sheehan
August, 2002
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