by Harlan Kennedy


It’s been a bumpy year for Jesus Christ. A 2000-year-old connubial cover-up, involving Mary Magdalene, was the subject of the Cannes opening movie, THE DA VINCI CODE, which brought Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and an army of Catholic protesters to the opening night. 

Notable themes in ensuing days on the Cote d’Azur included sex, rape, murder, vomiting and human taxidermy. And the extraordinary sightings this year of luminous white seagulls – beautiful yet sinister in the floodlit sky each night as they circled over the Carlton Hotel – were interpreted by many as a parodie trouve of the dove’s descent in the New Testament. Instead of a single bird announcing, “This is My Son in whom I am well pleased,” the unspoken annunciation of these seabirds was thought to be, “This is one heck of a subversive festival. Traditional moral values are getting a pounding wherever we look. Make mine a 12-day festival pass with access to all screenings.”

Count the controversy-stirrers. Hungary’s TAXIDERMIA was a three-pack of tales involving sex, bestiality, overeating and a final section – in every sense of that noun – in which an inventive taxidermist employs a machine to cut his head off after it disembowels and embalms his body. America’s SHORTBUS had scenes of graphic gay sex, the first main-event Cannes movie that could have doubled as a stag-night flick in San Francisco. Denmark’s PRINCESS, opening the Directors Fortnight, climaxed its tale of a father avenging the abuse of his 5-year-old daughter with a scene of the moppet first neutering, then killing, a pornographer with a crowbar. And did we mention the scene in RED ROAD which proves that even Scotland – land of mist and Calvinism – can do full-screen sex when the zeitgeist says, “Go for it”?

If the Church hadn’t exhausted all its outrage on THE DA VINCI CODE (a movie so bad it could earn millions and pay off Bush’s national debt), it might have stayed to squawk and flap its robes every day. The Cannes chiefs told us this year’s programme wouldn’t be boring. It wasn’t.

Whenever controversy retired for a coffee break, its place was taken by quality. Few Palmes d’Or have been more keenly contested. Witness the list of super-helmers. Ken Loach, Pedro Almodovar, Aki Kaurismaki, Nanni Moretti, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Auntie Sofia Coppola and all.

The first favourite out of the blocks, and still in front by a nose when betting closed, was Almodovar’s VOLVER (TO RETURN). The film hits the inside track with our first sight of Penelope Cruz, transformed beyond recognition from her recent role as a Hollywood bimbo and Tom Cruise accessory into an actress. The hair is dark, thick, Medusa-like; the nostrils flare; the voice has new chest-tones. You’d swear she had turned into Anna Magnani.

The ease and richness of Almodovar’s story – in which a disappeared mother returns in the guise of a ghost (Carmen Maura), her daughter (Cruz) revalues her life, and an old family tragedy is unpacked and catharsised – prove that this Spanish fabulist can now do nothing wrong. Comedy, tragedy and meditation float about in an ether of narrative charm so comprehensive, in its grasp of human dreams, that we barely even notice the gender imbalance. The five main characters are all women! The only significant male is killed off early. Yet the film feels no more lopsided than one of those all-male dramas we accept as inclusive, if they are good enough, from patriarchal Hollywood.   

Almodovar has turned down the knob on his popsicle colours. He is less anxious to be naughty than he was. (Everyone else at Cannes is now working that franchise). Yet nothing is dull in this gleaming story about lives transformed by a second chance to live with those we have loved, or to recognize how they loved us in the first place.

No other filmmaker at Cannes pulled off this trick of remaining recognizable while advancing into a new frame of artistic evolution. Ken Loach’s THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY is a strongly-organised drama about the early years of Irish republicanism, scripted for you-are-there verismo by Loach scribe Paul Laverty. But it takes us no further forward on the road of historical docudrama than Loach’s LAND AND FREEDOM. Aki Kaurismaki’s LIGHTS OF THE CITY is a droll charmer from the doleful Finn, all about love, crime and the lunacies of human optimism. But there are few new flavours in the cocktail. Those who love DRIFTING CLOUDS and MAN WITHOUT A PAST can sit back and sip the familiar. Even Nanni Moretti’s IL CAIMAN – taking a bold swing at Silvio Berlusconi (well, it was bold in the pre-election days when SB was still Italy’s PM) – softens its political punch with the cushioning comedy of a story about a Z-movie producer (Silvio Orlando) nervously advancing into agitprop cinema. And the domestic crisis subplot seems a hangover from Moretti’s last, Palm-winning movie THE SON’S ROOM.

Old wine in old bottles? Well, we can hardly complain. Most of us would rush to stock our cellars with the stuff. But sometimes you want the shock of the new, if only as a taste-rinser. Who’d have thought that animation would provide this tingle – or that there would be two feature cartoons in, of all showcases, the earnestly radical Directors Fortnight. Yet Anders Morgenthaler’s PRINCESS, name-checked above, and Michel Ocelot’s AZUR AND AZMAR show that paint-and-brush humans can restore life, liberty and the pursuit of brilliance whenever flesh-and-blood human cinema starts to seem a bit ‘yesterday’.

The Danish flick, opening the Quinzaine, proved that cartoons can be for grownups. It has the savage economy of a graphic novel: swift lines, stark colours, lowering angles. Morgenthaler goes for the jugular in the tale of a young priest giving up virtue to pursue a grisly vendetta. The pornographers who exploited first his wife – a willing martyr to corruption – and then his little daughter are hunted down in scenes of a queasy violence more suggestive of Peckinpah than Pixar. Stylised live-action inserts, for flashbacks or hallucinatory interludes, further destabilise our sense of where we are and where we are going cinematically.

AZUR AND AZMAR couldn’t be more different. If ‘classical animation’ means anything, it must mean this jewelled series of living paintings, each of which could go under the hammer and fetch a fortune at an art auction. Michel Ocelot made his name with KIRIKU AND THE SORCERESS. Faux-primitive and fabulous, it suggested the world of Henri Rousseau picked out in gemstones. Here the screen glows with even more light-points, in an Arabian Nights-style story about contending half-brothers and a magical quest. The background landscapes and interiors were inspired by Persian art, the detail so exquisite you could spend a lifetime exploring each. The foreground characters are a blend of 2D costuming and 3D-digital flesh tone and facial features. Their movements create ballets of line and colour at once so realistic and so stylised that you think Ocelot has discovered the animator’s El Dorado: that place where earthly realism and sublime abstraction meet, that ultimate treasure cave where representation and revelation live in conjugal bliss.

At any normal Cannes Film Festival, life would have been a comedown after that. But the 2006 event had a sense of fun. It had radical cheek. And the two cheeriest and most serious mischief-makers were Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE and Paolo Sorrentino’s THE FAMILY FRIEND.

You could tell how good they were by how much they annoyed people. Coppola’s royal bubble bath – two hours of froth and fragrance as Kirsten Dunst’s foamheaded Austrian princess splashes about in pre-revolutionary Versailles with Louis XV (Rip Torn) and Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) – got booed at the press screening. A bunch of sans-culottes had got in and bagged the bleachers, determined to blow curses at this goodnatured bonne bouche, which presents the daffy consort famed for her “Let them eat cake” quip less as a vainglorious spendthrift who wrecked the reputation of the monarchy and sank the national economy, more as a fun-lover and party animal unfairly imprisoned in a world of protocol.

Happily, the reviews came out the morning after the booers booed, proving that the French critics loved the film as much as anyone. MARIE ANTOINETTE is really LOST IN TRANSLATION 2 – that is its secret charm. Here is another poor little rich girl adrift in a strange world, bemused by alien etiquette, hungry for amusement, depleted of love, and finding consolation in the quirks and contrarinesses of a cosmos that always has something for those who look hard enough – at the back of its closet.

THE FAMILY FRIEND had a different reception. Even the critics hated it, especially the French ones. In the daily chart of the native trade rag, a row of Smiley faces with downturned mouths indicated reviewers’ majority judgment. Paolo Sorrentino’s sweet-and-sour tale of a usurer’s redemption was an offence to the tastebuds. How could anyone like this tale of a ugly moneylender (Giacomo Rizzo), tethered to a bedridden and incontinent mum in a dripping hellhole (you’d think he could repair the ceiling and empty the bedpan), who corrupts the gorgeous newlywed daughter of an overextended bourgeois family. The possibility allowed by Sorrentino that she comes to love him back – this toad in human clothing, this Jonsonian monster scuttling from iniquity to iniquity – is for some the most horrible offence of all.

Fie on you, fainthearts! Isn’t the human condition capacious enough to allow that ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ can sometimes be interchangeable? Sorrentino, who joined the European auteur club with THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE, makes dry, wicked, Borgesian stories about the traps of passion and the paradoxes of morality. THE FAMILY FRIEND is very dry and very wicked, and actor Rizzo looks so like Jorge Luis Borges that we suspect necromancy. It is not beyond the frame of this filmmaker’s power to talk with the dead or conjure corpses.

What is beyond dispute is the film’s eerie, serpentining elegance and Sorrentino’s readiness – like his near-compatriot Sofia Coppola – to ladle the visuals with incongruous-seeming music. Where MARIE ANTOINETTE ghetto-blasts away with anything from rock to Rameau, THE FAMILY FRIEND rejoices in an inspired witches’ Sabbath of sonic blandishment, from Elgar’s Cello Concerto to Po Valley punk. 

Out on the Croisette and in front of the Palais des Festivals, the crowds surged about in undimmed turmoil. Aroused on opening night by the excitement of THE DA VINCI CODE, they got a taste for confrontation to go with their appetite for celebrity-spotting. Give them a Bastille and they would have stormed it. Show them a star and they melted into the usual collective fondant, oozing love and felicity as Penelope Cruz or Bruce Willis or Gael Garcia Bernal or Cate Blanchett glided on their rising souffle of adulation up a red carpet they barely needed to touch, the buoyancy of crowd-love being enough to get them to the top.

Bernal and Blanchett were both in BABEL – trying saying that quickly – which burst on the fest like a time-bomb. Everyone knew it would go off and when it would. No one knew how big a bang it would make. And after it exploded, no one agreed how big a bang it had made. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, vendors of portmanteau parables to the gentry (AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS), delivered another walloping three-parter exploring the human condition, this time taking us from Morocco to North America to Japan.

Cate Blanchett’s accidentally wounded tourist, shot by an Arab boy on the edge of the Atlases, sets off an “international incident.” Shockwaves reach out to a troubled deaf-mute teenager in Tokyo (Rinko Kikuchi) – that’s story two – and to Blanchett’s two tots and their Mexican nanny (story three) who border-crash one night returning from a Tijuana wedding. Gael Garcia Bernal as the guy with gas-pedal itch, and Brad Pitt as Blanchett’s hubby in story one, add brief sparkle in a movie that – for this viewer – needed more tinder and more TNT.

The Morocco happening seems both arbitrary and confected. The Japanese plot is overlong and underpowered. (Surely there’s a less clunking way to dramatise failure of communication than a girl who can’t speak, can’t hear and can’t find love). And the Mexico/USA episode is a poor imitation of this screenwriter’s take on frontier face-off in THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA. Undeterred, the Inarritu-Arriaga fan club paean’d the pic to the Palais roof. Sometimes ambition is mistaken for achievement. If a film’s reach exceeds its grasp, it still looks good to some: a pygmy frozen in the posture of a Titan, and magnified by the distorting lens of expectation.

For some other US movies main-eventing at Cannes, even expectation was not enough. Richard Linklater’s FAST FOOD NATION is another multi-decker plot crowded with themes and theses (hamburger industry, political corruption, illegal immigration). Author Eric Schlosser’s diatribe about conspicuous consumption in the US is customised for a top screen cast (Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, Ethan Hawke), who I suspect were persuaded to get on board without looking at the itinerary. Too late they realise the vehicle is travelling in several different directions at the same time.

Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY, his rotoscope-animation follow-up to WAKING LIFE, is a bit better. Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey and Winona Ryder look good in whirly Munch-like colour, even if the script from a Philip K Dick story finally succumbs to the frontal-lobe throb of the JOHNNY MNEMONIC school of sci-fi. Futurist paranoia and then some; hand me my migraine pills.

I don’t know what pills you need for Richard Kelly’s SOUTHLAND TALES. Probably suicide capsules. The DONNIE DARKO director has decided the way to go with futurism is to make it resemble a comic book – sorry, graphic novel. Or rather like several of these strung together. For two and three quarter hours Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, The Rock and others behave like defibrillated cartoon-strip cutouts, storming the possibilities of Manichaean fiction out there in a post-apocalyptic (yawn) America. Miranda Richardson, playing an all-powerful senator’s wife, does a funny riff on Angela Lansbury in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. That’s about it. After an hour, DARKO fans had to be carried out of the theatre with withdrawal symptoms. All they wanted was a giant rabbit. All they were getting was a giant hole.     

We live in a troubled and divided world. (Important-apercu alert). So if we’re gonna dramatise doom and dystopia, let’s make it at least original and/or fun! For fun we had Guillermo del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and Danny and Oxide Pang’s RE-CYCLE. In Del Toro’s fantasy a little girl uses her fairytale friends – a faun, a troop of sprites, an underworld king – to wack the baddies in post-Civil War Fascist Spain. Perky plot; great effects. Hong Kong’s Pang brothers throw their writer-heroine into a nightmare limbo where abandoned thoughts and objects, spectral and gigantic, haunt and harry her. (This is a much scarier image for a consumer society than anything in FAST FOOD NATION).

No small originality there. But for nose-thumbing novelty and dirigiste defiance you can’t do better than Bruno Dumont. His last film at Cannes, HUMANITY, divided the festival. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. It was jeerers versus jurors. The first hated it, the second gave it the Grand Jury Prize and two acting awards. Now comes FLANDERS, set in another rural village where human beings are walking wounded in a world of Weltanschauung.

Animalistic and animistic they eat, work, have sex. They seldom talk, connect or exchange feelings. Each man/woman lives in his/her private spiritual fastness, assuming he/she has a soul at all. Only when war comes – the men going off to some unnamed conflict under a mideastern sun – is passion released and a Passion enacted. Grisly cruelties strip the armour from their anomie. The words come to these people no quicker than before. Yet when the ‘hero’ (Samuel Boidin) returns to a decimated home community, the world has opened like a flower or a wound. Life can never be quite the same again, even if there is a second closure – there may well be – and a second round of elective alienation.

Can an inclusive and embracing event, like the Cannes Film Festival, teach us about fragmentation and exclusion? It always feels like a brotherhood-of-man junket here; and sisterhood-of-woman. People you wouldn’t pick up the phone to during the rest of the year rush to embrace you – “mwah”, mwahon both cheeks – and you do the same, sometimes realising you have lipsmacked the wrong person. The woman you thought was the critique Europeenne of the Paris Gazette turns out to be the Palais cleaning lady.  (Ah well….).

But again, does this fortnight’s force-grown bonding, this smother of “Cheries!” and “Commontallayvoos?”, this pellmell of parties, parties and more parties, help us appreciate films about isolation and alienation? Instead of the blind leading the blind, it is the privileged assessing the penitential. We stagger in from a four-course beanfeast on the beach amid raucous confreres, to compassionate the lot of those on our starving, lonely planet who can only speak in subtitles.       

Yet the system works. I mean the system of the festival, not least under the caring courtesy of head press officer Christine Aime (may the sun shine on her), and our own systems as human beings. When the lights go down, the world – the world of Cannes – disappears. Our brains switch off and switch on again. We are enwrapped in the new as if it was already old.

Two movies, one early in the fest and one late, proved this. The first was Rolf de Heer’s TEN CANOES, an Aboriginal yarn skeetering out of nowhere – or more precisely the swampland of Australia’s Northern Territory – to prove that no story, no culture, no language even, is inaccessible. This is the first Aussie film in a non-English native tongue. Narrated by David Gulpilil, mainstream cinema’s duty Aborigine ever since WALKABOUT and THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH, it enacts a tribal fable of love, war, jealousy, superstition and the volatile boundaries between life and dreamlife.

The natural setting is fabulous, a mirror-maze of water, foliage and tall eucalyptus trees, whose bark can be unwound like a bandage to make makeshift tents. At night on hunting expeditions the tribesmen roost in the trees (safe from snakes and crocs). It is another place, even another planet. But the tale is so primal, so simple, so immediate – like a Werner Herzog yarn without the overlay of Bavarian mysticism – that we feel we could step straight from row A in the stalls into this world of the pre-worldly, this palace of nature without roofs or rules.

We feel the same with Julia Loktev’s DAY NIGHT DAY NIGHT.  Shown at the other end of the festival, it is about the other end of human history: the ‘now’ of anxiety and incomprehension in a world where terror is an everyday tool in the war between creeds and hemispheres. Or sometimes (Oklahoma City, Baghdad) in the war between neighbour and neighbour. In 90 minutes of virtual real time an unnamed American girl (Luisa Williams) is briefed, prepared, equipped and dispatched on a suicide bombing mission. The place – we learn when we get there – is Times Square. The cause? We never learn it at all. We just watch, blind but all-seeing, understanding nothing while understanding everything, the slow and deadly contructivism of a preparation for mass destruction.

The girl schools herself to become a machine. For a few grimly human minutes the machine malfunctions. She has an attack of fear and doubt right there in the Manhattan hubbub. Do we end by seeing her press the button? It hardly matters. The movie has already mapped out the unspeakable. We have already climbed into the screen, against will and judgment, to become complicit in another life, another nightmare.

When you climb out of the screen at Cannes you discover nothing has changed. The sun still shines, the birds sing and the jury hands out demented prizes. The Golden Palm went, against all prediction, to Ken Loach’s THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY. Farewell, Pedro. Hard luck, Alejandro. But what can you do when nine good persons get cabin fever in a Cannes jury room? Maybe it was an anti-war statement by Wong Kar-wai and his panellists. Or maybe they felt that our Ken, two weeks shy of 70 and after seven previous attempts, was overdue for the frond embrace.

Once again, Bruno Dumont captured second place with a well deserved Grand Jury Prize. Alejandro got Best Director. Pedro got Best Script (the equivalent of saying “nice hands”). And poor Penelope Cruz was swallowed up in the VOLVER ensemble, receiving her share in a Best Actress prize for the film’s “entire female cast.” That matched the Best Actor prize for the “entire male cast” of the dull French war film L’INDIGENES.

Here’s my idea. Let’s appoint as jury for next year’s Cannes “the entire human race.” That way we will get fairness, judgment, popular instinct and consensus. I can’t wait. I am booking my first-class seat on the Euro-plane now.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.