Cannes `95

Some things at Cannes were new. The futuristic Japanesemade toilets in the Palais, for instance, turned out to be Variety's favorite festival topic. With just a hovering hand--nothing so crude as a touch--the sterilized seat comes down, or goes up, or precipitates le flush. Some things stay the same. My favorite is the disembodied female voice murmuring, as dark descends on the restless, "Mesdames et messieurs, la seance commence." I love when she says that. The French seance can be as innocuous as a meeting, a `sitting,' but for me it's still about trances, visitations, messages from the spirit world. A promise that ghosts will brush the sleeve. This year the dead were also given their voices in mini-trailers called Preludes--brief, graceful collages of classic movie clips preceding the main programs. Titles were pithy, like La Femme, Le Visage, Hamlet, or Rita, and compilers relied heavily on the masters like Lubitsch, Renoir, Sturges, and OphDuls. One of the funniest was all Milos Forman. In my favorite, Belmondo murmurs to Deneuve, "Ton visage est un paysage." More often than not, the feature looked tawdry in comparison, leaving the question lingering on in the dark, Ou sont les films d'antan? From the beginning to the end of Cannes '95, people were denigrating the films. This, I've come to realize, is the norm. It means there's no Pulp Fiction, no Piano--no one film that swept the bleachers, set the house on fire. For me, this festival seemed like all others in that I found films to love, films to hate, and many in between. Oddly enough, my favorite, Emir Kusturica's Underground, captured the Palme d'Or. My second favorite, Terence Davies's The Neon Bible, was almost universally reviled. As a welcome break from the domination of American pulp, you might say this was a serious, political year with outstanding history films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ken Loach, Theo Angelopoulos, and Kusturica. The most well-liked American movie was Ulu Grossbard's genuinely engaging Georgia, the story of two competing sisters who sing professionally. The film wasn't strictly in competition (it was designated `hors competition,' meaning it showed at an odd time and wasn't eligible for prizes) because, said a source, certain programmers can't stand Jennifer Jason Leigh. Georgia saw Georgia and she liked it very much. She took to introducing herself as Not the Movie. On the other hand, most American stuff here was slick, flashy, and meretricious-Reservoir Dogs wannabes. (I'm thinking particularly of The Usual Suspects and Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead.) The Camera d'Or runner-up--which is for first films--went to an NYU film school grad, or dropout (depending on whom you read), Hal Salwen. His minor Denise Calls Up is a one-note yuppie comedy with a handle so user-friendly even the dimmest viewers will pick it up. The best American entries, Todd Haynes's mysterious Safe and Jim Jarmusch's dark revisionist western, Dead Man, were virtually ignored. Gus Van Sant's To Die For split critics down the middle, and I can't give my verdict because I missed it. The most hyped of the bunch, Larry Clark's harsh mock-doc, Kids--notwithstanding its Sundance success de scandale and current Art Forum and New York covers--fizzled. (You have to have been there, now say those Sundance ravers.) About Kids, it was interesting to discover that the movie does not show much teenie fucking but is really a cautionary tale about AIDS and about boys. In case you haven't heard, Kids's 17-year-old impish-looking protagonist is obsessed with fucking--let's not say deflowering--virgins. "No one has the power to do that again," marvels his dim friend. It's hardly a new subject if you consider that one of the first novels was Clarissa. Nowadays, girls tumble more quickly. We, but not he, find out he's HIV-positive, giving his quest a morbid cast. Most of the movie's sex is talk. The movie's most provocative subject is the gulf between boys and girls, with boys as villains, and gullible girls, girls who give in, as victims. Mothers who want their daughters to fear sex, not just AIDS, would do well to send, or even take, them to Kids. (Larry Clark in a press conference: "I made an R film, I'm getting an R, and I'm not cutting one fucking frame.") That the French do things differently was illustrated neatly by Jury Prize winner N'oublier pas que tu vas mourir (Don't Forget You're Going To Die), where the blank-faced young hero, played by writer-director Xavier Beauvois, finds out he has AIDS (also from one of his multiple heterosexual partners), drops out, does some drugs, scores big money on a drug deal, runs off to Italy (he's an art history major) where he sees Piero's virgin at Monterchi, and falls in love with a rich sculptor's daughter. Realizing he'll never have a life, he takes off again, enlists with the French forces in Bosnia and dies in battle. It sounds corny (especially next to Kids) but isn't entirely. I'm not embarrassed to say I particularly liked the film's art history lectures. Robbing children of childhood was a prevalent theme this year. The lavish opening-night production, La Cite des enfants perdus (City of Lost Children) by Delicatessen duo Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, rather loses its way in a massive crunch of special effects, machinery, Gaultier costumes, and medievalist/Victorian/futurist sets, but basically saving children, or saving a dream of childhood, is the theme. Jeunet and Caro have a Terry Gilliam complex in that they can't stop cooking, but Cite was not nearly as bad as some said. Far more offensive is child molesting merely for shock value--a thing to do in movies when you're desperate. Take Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead, which opens up on a schoolyard with little girls playing jump rope. Pan down the legs of one girl turning the rope. Cut to the ogling ogre's tongue poking out. None of which has anything to do with what follows. Childhood in Terence Davies films is its own country and the aching, ecstatic The Neon Bible is one more of the British filmmaker's memory trains--although this time the railroad is the Georgia Pacific. Oddly, the film (based on John Kennedy Toole's first novel) links up to Georgia, being about two sisters who sing: one, Mae (Gena Rowlands), with soul, while the other, Sarah (Diana Scarwid), keeps her song bottled up too long. (Neon Bible and Georgia also share Stephen Foster's lovely Hard Times Come Again No More.) As in his British autobiographical journeys, Davies's observer here is a sensitive, sad-eyed boy, son of Sarah and a brutal dad who goes off to war and leaves him amongst the women. "There was no snow that year," says the voiceover; if you look, you see snow falling. (It's like a Cornell box, whispered my friend about this particular image.) "Then the men came back from the war," says the v.o. On the screen flag-draped coffins are lined up at a boxcar door. Dubious voices, still lifes. Still perhaps, but not static. A white muslin sheet dries on a clothesline, becoming all the sheets of Ozu, who in every movie showed clothes hanging from a line, as well as a white cinema screen. ("Reaction in Cannes was mixed to negative," reported Variety of The Neon Bible. Reporter didn't consult moi.) It was a crying shame that Gena Rowlands as the jitterbugging Mae failed to win Cannes's Best Actress. Son visage est un paysage. Her face is a landscape, a countryside, a field of dreams. Never in a lifetime would I deny the winner, Helen Mirren, anything, but her Mrs. King role in The Madness of King George is not only inconsequential, it's so, so...consort-ial. Jonathan Pryce won Best Actor for reincarnating Lytton Strachey in a movie, Carrington, named for a consort, sort of--a woman who gave up her art to tend Strachey and attract virile young men for him. Pryce does a witty imitation (or is it invention?) of the warped, histrionic, apercu-ing Prince of Bloomsbuggery, the man Virginia Woolf wisely gave up for someone to take care of her. In the movie's first scene, a train steams into a station and suddenly that head--full beard, spectacles, topped by a slouch hat--pops out and the effect, for English majors anyway, is hilarious. Pryce comes up with all sorts of dear tics and manic mannerisms. Accepting his award, the actor saw fit to apologize for having "a much better time playing him than he had being him," a sentiment that hit the nail on the head about this handsome but shallow movie. You wouldn't know from Christopher Hampton's blithe treatment that Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson in cute Buster Brown wig) was probably an even more miserable creature than Lytton. A former editor once advised me never to stay to the end of a festival--"Getting out feels like the fall of Saigon," said she--and so I had never before viewed Cannes's endearingly clumsy closing ceremony with my own eyes. This year I was unable to book an early flight. Thus I was witness to the public embarrassment of Theo Angelopoulos, who clearly believed he'd been summoned to receive the Palme d'Or but was presented instead with a runner-up prize. (Apparently, candidates are informed if they will not be getting any award so that, if they choose, they can discreetly not show up.) When Angelopoulos was called for Not the Palme, he made no attempt to hide his fury. Onstage, at the mike, he muttered tersely that he'd been expecting the Palme, so forget this, then exited like a bull into the wings, and for all I know straight on into the sea itself. When the winners returned for a final bow, he wasn't among them. Poor man. Not only had he lost but he'd be the butt of many a column. People around me were tittering. Logic was with Angelopoulos. He wasn't imagining the wild, ecstatic reaction that greeted the end of Ulysses' Gaze. Besides, Kusturica had won the Palme in 1985 for When Father Was Away on Business; he'd also won Cannes's Best Director for Time of the Gypsies in '89. He's also still a young man (in certain lights, he looks like Jim Morrison). As one of only two American reporters who attended the Ulysses' Gaze press conference, I can attest to the real electricity in a room packed to the rafters. Conversely, Kusturica's conference was somewhat sparsely attended, and I felt lonely in my excitement. Both films are three-hour epics about the Balkans, but they couldn't be more different. In Ulysses' Gaze, Harvey Keitel (yes, Harvey) plays a GreekAmerican filmmaker called `A' who returns to his country after 35 years. He's come to search for three lost reels from the first Greek filmmakers, the brothers Manakia, whose project, somewhat like that of the brothers Lumiere, was filming ordinary people at work. Some footage we see here is of women spinning; it's as if the first Greek films were of Penelope waiting. All Angelopoulos films are woven loosely on journeys, and if sometimes I feel like whining, "Daddy, are we there yet?" it's just the child in me. The images here are paramount: mysterious, potentially deadly frontiers and borders; snowy fields and landscapes in mist; crowds that stand with their backs to the camera or gaze out at some peripheral reality the camera never shows. People dress drably in overcoats and hats, as if time stopped somewhere back in the century. A companion complains there's no humor in Angelopoulos. So? Kusturica's marvelous Underground, on the other hand, is all black humor--that distinctive, complex, Eastern European blend of absurdism, surrealism, folk tale, and wild, ironic passion. ("Tito fell ill and 20 years later he died." If you don't find this funny, get lost.) Spanning the last 50 years of his native former Yugoslavia, it's a kinetic farce that works itself to a hilarious pitch, its comic crescendo arriving with tinted newsreel footage of Tito's funeral. This is all to the lyric strains of `Lili Marleen.' Our leaders are all in attendance, reverent and solemn: Mrs. Thatcher, Walter Mondale, Arafat in his turban, Kurt Waldheim. Following this piece de resistance, the film suddenly descends into a crazy, devastating vision of the recent war in Bosnia. "Once upon a time there was a country, and its capital was Belgrade..." goes the opening. "What do you mean, there's no more Yugoslavia?!" raves our hero near the end. The film replicates a nightmare and is scary and true.

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