The 56th Cannes International Film Festival, May 13-26, 2003
The Olympics of cinema got off with a hindrance; a general strike in France. It made a mess of many attendees' travel including mine. I was stranded in Amsterdam for two days. Arriving in Cannes I had to run fast to see the films missed, including FANFAN LA TULIPE, the remake of a most-popular swashbuckler (1952) which starred the then-beloved Gerard Philippe. This new version with Vincent Perez and Penelope Cruz fared poorly.
A most pleasant development. Getting one's press credentials for the Fest used to be a nightmare. It involved locating, within the Palace of Festivals, a seldom easy -to- find desk with too small a staff. You stood in line, often in sweltering heat, went through bureaucratic steps as well as sometimes wrong documents, misplaced or mislabeled folders, occasionally faulty computers from which your name had vanished, etc.
Mrs. Aime, the latest czarina in charge of the press, in recent times has revolutionized all that, streamlined and perfected the process, one that gets better each year. Now you simply go to a large number of street-level "windows" in a building next to the Palace, show a document e-mailed to you before the Fest, and rapidly get your badge--which also opens electronically your mailbox-- a bag with all necessary information, programs and other useful documents. It is not just a cinch but also Heaven replacing Hell.
It is no coincidence that the large personnel of door-people and other employees, supervisors who keep lines flowing, credential-checkers and so on, are polite, friendly and really helpful. I was pleased to meet again with my old friend Monsieur Serge , the boss who runs a large number of projection halls. A film-lover with excellent taste and judgment, he must get minimal sleep since he uses his free hours to see movie after movie. Many a weak film I skipped thanks to his report, and many good works I attended on his recommendations.
As usual, the first days are a mixed bag. THE MATRIX RELOADED created no stir, nor did THE SOUL OF A MAN by Wim Wenders, a documentary-plus on blues men. Among the good works, the French STRAYED (LES EGARES)) by Andre Techine, starring Emmanuelle Beart as a new war widow from Paris. As France gets defeated by the Germans in June, 1941, she joins the trek of thousands that flee towards the south of France as Nazi planes machine-gun or bomb the pathetic civilians. One immediately thinks of the older classic FORBIDDEN GAMES but here the story of the mother and her two children is interlaced with another character, a rural older and illiterate teen who becomes their guide, helper and briefly the lady's lover. Many twists and nuances are too complex to sum up. Critics were split on this.
The weather is very good but the shocks to one s wallet are not. All prices have gone up since last year. Worse yet, the dollar's value against the euro has gone way, way down. It costs roughly 30% or even 40% more for identical services. Traumatic.
Unanimous praise went to the Iranian AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON. Its young maker is (Ms. ) Samira Makhmalbaf, age 23, the daughter of renowned filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. She won a major prize at Cannes in 1997 and another at Cannes in 2000. Her film is a quiet stunner, made in post-Taliban Afghanistan, dealing with the pathetic remains of a family, focusing on the strong daughter who wants to become a somebody in a new society that gives equality and power to women. A gem of a film, strong with superb performances, landscapes both fascinating and frightening.
STORMY WEATHER by Icelandic-American Solveig Anspach who studied film in Paris and has made documentaries before, stars Elodie Bouchez a much-in-demand star with several French prizes. She is Cora--a psychiatrist in a Belgian hospital-who is very involved with helping a nameless, mute and unidentified female patient. Eventually, her name (Loa) and country (Iceland) are found, and she somehow gets sent back home. This is a small, volcanic island in Iceland where the main industry is a fish factory whose smell pervades everyone and everything. Cora rushes there planning to continue trying to cure Loa. She literally freezes in the cold, and while her decision is not very convincing and the film extremely slow, there is a sort of involving sadness in the movie.
THE SWIMMING POOL, an English-language movie by Frenchman Francois Ozon, stars Charlotte Rampling. In recent years, she has enjoyed an amazingly strong revival of her career, mostly in art house films. Here, she plays a British writer of detective fiction, best sellers that always feature the same sleuth. Think Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. However, tired and depressed, she meets her editor who suggests that she go and rest in his house in rural southern France. There she picks up energy and creativity until, that is, the publisher s French-born daughter Julie shows up and changes everything. She is a lively girl with an extremely active sex life. First there is antagonism but then in some sort of echo of detective fiction, things happen (I am not revealing them), a bond is created and more uncertainty sets in matters of what is reality and what is fiction. Inventive and well-made, this is a festival favorite.
There are about 4, 000 reporters at Cannes. What has also not changed since last year are the crowds, the huge number of scantily-clad women (some chic, others not), the total lack of cellulites, and total take-over by cell-phoneitis.
Cell-phones are so common in the future even the pet dogs of Cannes will be carrying them. The fact is that they are of great usefulness during the festival. American ones don't work here, so that there's a thriving business of local rentals. Back in the U.S.A, when in the hands of car drivers, those phones are a frightening sight. Not so in Cannes where the traffic is well regulated by hordes of cops and where most cars crawl.
The abundance of pricey, shiny, spotless new autos makes you wonder about the sources of wealth in Europe. You see dream car after dream car as well as the strange (to Americans) small, squat two-seaters of many brands. The vehicles are easy to maneuver, save on gas, and can park in tight spots.
Gripping is UZAK (Distant) by Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Yusuf, from a small provincial city, is laid off with another thousand factory workers. He hitches a ride to Istanbul to get employment as a sailor, if possible. He stays with his childhood friend Mahmut, a successful art photographer. The visit stretches as Yusuf finds no job in these days of crisis. Nothing much happens as the focus switches to Mahmut --but a sad portrait emerges of him. An excellent, quietly moving and original work that gets close to cinematic minimalism within the framework of a dismal, snowy, depressing weather. The director recently won Best Turkish Film of the Year. He uses something like Bertolt Brecht s distancing effect in a strangely non-judgmental movie which flirts with minimalism. Sadly, one of the two main actors died in a car accident just when he had received a major prize in Turkey (as did the other thespian) for his performance in UZAK.
ELEPHANT (U.S.A.) by Gus Van Sant is a too-cryptically titled movie which disappointed most critics and viewers. Its actors are mostly real high school students in Oregon and play just that. Most of the film shows them haphazardly at various activities which, like most American high school movies, never show learning, taking classes, talking of culture or doing anything important. There is one short scene of a kid asking a smart question of the teacher. There is a snippet of a gay/straight love. Then, in the last sections, we focus on two buddies. One loves to watch Hitler on TV. The other tries to plays badly Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Fur Elise. They get delivery of lethal guns, take a shower together, kiss, and put on camouflage military garb. Armed to-the-teeth they go to the school where they shoot almost everybody in sight. The End. Yes, it is Columbine or a photocopy thereof. No, there is no explanation, analysis, going below the surface. My guess is that it is the lack of knowledge, culture and good schooling that makes them pull the trigger. I wish Van Sant had said so, or at least attempted to find the roots of this dreadful situation.
About America (meaning the USA) and other countries. At Cannes, no matter what the nationality of its films, except perhaps for the appropriately named Film Market, the official or semi-official American items do not reflect their country's commercial power. Their presence in 2003 as in many other years would be small. There is, no doubt, an awareness of Yankee movies but it is an historical one, that of major, older Hollywood features shown in retrospectives, mostly of nicely restored prints
But the size of any country's production is not reflected by Cannes selections. Were this the case, the Festival would have been flooded with Indian features, notably those made in record numbers in Bollywood, an amusing but not flattering name that combines Bombay (a colossal center of commercial movies' production) and Hollywood.
The difference between Bollywood and Hollywood is that the former's public is mainly in India, while the American films rule the entire world.
Here are some sample statistics. In France, this planet's best country for showing films from all over this planet, in the 52 weeks that preceded Cannes, of the top 25 ticket-sellers, one was Spanish, five were French, and 19 were American. In box-office revenue for 2002 the top 15 films were American except for 3 titles.
In JAPANESE STORY (Australia), Toni Collette (of MURIEL fame) works in a French company that makes geological maps. She gets stuck with guiding and driving a young, go-getting Japanese businessman and potential customer. The first meetings are a mess. She is lively, independent and outspoken. He is irritating, terribly formal and mostly silent. Also, authoritarian and sexist. He insists that they go the Pilbara desert -- against her pragmatic warnings. When their car gets stuck, the two have to fix things together, a new relationship is born, and a major event follows. Mixed reaction from the critics. The film is not bad, however.
Free spirit Pupi Avati is a director justly famous in Italy for his maverick movies and his special sense of humor. A HEART ELSEWHERE is a gem. In the 1920s, Nello, a shy, withdrawn scholar of Greek and Latin is the only son of a tailor in Rome whose distinction is that he dresses the Vatican aristocracy, from clerics to cardinals to Popes. Dad (Giancarlo Gianini) wants the son to liven up before he inherits the business. He sends him to the scholary city of Bologna where he will teach in a high school and perhaps find a wife. Nello gets invited to a home for blind women. It is run by nuns. The ladies are periodically entertained by male visitors who dance with them. For Nello it is love at first sight with Angela, the gorgeous daughter of a rich doctor.
She was recently blinded in an accident. Before this she was a high society partygoer, a major flirt interested in mundane pleasures rather than culture or the arts (she may be a distant relation of Scarlet O 'Hara). The affair proceeds well, a development you see coming ensues, and great, colorful fun is had by the audience. Splendid, highly Italian acting, sets, ironies, humor, quirky types and even surreal bits make this a must-see item. An older Giancarlo Giannini as the master tailor and anxious dad is a nonstop pleasure. But many critics, while not displeased, do not appreciate sufficiently this grade-A work.
An unanimous hit is the feature-length by Sylvain Chaumet, THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE. It is a wild and wooly impossible-to-summarize creation with humorous elements that mimic old music hall routines, serials with good and bad guys, silent French and American flicks and also musicals. An eccentric, original job was done by a large number of people who all seem to be masters of their trades. Special effects are stunning as are the many state-of-the-art animation techniques. The specialists involved include French, Canadian, Belgian and even Latvian animators.
There are so many films shown at Cannes that it is mind-boggling - and that's an understatement. Starting with the non-fest, non-competing pictures here are, at the very least, three main masses of movies. Unlike the Festfilms proper, which are all new, the many local theaters host avalanches of both new and newish movies of all types. So does the Film Market, housed in a rather recent building behind the Palais proper. The Market includes small screening rooms, nominally for items aimed at buyers. Distributors or national film offices may also produce on demand videos or DVDs for personal screenings.
We are really talking business here, and a total of films in the hundreds. But the main target for reporters, critics, buyers and, of course the general public consists of the Official Films in competition (20 features), non-competing (7 features), Special screenings (9 features), the UCR (Un Certain Regard/ A Certain Look series (about 20 features), plus many short films.
In addition, there is an Homage to Federico Fellini with a full retrospective of his films in restored prints. They all leave no doubt that the man was a genius. Then there is a series of some 16 restored classics from several nations; other specials commemorating recently deceased filmmakers; etc. etc. Plus a large photographic exhibition about Jean Cocteau.. All this -and more-- takes place in the huge Palace of Festivals.
In addition to the addition, and totally independent from the Main Festival, and in separate venues (i.e. not within the Palace of Festivals)are two important series: the Filmmakers Fortnight and the Critics' Week.
As I write the preceding paragraphs I wonder why I need a C.P.A. for my income taxes when I manage to keep track of Cannes without outside help.
Major newspapers and other media employ platoons of reviewers to cover Cannes. No human being --or, for that matter, no extraterresrial --can keep up with all the movie offerings, the three daily press conferences, etc. plus special events. Among the latter are many interesting ones. This year they included at least two fascinating events, The Music Lesson by one of Fellini's composers, Nicola Piovani, and The Cinema Lesson by Oliver Stone (the son of an American father and a French mother) whose French is fluent except for confusing, grammatically, masculines and feminines and past and presents.
What follows does not include every movie I watched. I skip mentions of items seen in that special, typical Cannes state of exhaustion that would make me, in some cases, not eligible for rational/fair appreciations.
Even so, there's no disputing a wonderful double bonus for Nanni Moretti fans, including me. The proof: in 1978, when he screened his first Cannes movie ECCE BOMBO, I was so impressed with it that I went and hugged the man. That was the first and last time I did this to a stranger.
Now here come 20 terrific scenes cut from his APRILE (1998,) ranging from the 1994 political victory of Silvio Berlusconi to 1996 when the Italian left won for the first time ever. The humor, vitality and originality of Moretti (on and off screen) are magnificent. Then there's also THE LAST CUSTOMER, a documentary on the closing, in New York, of an Italian-American pharmacy beloved by its customers (read "friends") for two generations
THE controversy of the Fest. DOGVILLE is by the Lars Von Trier, the ever experimenting, self-promoting and inflating (via quirks and "inventions") Dane whose "Von" is a fake. That predicate belongs to German nobility. Some years ago, Mr. Trier and buddies invented a ridiculous sort of Ten Commandments for film-making which soon enough was broken by its proponents. The current movie is set in a U.S. Rockies microscopic, Depression-era "town" of two dozen people who bear names such as Tom Edison and Tom Edison Sr. It lasts three painful hours. The place consists of stage-like, diminutive sections marked on a floor, and is, in many ways, a blatantly depressing rip-off of Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town." To Dogville a stranger played by Nicole Kidman -by the far the most paparazzi-photographed star of the Festival-appears, seeking shelter and safety from mysterious gangsters. The reluctant locals accept her. She helps them. She brings joy to them until a grim, total reversal of characters and actions takes place. Don't ask. Essentially this film is a blatant attack by Trier on things American -even though he has no direct experience of the U.S.A.
At the press screening reactions ranged from yawns, walk-outs, utter pretentiousness, an excrutiating would-be allegory, detestations (including mine) to a number of critics who considered this stuff to be a strong candidate for the top prize. Again, please don't ask.
Among the restored films, AN ANDALUSIAN DOG (1929) by the great Luis Bunuel, the father of all surrealist movies; WE LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH (1974) a gem by Ettore Scola; THIs SPORTING LIFE (1963) by the U.K.'s Lindsay Anderson. Also THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It was much admired as "a new "movie by an older American lady who came to Cannes with a U.S. university's film director (whatever this means.) I didn't have the heart to tell her that the film was 65 years old.
Among the restrospectives, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina's famous CHRONICLE OF THE YEARS OF FIRE (1975) about Algeria's fight for independence.
Going back in time, a beautiful print of Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES, the Festival's closing film, was an eye opener for many. Earlier, we had seen CHARLIE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN, an intelligent, sensitive work by critic Richard Schikel. Add to those works a major press-conference on Chaplin with a variety of connoisseurs including Geraldine Chaplin.
THE BEST YOUTH from Italy, directed by Marco Tullio Giordana was projected in two parts, each a bit over three hours. It is a TV series story of a family, praised by many, and awarded the A Certain Look top honors.
CARANDIRU (Brazil) by the notable Hector Babenco, is a long, powerful work about the doctor who worked in a large Sao Paulo prison, gained the inmates trust, was touched by their humanity. In 1992 an uprising ended with 111 unarmed prisoners killed. A sensitive as well as most violent film.
Run,don't walk! In an overall mediocre festival, finally a very, very good movie! THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Canada), written and directed by Denys Arcand whose small but excellent output, starting in 1972, includes "The Decline of the American Empire" and "Jesus of Montreal." Remy (Remy Girard,) a 50-plus university professor ---and major womanizer to the end-- is terminally ill. His former wife persuades their son Sebastien, (now a London-based big wheeler-dealer businessman) to come over. Sebastien had never been close to his father. Nevertheless he is of help Rapidly a circle of old friends and relatives, their families, former mistresses and others, gather around the wonderfully original and witty Remy, joking with much naturalness. Sebastien tries to get illegal heroin to alleviate the man's pain; he also bribes the corrupt labor union, and so on. The movie opens with a devastating (but funny) send-up of the Canadian public health system and structures. It ends with one of the best closures in cinema. The combination of humor, satire, warmth, sex and death is unique.
What we have here is 111 minutes of movie perfection, realism, stock-taking, joie-de-vivre, satire, cynicism, tenderness, humor, feelings (but neither Hollywoodian sentimentality nor French schizophrenia) and, to sum it up, a classic that creates its own genre.
The performances are superb. The title is not anti-American since the entire world (especially post -9/11) is invaded by barbarians. Certainly and by far the best film of the Fest, it deserves the top award, the Golden Palm.
The strange BRIGHT FUTURE (Japan) by maverick Kioshi Kurosawa (no kin to the late, great Akira Kurosawa) features two friends in their twenties who work in a towel factory. Their supervisor is very nice to them, but this does not prevent the older youth from killing the man and his whole family, for reasons unknown. The killer, sentenced to death, owns a jellyfish that can be deadly. His buddy inherits it. He also befriends the murderer's father. A curious, puzzling, original movie that only the bravest art-houses might show in America.
TODAY AND TOMORROW (Argentina) the first feature by Alejandro Chomski. 24-year old Paula, an aspiring (and promising) actress, has lost her waitressing job, can't pay the rent of her near-hovel apartment, and is about to be evicted. She had rebelled against her father, reluctantly asks for money, the man is willing to help, but then Paula again walks away. She falls into prostitution. The 90-minute movie is very sad, effective and affecting, does not go into explanations, yet is most realistically done. It does not trumpet its originality. Keep an eye on director Chomski's future output.
Are we attending the same Festival? Yes and No. Yes because there is a majority of critical opinion that this - notwithstanding a few gems-the weakest Cannes in memory. No because what a large number of professional reporters say and/or write has nothing to do with reality. One example:
As expected, all who enter from the street the Palace of Festivals undergo a search. First your pass is quickly examined. Then you are very rapidly searched, that is, an employee gives you a very rapid and two cursory body search. Next, another person takes your bag(s) and either pats them or opens them and has a lighting-fast look at the contents. The whole process takes a few seconds. To call this "frisking" or even "patting" is not only inaccurate but an idiotic exaggeration.
The employees, both male and female, are polite, often smiling, and conclude the inspection with a "thank you." The difference between American airport inspections and those of the Festival are like those between airplane food (in peon or steerage class) and a decent French meal. Yet there have been cases of inexcusably irate Festgoers who protest loudly, unpleasantly, sometimes insultingly, as if their civil rights had been abrogated by a Fascist State. Additionally, a few reports (especially in the American press) in search of fake local color have mentioned negatively and as fact a search process that rates the grade of A.
LA PETITE LILI (Little Lili) (France) is by Claude Miller, the maker of appreciated films in many genres. Here he transposes Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL into a multi-characters affair centering on an aspiring film-maker and several relationships. It does not work.
LES COTELETTES (The Cutlets) has little to do with French cuisine. It is by France's Bertrand Blier, the novelist, playwright and above all filmmaker (GOING PLACES, GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS, etc.) possessed by a splendid sense of the outrageous, the outlandish, the absurd, the risqué, the merciless irony that have made him justly famous. In this film, two aged men get involved in mutual antagonism which shifts to interest for the Algerian lady who is their house-cleaner. This is a simplification of a non-story which was not too well received --but then, items that come at the tail-end of the festival are subject to mass fatigue.
MYSTIC RIVER by Clint Eastwood. I will not discuss this film since it will soon be in the U.S.A. but I can mention that it is an honorable job, well-made for what it is, including near deja-vu-on-the-American-screen, but not quite a Festival heavyweight.
THE AWARDS. There is a profusion of them from different outfits, groups, organizations and such I will only list those of note.
THE FEATURE FILM JURY:
Patrice CHEREAU, President (Director - France)-Aishwarya RAI (Actress - India)-Meg RYAN (Actress - United States)-Karin VIARD (Actress - France)-Erri DE LUCA (Writer - Italy)-Jean ROCHEFORT (Actor - France)-Steven SODERBERGH (Director - United States)-Danis TANOVIC (Director - Bosnia)-Jiang WEN (Actor, Scriptwriter, Director - China)
THE MAJOR FEATURE FILM JURY'S AWARDS:
The top prize, the Golden Palm, to ELEPHANT, by Gus Van Sant (USA)
Theories abound to explain this totally unexpected decision. Some are unmentionable. One is mentionable: it's a gesture to be nice to the U.S.A following the strained political relations between America and France. (But see the end of this article)
The Grand Prize (second highest award), to UZAK, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
Best Actress, to Marie-Josee Croze in THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Canada)
Best Actor, to Muzaffer Ozdemire and Mehmet Emin Toprak in UZAK (Turkey)
Best director, to Gus Van Sant for ELEPHANT (USA)
Best film script, to Denys Arcand for the BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Canada)
Jury Prize, to AT FIVE P.M. by Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran)
CANNES IN A CAPSULE
What this year's festival was for first-timers among the critics is anybody's guess. But for repeaters, especially for those of us who had been here many times - say from 10 to 30 -- it was not a strong vintage year. Their overall judgments ranged from "mediocre" to "the worst ever." Yet, when recollected in tranquility, Cannes 2003 did have its share of gems, as it always has, though not enough of them. No matter, Cannes still remains Number One for the professionals who buy, distribute or show movies, and by far the best source of films for art houses.
The Cannes Festival is the most exhausting marathon of its kind. There is a special brand of Cannes fatigue that includes sleeplessness, tush-pain, eyes that need new glasses and much else. Above all is the invariable feeling of "what did I miss?" This only applies to bulimic, dedicated cinephiles. It does not apply to the merchants in the temple.
For 2003 my greatest regret is not having seen SHINING LEAVES (the reference is to the tobacco industry in North Carolina) which was shown at the Directors' Fortnight series. It was made by Ross McElwee who has invented a special, distinctive, original --- in fact, unique ---genre of documentaries which blend objectivity with personal reactions. Back in 1986, this Southerner who teaches film-making in the North (M.I.T, Harvard) created a sensation among connoisseurs with SHERMAN'S MARCH.
A FINAL NOTE
What the American media keep calling "the strained relations between the U.S.A and France" is in reality totally absent at this festival, or, for that matter, in France outside the festival. In the States, the said media, plus silly jokes and cheap displays of patriotism embodied in ridiculous anti-French slogans, are an embarrassment to me and to my American colleagues.