THE 57th CANNES INTERNATIONAL
FILM FESTIVAL (2004): A DIARY
by Edwin Jahiel
The winning of the Golden Palm by Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911” was the cinematic equivalent of The Shot Heard Round the World which, in 1775, was in many ways the genesis of what would become the United States of America.
When the film was screened it received the loudest, largest ovation of anything in the Festival’s history. And this was repeated later when the awards were announced. Enthusiasm is one thing. Controversy is, however, also inevitable. It will certainly flourish when the work gets its American release.
Technically speaking it was only the second time that the Golden Palm went to a documentary after the totally uncontroversial The World of Silence (1956) by captain Cousteau and Louis Malle.
The Big Jury consisted of 4 men and 4 women plus its president Quentin Tarantino. It is strongly rumored that Fahrenheit was Tarantino’s second choice, his favorite being the Korean super-violent fantasy “Old Boy” which I totally disliked, yet it won the second highest award, the Grand Prize.
And while we’re at it: Best Actress went to the lovely, multi-lingual, Hong Kong born Maggie Cheung in “Clean” made by her ex-husband, Frenchman Olivier Assayas. Best Actor was Yagira Yuya in the Japanese “Nobody Knows.” In that movie (based on facts) a mother of four (by different men) leaves her children and their 11-years-old senior takes care of them. Yagira (ca.14) was the only winner who missed the Awards ceremony as he had to rush home to take his high school’s final exams.
The Jury Prize for acting went to African-American Irma P. Hall (not present) in “The Ladykillers” by the Coen Brothers. The Jury Prize for a film was the inexplicable “Tropical Malady” by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a movie whose confusion and incoherence caused many to walk out at the critics’ screening. But we all liked the Golden Camera’s (First Feature) award for “My treasure” to Keren Yedaya, a wonderfully humanistic Israeli woman who would be a great peacemaker between Israelis and Palestinians.
(Note that NC appended to titles means Non-Competing) The 2004 Cannes vintage had bits of everything. Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” (NC) is a complicated view of homosexuality, transvestites, pedophilia in Catholic schools and such.
The Swiss “Welcome to Switzerland” is an amusing satire of that nation but gets too broad past a point. The Italian “Consequences of Love” centers on a mysterious, natty, middle-aged gentleman who has been in the same hotel for eight years. His solitude eventually reveals a strange connection to Mafiosi. A fascinating work.
So is another Italian job, “Don’t Move,” the second film ever directed (and co-written)by that excellent actor (in 50 movies) Sergio Castellitto. He also plays the main character, a renowned surgeon with a pretty, socialite wife, and a teen daughter who crashes her scooter and is almost terminally brain-damaged. A well worked-in second plot goes years back to a most proletarian Penelope Cruz who became his mistress. The story is complex and grabs you –except, in my case, for Cruz’s un-beauty (to put it mildly) and her inexplicably bad teeth.
“Life is a Miracle” by the fanciful Emir Kusturica, set in 1992’s Bosnian war, involves endless satires of a host of motley folk, uses all down to the kitchen sink, is imaginative and robust – but way overdoes everything in a 154 minute work about peace and war and much else. Enough is enough.
A roughly similar overloading is in the Hungarian “Kontroll,” a sort of comedy-drama about subway inspectors in Budapest, where, by the way, the world’s first metro ever was born.
Relief arrives with Raymond Depardon, that French master documentarist, and his “Courtroom Number 10” (NC) where over several weeks, 12 real-life minor crimes and misdemeanors are on trial. Engrossing, instructive, often amusing.
The great actor Max Von Sydow discussed, intelligently and sincerely, acting in a special program. A unique experience by a multi-lingual star.
“Shrek 2,” “Troy,’ (NC), “The Ladykillers,” did well although the blond, blue-eyed Brad Pitt (“Troy”) is ludicrously un-Greek. “Hotel,” by Austria’s Jessica Hausner, about the new she-receptionist in an isolated establishment is a kind of promising semi-gothic thriller where not spelling anything out can be a plus or a minus depending on the viewer.
American Niels Muller’s first film, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” vaguely based on an actual case, set in 1974, is an original, strange portrait of a loser (Sean Penn.) It covers personal problems and socio-political indictments. Penn’s performance is simply superb.
“Bad Santa” (NC) (by Terry Zwigoff) deals with a Christmastime Santa, a human wreck ( dishevelled, alcoholic Billy Bob Thornton) and his sidekick, the dwarf Marcus (Tony Cox) who also break into store safes. I’ll reveal nothing else about this basically limited gags movie, but it had the audience laughing their heads off.
Cannes 2004 was remarkable for its political films. Godard’s “Our Music” is a three-parter (Hell-Purgatory-Paradise,) a denunciation of war and violence, political, centered around Sarajevo, and made in Godardian take-no-prisoners style, preaching, “philosophy,” etc. Impressive, although I need a second screening to decide when and how much Godard takes himself for God (plus Art,) pontificates, or really enriches cinema.
Political too is “Salvador Allende” (NC) by Chile’s Patricio Guzman. A great lesson in politics, democratic values, on the life and times of Chile’s statesman, later President and finally victim of a CIA coup. Wonderfully instructive, warm and full of newsreel footage, it cannot fail moving you.
Very indirectly along those political lines, by Brazil’s ace-filmmaker Walter Salles, is “Motorcycle Journal.” In 1952, young Argentine buddies Alberto Grande (now a personality in Cuba) and Ernesto Guevara (later “Che”), go on a trek with their beat-up 1939 motorcycle, to discover South America. What they see and learn will shape their lives. First-rate from A to Z, instructive, humorous, touching and, cleverly, never mentioning the future years of “Che.”
Political too, in many respects, is “Chronicles,” by Ecuador’s Sebastian Cordero. A serial child-killer in Ecuador becomes the object of a possible major scoop by a TV reporter from Miami. A movie like no other. It also gives you an in-depth view of life, misery and legal procedures in that country.
Brazil’s Silvio Tender has come up with a mesmerizing biography of the late Glauber Rocha, a maverick jack-of-all-arts who, in the 1960s became the creator of the New Brazilian Cinema, put the country on the international film Olympus (in South America as well as Europe), experimented like mad, was an amazingly idiosyncratic character and left no movie style unturned. A profusion of footage featuring Rocha, of his endless explorations of art, of interviews with friends and colleagues, and much else combine into a powerful, colorful, touching documentary.
This is one of five Cannes movies about movies, including a very long homage to Henri Langlois, the father of the French Cinematheque and the inspirer of millions of cinephiles and hundreds of future filmmakers.
By the Brit Stephen Hopkins, “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” is played by Geoffrey Rush who, while looking nothing like Sellers, delivers a convincing portrait of a man who was absolutely nothing like the comic roles he played but, instead, was a miserable creature. Most instructive.
The Fest’s closing movie was Irwin Winkler’s “De-Lovely,” a very good portrait of Cole Porter, his life and his splendid songs. Avoiding the prudent hints of Porter’s bisexuality, this work faces it honestly, fairly and with feeling. The screenplay by Jay Cocks is superior, Ashley Judd as Cole’s wife is impressive, Kevin Kline as Porter is simply terrific and potentially an Oscar winner in 2005.
PS. For critics who have the time (joke!) the immense Film Market contains many excellent movies. I only caught two, both Greek. “A Touch of Spice” by Tassos Boulmetis mixes food, history, politics, Greek-Turkish relations, and much else – a big budget production and a mega-hit in Greece. And “Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow,” very long, by Theo Angelopoulos who belongs to the Pantheon of great filmmakers.
Every day of the year a film festival starts somewhere – but Cannes remains the undisputed king or queen of them all. Having discussed its nature, schedule, organization, topography and all that in my reports on previous years, I’ll skip all that.
The major addition in 2004 was that the city-- especially the area of the Palace of Festivals –was flooded with over one thousand regular police plus the tough CRS riot police. This was partly a precautionary, anti-terrorist measure, but the unusual increase in numbers also had mundane roots: large concentrations of part-time showbiz workers were demonstrating for better unemployment benefits . They were later joined by local hotel workers. Some scuffles led to a few bludgeoned crania but so far as I know no blood was shed.
Except, of course, for the film programs, Cannes follows the French saying “the more it changes, the more it stays the same.” The Festival remains the most glamorous of any. Think of the Oscars, but on a huge scale, spread over a dozen days and nights, and with the largest international coverage by all the media. Note that except for the serious, professional film critics, most of this coverage is overwhelmingly trivial and superficial.
“Coverage” also means “un-coverage.” Cleavages are rampant among the she-celebrities and non-celebrities who, for the “official” evening screenings, tread the long red carpet that goes from the street to the famous steps leading up to the main auditorium. The sidelines of the carpet are flanked by masses of very busy photographers in tuxedos, cooped up in specific areas and shooting like mad. At the awards ceremony this year the most photographed actor was beautiful Charlize Theron whose right strap was cleverly and permanently down.
Among minor changes in 2004 the most notable was the exponential increase of cellphones, often for no reason beyond an urge to chat. In the future I expect to see some dogs with electronics on their collars. Among non-changes are the outrageously increased hotel rates. Most restaurant prices too go up as the Fest begins. Some years ago, I mentioned this to the boss of a modest eatery I frequented. “Oh, no Monsieur, we don’t do that!” So I showed him photos I had shot of their menu two days before the Fest got going.
Among major changes was the weak dollar. When the euro was introduced one buck gave you well over than one euro, but by this year it gives you considerably less that one euro. Ouch!
Finally, just as the Fest ended, at the Paris - De Gaulle airport the collapse of a year-old terminal played havoc with tons of return travelers, myself included. (Given a lull in traffic, only four people were killed.)
Now to movies. What was striking was the “Asian Invasion,” the record number of films from that continent, perhaps one-third of the items in competition. Even more impressing was the continued, exponential presence of many films made by women in what used to be a male domain. Fine movies, too. Like Laure Duthilleul’s (France) first film “A Ce Soir” (“See you tonight”) A village doctor dies unexpectedly, leaving his wife – a nurse - (Sophie Marceau), their 2 kids, his brother (a carpenter), a sister (in another continent.) A strong, touching, minimal-budget work.
Or else the also touching “Schizo,” a first feature by Guka Omarova, set in her native Kazakhstan, about a young boy and his pal (a former boxer) and their involvement in all sorts of illegal actions. Fine acting in a very odd society.
Those works, among others deal with real humans, are totally different from the hugely expensive, action, special-effects “entertainment” spectaculars of U.S. cinema directed at the 17 to 36 years old market. They won’t circulate in America, except with luck and in tiny venues. They are one of the main reasons for going to the madhouse of Cannes each month of May. The same American neglect applies to Senegal’s great writer-filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (b.1923.) He’s had an amazingly diverse work career, then started making movies in the 1960s. He became the first African director to be internationally known ---and lauded. Mr. Sembene has been at the University of Illinois where, years ago, he showed his films—and where he still has friends . At Cannes we saw the powerful “Moolade” which deals with genital cutting, a subject that by an amazing coincidence is on page 3 of today’s New York Times.
In the last three years, the Festival has added Rediscovered Cinema, a series of beautifully restored classics or overlooked works from all over the world. It is a film-lover’s dream. In addition, a special, pristine print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s (born 1912) first English-language movie “Blowup” (1966) which won the Golden Palm in 1967. That treat, as impressive now as I was then, was screened with Antonioni present. In the mid-1980s a stroke partly paralyzed him and made him unable to speak. In a Fest’s newish, state-of-the-art and most comfortable theatre, a packed audience –including many not yet born when the maestro fell ill--gave the Maestro thunderous, endless applause.