by Harlan Kennedy



Sun, cinema, sensation.  And so much for all that pre-millennial babble about shrinking attention spans.  Listen to the doomsayers and by now we’d all be sinking giggling into MTV culture-mulch, with film consisting of 30-second features with intermissions for ice cream and mental revival.  Instead Cannes 2000 could have been called ‘Revenge of the Directors cut Era.’  6 out of 25 competition pix lasted over 2 ½ hours and the bad news for ‘Short is beautiful’ folk is that the marathons were mostly the best movies.


Lars von Trier’s  Dancer In The Dark and Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One And A Two), for me the joint best-of-show, took a combined 5 hours 16 minutes from our lives.  But what riches they put back.  Narrative cinema is going through convulsions at present, stretching sprinter’s muscles to long-distance runner’s (think Magnolia).  And in many films the in-betweening – the scenes or details that old producer-pressured auteurs might have left on the cutting-room floor – are becoming the essence not the grace-notes.


Yang is reborn by the license to stretch.  This Taiwanese helmer who seemed condemned to live in the shadow of his more feted compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien – each known for creating lyrical-austere bodies of work about alienation, generation war and the stress of history – last hit Cannes with the fitful philosophical comedy A Confucian Confuson. Even there, though, a new bleak humor suggested new gestations.


Yi Yi challenges the viewer with a complex, ramifying, 3-hour plot about a family in crisis – with a cast as large as an Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson film – while never letting that viewer get lost down confused or chilly cul-de-sacs.  The protagonist NJ (Wu Nianzhen) is a fortyish Everyman, a computer executive auto-piloting through deals, board meetings, and relationship management both at home and in the office.  Suddenly everything goes wrong at once, perhaps with a karmic destiny to put everything right.  Wife breaks down and goes off for a week to a mountain monastery. Daughter falls in love for the first time.  Little son starts babbling about alternate realities and uses his new camera to photograph the backs of people’s heads.  (“You can’t see it yourself, so I’m helping you”).  And NJ himself trysts with an old girlfriend on a Tokyo business trip.


These in a way are plot McGuffins – never mind the details, feel the fallout – designed to get us where Yang wants us to be:  at the point where life reveals its full menopausal scariness.  There are Too Many Choices.  We may already have taken The Wrong Ones. And what can we tell the kids who may be about to do the same Thing?


Yang’s trademark quirks of style are consubstantial with his message.  He loves scenes reflected in large windows that fuse, in a ghostly double exposure,

two visual realities:  the outside (street, garden, urban skyline) and the inside (character interaction in home or workplace). He knows how to choreograph gesture and body language when words fail.  And he has a Tati-esque delight in master longshots that compel the viewer to find both focal details and footnote details.  From a baby shower that becomes a family brawl to the slow unfolding of a suicide attempt, as NJ’s brother pads his lonely flat before an offscreen death bid by kitchen gas, the movie treats a chamber drama as a kind of epic.


One scene distills the theme of  near-electrical awakening in this family whose horizons, just the day before, seemed as cramped as any other’s.  The little boy – played with a hilarious deadpan quizzicality by Jonathan Chang – slips into a school lecture-room where on a giant screen a film is unspooling about thunderstorms.  A girl enters, drifting across his sightline till she’s silhouetted against the roiling clouds and lightning forks.  A commentary burbles of “the attraction of opposite forces” and “the origin of life.”  The boy looks on in wonder, at both this barely understood burst of knowledge and this dumbshow rehearsal for the meteorological passions of falling in love.  In Yi Yi awakening is something that happens every day, or once in a lifetime, or both, whichever existential ticket you happen to have bought.  Yang’s ticket won him this year’s Cannes Best Director prize.


For Denmark’s Lars Von Trier awakening happens, if at all, only when the alarm call of absurdist apocalypse goes off.  Dancer In The Dark, justly handed the Golden Palm, is as bleak as Breaking The Waves and as mordant as The Idiots.  Like them it leaves behind the stylistic intricacy – the kitsch baroque – of Trier’s early work (The Elements Of Crime, Zentropa).  The camera jiggers home-movie-style, the cutting is casual and in-your-face, the visuals are video.  This musical about a Czech-US factory girl, played by Icelandic popster Björk, going to Death Row for the killing of a cop who stole her savings isn’t a ‘Dogma’ film, but it sure feels like one.


Trier, though, is a sophisticate in the lengths to which he’ll take tonal impudence.  He’s the feral face of postmodernism.  There is nothing arch, plenty that’s daring in the blend of emotional scenes with amateur-dramatics song and dance.  Nor is he shy of mixing a ruthless detailing of the horrors of state hanging – like the board o which a heroine too weak to stand is strapped, like a premature mortician’s table – with a bells-and-whistles Hollywoodish plot set-up.  Working girl goes slowly blind while rehearsing an off-duty Sound Of Music production and dreaming of a vital eye operation for her only child.(!)


We half expect the camera to ‘iris in’ Griffith-style on the precious cake tin where the heroine (imagine Lillian Gish for Björk) keeps her stash.  And when the evil visiting cop, who 80 years ago would have twirled a mustache or cape, takes advantage of her sightlessness by pretending to have left and closed the door, only to stand just inside casing the hiding-place, the corn is as high – bring on Rodgers and Hammerstein again – as an elephant’s eye.


Yet this pantomime skewiness helps the film find its unique place between realism and fairy-tale expressionism:  in that fertile Trier terrain where Doestoevskian verismo, like the eerie despair of cop David Morse’s urging Björk to kill him in mid-murder scene, can co-exist with shafts of dippy wish-fulfillment (the musical numbers that rep the heroine’s daydreams) or fullblown tragic melodrama.  Trier has appointed himself a one-man army against tact and ‘good taste’ in cinema, and many festgoers responded by walking out before the close. (Several still managed, somehow, to review the whole film).  The non-walkers stayed to sniffle into hankies and/or acclaim the director’s fidelity to his belief that there is no such thing as discord in a film that’s serious about derailing expectation and re-routing movie possibility.


Scandinavia is a crazy place, of course.  The suicide rate is off the chart and nomadic filmmakers go to places in the mind undreamed of by folk in warmer climates.  Kristian Lavrings The King Is Alive was made by a Dane now settled in London, and Liv Ullmann’s Trolosa (Faithless) is directed by a Norwegian who became Swedish art film’s most famous face.  Both flicks strike sparks.


Lavring is the fourth and final Dogme 95 signatory – after Trier (Idiots), Winterberg (Festen) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune) – to give us his founding feature.  He strands a busful of oddballs in the Namibian desert, where bickering marrieds Janet McTeer and Bruce Davison, freelance floozie Jennifer Jason Liegh, French drifter Romane Bohringer and seedy Anglos David Calder and David Bradley are among the blistered survivors of a wrong-turning-and-ran-out-of-petrol premise.  (Trier isn’t the only Dane who reaches for hokum when it suits).  Once marooned they playact at rehearsing King Lear.  If you can swallow that, washed down with fabulous run-of-the-universe scenery photographed on digital video by Jens Schlosser (next great lenser?), you can stay to savor a philosophical black comedy in which truth, catharsis and Bard-catalyzed revelation result from the meeting between timid mortals  Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animals” – and timor mortis.


Liv Ullmann, saving on travel costs, sites her desert in the human soul.  The dunes have been mapped by Ingmar Bergman, no less, who scripted this tale of an aging writer called ‘Bergman’ (Erland Josephsson), who summons the ghost of an ex-girlfriend.  Played by Lena Endre, who could have a career as Lauren Hutton’s double, she is coaxed into confessing, in long speeches and flashbacks, the details of a tragic love triangle co-involving a conductor hubby and stage-director lover (presumably the young ‘Bergman’).


This is regulation Ingmar, full of guilt, bleak humor and brutal insights into motivation. All humans are weak and selfish and vain. Yet the detailing in Faithless is at once so plain and so brilliant that the shock of recognition seems like surprise.  A departing man stands by the door of his come-and-go adulterous hotel room and says to his lover quietly, simply: “I’ve never felt such pain.” The face of a little girl caught in a custody tug of war trembles with horror at what her father seems to be proposing: a parent-child suicide pact.  And when one character describes love as “that jungle of impulses growing like a cancer”, it is quintessential, coruscating Bergman.  Ullmann films without inflection.  But if you can’t get IB, you might as well have a second best that’s simple, respectful, transparent.


This year women were behind cameras in startling numbers.  Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight and Virginie Wagon’s Le Secret were hot tickets in the Directors Fortnight.  Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards was Jury Prize’d in the competition. Soon – and about time -  we may reach that revolutionary point when gender isn’t worth remarking on at all.


But it is worth remarking that a country as patriarchal as Tunisia can enfranchise a filmaker like Moufida Tlatli.  The Season Of Men (La Saison Des Hommes) builds on the achievement of hr 1994 Cannes hit Silences Of The Palace.  In colors that seem handpicked to notate mood, nuance and fluctuating feeling – look at the harmonisings in individual shots of wine-red, sky blue or tawny brown-gold – this Djerba-set tale of women without men is not just a bewitching visual tapestry:  it seems to challenge the very culture where breadwinning males can abandon their wives and families for 11 months each year, returning from the big city for one month of bonding and begetting.


Tlatli, an ex-screenwriter and editor, is steeped in image as language.  The film’s fluid pattern of emotion and symbolism, contouring a plot about a wife struggling to shake the chains of socially decreed inferiority and dynastic duty (including a mother-in-law from Hell), almost needs no words.  In the climactic scene when ma-in-law snips the heroine’s precious carpet loom – as with Homer’s Penelope, her only solace – it’s as if the older woman had cut the younger one’s vocal cords.  Self-expression in silenced cultures finds strange routes.  These routes are all the more precious for the hiding places they must find in obliquity.


At Cannes women were a force in front of camera as well as behind.  Any of a half-dozen female thesps could have snatched the Best Actress award (though Dancer In The Dark’s Björk got it on the night) while not a single male stood out, including Tony Leung who won Best Actor for being handsomely impassive in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love.


Leading the girlfights on screen were Renee Zellweger in Nurse Betty, Uma Thurman in Vatel and The Golden Bowl, Lee Hyo-Jung in Korea's Chunhyang  and in the noncompetitive Un Certain Regard sideshow, Arcelia Ramirez in Arturo Ripstein’s Asi Es La Vida (Such Is Life).


  Not Just Ramirez but Patricia Reyes Spindola in that flick. For this hex-Mex malediction on men, fierce and funny, has two plum roles for divae, just like Bellini's opera Norma, with which it shares a plot about a woman sacrificing her tots to get back at a jilting lover. (For further reading still, turn to Euripides' Medea.) Heroine and friend take turns to spit venomed arias about man's inhumanity to woman.


Ripstein shoots in video and the streaky colors and confined set­tings are a mite TV-ish. But TV also becomes a great running gag. The musical combo that acts as the film's eccentric chorus starts out on television, then decamps into Ramirez's own living room. "Hey, you can't run around, you're under contract," a woman telecaster tells them straight from the screen. Later she too becomes a chorus fig­ure, issuing gloomy weather reports in sync with the ever more somber plot developments.


Back in the Palm arena, Im Kwon-taek's Chunhyang showed that this long-distance Korean - nearly 100 films to date - can still dazzle. In rainbow colors and with almost wall-to-wall music, we are treated to an ur-feminist folktale about a courtesan's daughter loved but left by a young nobleman, until he returns to res­cue her from an evil governor's tortures. Her courage puts everyone to shame, her suffering shocks all; though you wonder how anyone can hear her scream with all that gale-force vocalizing from the tradi­tional Pansori singer-narrator used throughout, on stage or voiceover.


Thurman and Zellweger carried rare torches for America at a Cannes festival where, once more, Hol­lywood was included in the "absent friends" toast. Zellweger brought a sweet daffiness to the title role of Nurse Betty, falling for Greg Kinnear's TV soap doc­tor in John C. Richards and James Flamberg's Best Screenplay-winning comedy script, directed by Neil LaBute on vacation from auteur misogyny. Minor, but a treat. Thurman showed signs of a hitherto unsus­pected ability to act in The Golden Bowl. Or perhaps it was just that James Ivory movies are histri­onically idiot-proof, providing so much decor that wearing the clothes and dodging the furniture con­sume energies that would otherwise go into nervously hashing the English Lit. dialogue. This is medium Merchant-Ivory, classy in some features (Nick Nolte), klunky in others (Anjelica Huston doing heaven-­knows-what accent as Fanny Assingham).


Cannes had its share of horrors: films you wouldn't show to your worst enemy unless he threatened to show them to you first. Why in Israel's Kippur does Amos Gitai present the 1973 Yom Kippur war as a torpid two-hour training film for the army medical corps, with intermissions for stretcher-case dialogue? Or what of Jan Schutte's The Farewell (Abschied), 90 minutes of pedestrian German crib notes on Bertolt Brecht's last days, a film that teaches you the true meaning of alienation effect.


Conversely, lowest expectation could lead to freshest surprise. Cesc Gay's funny, insightful Krampack from Spain, showing in the Critics Week, is about two boys discovering life and sex one summer vacation on the Catalan coast. Mild jaw­droppers include the boys' experimental bed scenes, which, the film wryly notes, break no legal codes since both are minors. Krampack is honest enough about teenage eroticism to disturb prudes who need disturbing. A scholarly friend suggested the Hairy Palm award. And who'd have thought a generation ago, pre-Almódovar and company, that Spain would ever set a pace for free love, free will and free cinema? But celebrating liberty and liber­ation is what film festivals are all about. Cannes 2000 even gave the Golden Palm-winning film­maker the freedom to be rude about his host. "He's a nice man, but I'm not sure how much he knows about films," said Lars von Trier of long-serving fest director Gilles Jacob, who retires from the post this year. Before Jacob ascends the ladder to the higher sphere of Cannes President, let me say on this fes­tival's evidence, and that of many before, he knows a lot about movies. That's why you got your Palme d'or, Mr. von Trier. And personally to Gilles Jacob: thanks for all those years.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.