2003 – GOLDEN PALMS AND SILVER TOO
INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
Come and be mad on
the Med. Twelve days can be yours in
the murder mystery holiday of a lifetime. Your only task: to guess who will
triumph and who will totter.
It couldn’t be more
like an Agatha Christie thriller if it tried, or a
game of geocultural Cluedo.
Twenty filmmakers are invited to a spot isolated from the rest of
civilisation. A mysterious host has left mysterious instructions. And one by
one the films are shot dead – by critics and others aiming lethally in the
dark – until only one is left alive. The film and its owner claim the grand
prize plus a free pass to future fests where they can once more risk terror
In some years of
course the winner is the murderer.
Or seems sure to be named so. Consider 2003. With DOGVILLE, Danish
genius Lars von Trier invented the perfect machine
for assassinating every other Competition contender. His epic tale of life
and death, good and evil in a make-believe American town represented by a chalkmarked soundstage – it even looks like a Cluedo board - reinvents film and rearranges the
furniture of the filmgoer’s imagination.
And if you say, ‘My furniture’s arranged fine, thanks,’ DOGVILLE
says to you ‘Feng Phooey.’
It was all set up.
Everyone said DOGVILLE would win the Palm. And then – crash bang – it
didn’t. Gus Van Sant’s more modestly admirable ELEPHANT
trampled over it, as pachyderms will trample canines, and a robbed European
expressionist was left consoling himself with two
thoughts. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. And juries are
no sounder of judgment than anyone else. Also this jury was led by
filmmaker/stage director Patrice Chereau, raising
the question: Can a man famous for a landmark Bayreuth RING production be impartial about
someone challenging his legacy? For the next person set to direct the Valkyrie Show at the Wagner shrine is – yes – Lars von Trier. (For legal reasons I dissociate myself entirely
from any imputation of prejudice and I think Patrice is a marvellous person).
(we’ll come to ELEPHANT later) shows that greasepaint is in Trier’s blood.
Crazily and wonderfully. Isn’t this theatre not cinema, we ask at first as
arc lights blaze above a circumscribed indoor acting space with chalked lines
and perfunctory props: chairs, fake trees, paste-and-canvas rock representing
a mountain? Isn’t it, even worse, theatre plus novel, since John Hurt’s voice-over,
savouring every arch omniscient irony, drawls away on the soundtrack while
nine chapter-announcing captions section out the story. As for the actors:
well, we expect verisimilitude in a movie not a barmily
international cast – Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgard, Paul Bettany, Jean-Marc Barr… – putting on midwestern American
accents to which none is native.
Enough. We are
talking Trier. Danes
have been mad since Hamlet, and this guy is the
maddest. He is a missionary of the impossible and a prophet for the Cinema of
Deracination (EUROPA, BREAKING THE WAVES, Bjork
and Catherine Deneuve pre-rehearsing Never-never America in DANCER
IN THE DARK). DOGVILLE’s story
grabs us by the throat in reel one, shakes us jugularly for three hours and then leaves us speechless,
voiceless, resistanceless. From the moment that a
pale blonde Nicole Kidman shudders into view as gangster-fleeing Grace – a
gift from nowhere which the town’s self-fancied young philosopher Tom (Bettany) urges Dogville to
accept as a benedictive burden that will
transfigure all their lives – the tale has a crazed logic and a crazier moral
Accepting Grace: is
that the same as accepting grace? Of course. And being human, the townsfolk
no sooner start making a go of it than they prepare the ground for making a
mess of it. Imagine a mixture of Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser, add a
dash of LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, then
stir with a pitchfork dipped in sulphur.
There is fantastic
wit in Trier’s division of the townsfolk into representative
demerits. Hypochondria (Philip Baker Hall’s doctor); intellectual pretension
(Paul Bettany as his son, cheekily named Tom
Edison); intellectual nullity (Jeremy Davies); lust-in-waiting (Stellan Skarsgard); the blind
man who sees with 20-20 inner vision at each chance for emotional blackmail
overkill? Nonsense. Do we dismiss GULLIVER’S TRAVELS for its
dyspeptic vision or KING LEAR? Masterpieces don’t observe
impartiality. DOGVILLE puts all the virtues in one basket – Grace
herself – and our fear for most of the movie is that she will lie down and
take her martyrdom, or stand up and be nailed to it as the figurehead in a transexual Christ story. Trier doesn’t allow it.
Grace brings the sword, not peace, and it’s drawn when we least expect it.
The hiss from the sheath is disguised by the sobs and sighs of a girl we
think has surrendered the fight. But revenge is sweet and in art it’s a dish
best served scalding.
For two hours,
though, and quite magnificently, Nicole Kidman’s heroine looks as frightened
as the actress herself must have been in the hands of a director who had
previously driven Bjork to mental collapse.
Reportedly Lars and Nicole went for a walk in the woods during shooting –
very Geneva – in
order to talk themselves into entente. Were they studio woods marked out with
chalk? But the Great Dane undoubtedly needs
to demoralise his actresses. How else get the stupendous shredded
emotions required? The sense of mere acting technique transcended by
faux-friendly welcome from the title town, DOGVILLE’s
Grace is consecutively enslaved, raped, chained and serially pimped by a
citizenry for whom charity begins at home and is then kicked into oblivion
over the valley. ‘Dogville’ is ‘Everywhere’: or
everywhere where self-serving venality masquerades as simplehearted
small town sweetness. Hasn’t art put the boot into small town values ever
since Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY? Indeed ever since Sophocles’ OEDIPUS
AT COLUNUS? (And what a dump Colunus was,
remember? One tobacconist, a town gossip and a seedy hotel).
To say that this
film is anti-American – as some nutbrains (to use
the scientific term) wrote at Cannes – is as
meaningless as to say that HAMLET is anti-Danish. Great art is about
all of us and DOGVILLE is great art. Si argumentum requiris get out and see
it. Kidman gives the performance of a lifetime and it may well last a
lifetime, if Trier gets
his way and grabs her for two more epic stories featuring Amazing Grace. Keep
scoping this site. To paraphrase Shakespeare, greatness in mad ones must not
It was lovely to be
in France in May (I wax), with birds warbling, waves washing, press supremo Christine Aime soothing
everyone’s path, and the distant sound
of American neo-conservative teeth gnashing. That any of us had dared to
flatter Old Europe with our presence,
after that unfortunate difference over ex-Mesopotamia, was a subject of shock
and awe to many back in the New World. It may
also have explained why Hollywood sent two big ones: THE MATRIX RELOADED;
MYSTIC RIVER (good old Clint, he never passes up Cannes); and Vincent
Gallo’s lamebrained road movie THE BROWN BUNNY,
put to the sword by le tout festival, whereupon
Gallo in a touching outburst of humility apologised for having made a bad
movie. Crikey. A director thinking critics might be right?
That was about it
for Uncle Sam’s cinema. And since the rest of the world, with two exceptions,
flung at the Palm only twerpy turpitudes – Hector Babenco’s cackhanded prison
drama CARANDIRU, Michael Haneke’s snail-paced apocalypse tale LE TEMPS DU
LOUP, Japan’s BRIGHT FUTURE (boy meets jellyfish, boy dates
jellyfish, boy gets stung), China’s PURPLE BUTTERFLY, we could go on –
we were grateful beyond measure for two exceptions, though each occupied a
rung on the merit ladder below DOGVILLE.
(FAR AWAY) is a slow-burn charmer about an Istanbul-dwelling
photographer driven to distraction by the visit of a country cousin. Think of
Mike Leigh doing Ottoman minimalism. Writer-helmer Nuri Bilge Ceylan gets
everything right about sharing your home with an impermanent: from the secret
guilts of late-night porn-watching to quarrels and
quandaries about catching mice in glue paper. (Ah but we are all mice, and
all the world’s a glue strip). Wonderful minor-key summation of the human
condition from Asia Minor. The
Palm panellists gave it the runner-up Grand Jury Prize and named Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak
joint Best Actors, though Toprak sadly died in a
car crash last December.
Aleksandr Sokurov’s FATHER AND SON is deeply beautiful,
deeply moody, deeply mysterious. In a word, deep.
The Russian cine-seer who one-take-toured St
Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in RUSSIAN
ARK is back in the city of the Czars. This time
there are two characters (plus walk-ons) rather than 2000. And this time
emotion replaces technique as the old/new Sokurov
style – misted imagery, movement like underwater ballet, soundtrack like
memories heard across the tundras of time (music,
bird cries, ship horns) – serves an extraordinary
portrait of a man and son grappling with love. Time slips and slides;
identities fuse; the bond of family is a melting chain in a molten world. Sokurov comes closer than ever before to showing that
there are invisible realities that shape our lives, rough-reify them how we
Denmark. Turkey. Russia. What next? Samoa? But
isn’t this what Cannes is for.
To show that good cinema doesn’t always come from Old Europe or
Coalition Anglo-Saxony, or Cliché Far East or
Cinema Old-Hatto from Latin
America. So which flag will be pulled out of the hat
Yes, ex-Talibanland produced the best film at Cannes outside
the competition. OSAMA is not about the nasty chap in the wanted
posters but about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to get work in the
land of the Mullahs. No sooner transformed than ‘Osama’
is hauled off to Taliban school, where the taunts of classmates finally lead
to her unmasking. Punishment? Well, in pre-liberation Kabul let’s
just say that it wasn’t a rap over the knuckles.
Told with dazzling
simplicity and chastening historical candour, the movie is like some miracle
bestowed on world understanding by a cinema that barely exists. (Director Sedigh Barmak claims that there
have been some 30 Afghan films in 100 years of movie history). Unlike foreign
missionaries like the Makhmalbafs, who hop the
Persian border to make films in Afghanistan including Samira’s
new, disappointing AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (a Cannes hot ticket that
turned cold), Barmak doesn’t even come from Iran.
He trained in Moscow but was
born an Afghani.
Scene after scene
burns itself on the mind’s eye. A sea of blue-burqa’d
women, marching for jobs, are beaten and hosed into surrender by Taliban
thugs. Osama, told to climb a playground tree to
prove ‘his’ gender, is game for the game but it gives the game away – “He’s a
girl!” – whereon we cut to a pitiful shot of her
punishment-hanging in the top of a well shaft (shot from the well’s abyss).
Or the harrowing sequence in an execution field where a Taliban potentate
deals out doom. Death by gun-barrel to a journalist; death by stoning to an
adulteress: we see her vain struggles as she is dug into her containment
pit. The movie ends with a terrible
mercy for Osama. Life not death; but a life barely
better than death, although today our imaginations can cast the net of
hindsight and catch her in the salvation of a liberated country.
There are still
diehards, not least at Cannes, who
would say, “What liberation?” Is a world whose agenda is set by George W.
(I’m a Warrior) Bush a place anyone would want to be liberated into?
The jury is out and
the Cannes jury
was probably out a lot. Steve Soderbergh, Meg Ryan,
President Pat Chereau and Co would have made
lightning raids into town to stay sane – grabbing a sandwich here, a Pernod there – before returning to their smoke-filled
rooms or to a Lumiere cinema big with movies taking
postmodern potshots at
Not all the essays
in parafilmic Americana had the
transcendent vision of DOGVILLE. Peter Greenaway’s
extraordinary THE MOAB STORY (THE TULSE LUPER SUITCASE PART 1) spitfires graphic genius at us for two hours
while sketching the first of a proposed 20th-century-spanning
trilogy about PG’s eponymous alter ego. But the mostly Brit cast deploys the
worst US accents heard this side of CARRY ON COWBOY. In the Utah
sequence, where Greenaway digs test shafts for a
planned subplot about the history of Uranium, Tulse
is stripped naked and staked out to endure insect attacks on his
honey-smeared genitals. This, by a bunch of howdy-do hams all taaalkng laakh this, y’hear, who wouldn’t get jobs as
do-me-an-accent cowboys in the BBC radio rep.
Later the film has
cod Germans too, for its World War 2 scenes. But by then the Welsh-born
wizard of previous Cannes hits DROWNING BY NUMBERS and THE BELLY OF
AN ARCHITECT (cited here as Luperworks) has hit
his stride and the pyrotechnic satire on 100 years of history, art, thought
and sex is like an encyclopaedia gone multi-media. I’ve booked my seat for Part 2…and so
Denys Arcand’s LES INVASIONS BARBARES, a popular smash
at Cannes, also goofs off about the United
States. The French-Canadian
auteur of JESUS OF MONTREAL and THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE,
to which this is a sequel, spoofs his neighbour country’s hubris, arrogance
and hospitality to huddled masses. Poor old Yankeeland.
It can’t win. It can’t even open its hospital doors to the pic’s cancer-stricken hero and his escorting son without
being twitted for saying “Welcome to America.”
“Hallelujah” and “Praise the lord” sarcastically riposte the visitors.
us in no doubt that the titular savages requiring a “Keep out” sign include
Uncle Sam, though for me this arch, pontificating squib of a movie is the
barbarian that should have been left at the gates. The jury disagreed,
handing it the generous double of Best Screenplay (Arcand)
and Best Actress (Marie-Josee Croze).
Happily an American
force was in Cannes to
fight back. Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT may not
be a tourist brochure for God’s Country, dramatising the prologue and payoff
to a Columbine-style school massacre. But at least the film’s innocents look like God’s chosen: gorgeous teenagers with
budding and beatific lives before they are cut down by two fellow-student
The creator of DRUGSTORE
COWBOY and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO has hewed a hypnotic structure. Or
perhaps he just happened on it, while workshopping
the pic in collaboration with actual students at an
actual school. Circles of time touch and overlap. As we Steadicam-stalk
each main character down long corridors – corridors just like their own
lives, with little off-doors into dreams or hobbies or private hopes and
private fears – meetings that have already happened happen again. Didn’t
character A high-five with character B ten minutes before? Didn’t the three
Bulimia Club girls go into the same bathroom two reels ago? It’s all overweave and designer déjà vu, just like the gasps we’ve gasped before – in fact and
fiction – when a normal day is sacked and savaged by the unspeakable.
You could say it’s strength is that it doesn’t build at all, that Van Sant
deliberately shines separate spotlights on lives that are sundry even before
they are sundered. But by the close the film seems miraculously organic. This
is a vision of 21st century tragedy, when terror strikes from thin
air, without warning or reason or justice, harmonising people only by the
cosmic horror of disharmony.
Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC
RIVER also gives us a disturbed USA, where a grownup victim of child
abuse (Tim Robbins) is mis-blamed for a girl’s murder
by her mob-running dad (Sean Penn). But at least this respectfully received
drama-thriller shows that America is
human, not the invisible superbully featured or
fantasised in, par exemple,
hectoring, long, ill-contoured AT FIVE IN THE
AFTERNOON. (What ever happened to the sublime concision of BLACKBOARDS?)
That the Carlton
Hotel was taken over by US stormtroopers I attribute to the work of an Austrian
provocateur. What a spectacle, though! Before the festival began the TERMINATOR 3 publicity boys had
plastered the façade with posterwork, laser lights
and silver-metal robots. Each afternoon larger androids
did smoke-wreathed, music-accompanied battle before enraptured crowds. And the great Arnold Schwarzenegger himself
paid a Cannes visit
to puff the most expensive movie ever made, which will arrive soon at an epicenter near you. “Dis is a
great moofie!” he announced. “Toorminader
Three! Coming dis summer! Ja!
Great moofie! I am Arnold! Dis is good! I’LL BE BACK!”
And of course Liz
Taylor, Sharon Stone and the other Aids-fighting New Worlders
were back for their annual fundraising feast at Moulin des Mougins. You see, America does
sometimes do good works. It also, moving on, provided the late great treat in
the Directors Fortnight. The omega to OSAMA’s
alpha. Ross McElwee’s BRIGHT LEAVES.
this? Documentary? Auto-biopic? Navel gazing? Or just a Fabulous Thing? A
thing out of North Carolina?
the great SHERMAN’S MARCH, a
classic of unclassifiable
musing, a work you could call Seinfeldianly
a film about nothing. ‘Nothing’ of course is another word for everything.
Here McElwee discovers, near the start, that his
tobacco-planting great grandfather was the inspiration for Gary Cooper’s role
in BRIGHT LEAF (Michael Curtiz, 1950). No
one remembers that film, though everyone recalls its immediate Cooper
precursor THE FOUNTAINHEAD. That too co-starred BRIGHT LEAF’s
Patricia Neal whom McElwee interviews near the end,
a lost diva looking out over garbage bags from a small hotel hosting a minor
We all come to it
(implies McElwee). Great Grandad
certainly did. He went bust thanks to the Duke Company, rival baccy-growers who took over the famous brand name ‘Bull Durham.’ McElwee runs the stations of dynastic humiliation like
the brave soul he is. The Duke mausoleum is a private cathedral; great grandad’s gravestone is the size of a suitcase. (It has
also been nudged out of position by an errant lawnmower). A yapping dog ruins
a scene of genealogical stocktaking. A home movie clip of Ross’s late dad, a
Presbyterian doctor, puzzles him because dad is wearing a yarmulka.
And when the director-narrator visits the widow of the author who wrote BRIGHT
source novel, she says her ex-spouse didn’t base the character on John Howard
McElwee at all. Never heard of him.
In short he’s done
it again. McElwee has fashioned another cracker
from a quidnunc. A dry, droll, exquisitely sidelong
film, formed from the ruins or rearrangements of a personal spiritual
scrapbook. (His divagations on tobacco itself, its joy and its misery, are
the best since Thomas Mann). In short, all independent distributors,
I award the film
the Harlan d’Or for Best Unexpected Treat When One
Most Needed One. Other special Harlans for fringe flix go to the Franco-Belge
animation feature LES TRIPELETTES DE BELLEVILLE (comic-gothic cartoonery like Ronald Searle grafted onto Daumier), the scarily enlightening and brilliantly
composed Pol Pot documentary S21: THE
KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE (from Cambodia’s Rithy
Panh) and the hauntingly thoughtful Chinese movie DRIFTERS.
This last is all about the dangerous art of stowing away to America and
then being bundled back to Beijing. Do you
bow to fate or do it again? And what of the little tug-of-war son you sired
stateside who is now a US
citizen? Very touching. Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai
of BEIJING BICYCLE.
Back in the
competition, host nation France
presented the worst bunch of native movies in living memory. And six of them
in a field of twenty! Francois Ozon’s SWIMMING
POOL stood out for its medium-stylish mystery tale starring the
super-stylish Charlotte Rampling and
flavour-of-the-year French crumpet Ludivine Sagnier. But at the other extreme Bertrand Blier’s abysmal LES COTELETES (Philippe Noiret and Michel Bouquet as randy old men in a
stage-based slice of boulevard absurdism) knocked THE
BROWN BUNNY off the chart for volume and duration of curtaintime
booing at the Salle Debussy critics show.
Never mind. We
still love Cannes. What
other country offers us twelve days in the sun with no supplementary charge
on gossip, scandal, scuttlebut, movies, media
frenzy and all the things that make life worth living in Old Europe. And an ever-so-comfortable new press club
honouring Jean Cocteau and his country villa at Milly-La-Foret. Bird song! Dog barking! Photo
montages! Fleurs d’artifice! As Golden Palm winner Gus Van Sant said at the end of his acceptance speech, “Vive la France.” We
who love it have loved it long. And filmfolk, like
elephants, never forget.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE
AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR
THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD FILM.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.