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 and elimination. 

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).

Anyway DOGVILLE (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 grandeur.

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 (Ben Gazzara).

Misanthropic 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 authentic hysteria?

After her 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 unwatched go.

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.

Turkey’s UZAK (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 will.

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 next?


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 America.

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 should you.

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.

Arcand leaves 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 neo-Nazi outsiders.

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.

ELEPHANT  builds slowly. 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, Samira Makhmalbaf’s 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.

Whaddawe call this? Documentary? Auto-biopic? Navel gazing? Or just a Fabulous Thing? A thing out of North Carolina?

McElwee made 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 festival.

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 LEAF’s 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, rush now.

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.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.