AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
SOUND & FURY
by Harlan Kennedy
A rocket cascades over Cannes, then another. Fizz-bang! Crash-crackle! Rainbow éclat of stars – coloured explosions no sooner tendrilling towards earth then another rocket, then another, begins its night-sky ascent to orgasm.
What a spectacle. It happens every Cannes. And this year, guess what, this writer didn’t see it. By mischance, I chose the festival’s penultimate midnight – fortuitously fireworks night – to catch Sam Raimi’s DRAG ME TO HELL. This horror-thriller’s bangs, crashes and lightnings were good enough to keep every spectator in his/her seat in the Salle du Soixantieme, a giant viewing marquee on the edge of the bay, fireworks or no. Even so, the feux d’artifice were sometimes agonizingly audible through the walls, as the crazy-gypsy plot on screen tried to keep pace with the crazy mayhem outside. Once or twice we could hear the enraptured roars of the crowd, gazing up at the celestial eye candy.
There are, though, let us contend, fireworks and fireworks. You could argue that these outbreaks of licensed incendiarism in the Mediterranean sky are merely the outward-and-visible version (assuming you see them) of the snap, crackle and pop happening inside cinemas. In DRAG ME TO HELL the mad stuff inside the theatre was competitive with the mad stuff outside: you show me your coup de foudre, I’ll show you mine. But thrilling too, in more figurative fashion, were the indoor fireworks accompanying the screening of Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST. Only in Cannes do you get this kind of virtual arson attack by moviegoers on a movie. So much had been heard about the Danish naughty boy’s newest delinquency – sex, nudity, blasphemy, psychobabble, violence, talking animals – that early spectators went, so to speak, figuratively armed. They had the squibs to lob, if necessary, and the pyrotechnic raspberries to fire.
Which they did. I was half-deafened merely by the chap next to me. Throughout the screening he ignited his “Tsk tsks!”, his Catherine wheels of snickering, his crackling cackles of mockery (especially at the Tarkovsky dedication). And he joined in the final crepitation of ironic applause mixed with exuberant barracking. If Trier himself had been there, they would probably have burned him at the stake: another firework display. Light the blue touchpaper; retire; this one is called ‘Danish Auto da Fe’.
Did the ANTICHRIST audience uproar prejudice the ANTICHRIST reviews? Was the film quite as bad as we thought or were we mugged by the Donner und Blitzen of the mob of the moment? Appraisals of the film since it began its diaspora to world cinemas have been noticeably kinder – much kinder.
Fireworks. Such fun. But also, as we were told when children, dangerous. The poster for this year’s festival reminded us of another conflagratory success de scandale, and another famous critical injustice, perhaps the most notable in Cannes history.
The poster showed Monica Vitti in a scene from L’AVVENTURA (1960). Most of you are too young to remember. (Me too, but I know survivors). Yet the fact is, critics went berserk at that screening too. Even the few who entered the cinema carrying devotional candles in their soul, knowing Antonioni’s reputation, ended up trying to torch the screen. The salle became a riot venue. Boos, shouts, stompings of feet, shakings of fists. No one could understand Antonioni’s plot – how come this woman disappears on a volcanic island and is never seen again or re-found? What are these wealthy, enervated lovers (Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti) doing forever wandering around Sicily with nothing to do? Is there a point? Is there a meaning? Hell with it, let’s put the film to the flames.
A decade or so later, L’AVVENTURA was a poll-topper in magazine Ten Best Films of All Time. The movie is really, we learned (and if we hadn’t been impatient might have understood at the time), all about spiritual starvation, hunger for love and the death of God. Then again, perhaps a subliminal understanding of this was what got under everyone’s skin.
We remember fondly other holocausts in Cannes. Vincent Gallo’s THE BROWN BUNNY must take the prize for the most spectacular detonation of mockery in modern times: and audience hurling its groans and mega-decibel tongue-clicks at a movie unlikely to be saved by reappraisal. Antonioni it isn’t. Time, BROWN BUNNY’s only hope and ally, has already elapsed.
But the fireworks of damnation at Cannes are outnumbered by those of acclamation. What is the phosphoric flashing that bombards the stars on the Palais steps each night but one kind of astral manifestation – flashbulbs – paying homage to another? Ignis stellatus! Fire in Constellation Celebrity!
Fireworks are, after all, man-made stars, with all the giddiness and instability ‘man-made’ suggests but with the ambition, at least, to reach the heavens or light up the firmament. This year the ejaculations of the shutterbugs (those mayflies who come out each May) were expended on their favourite love object of all: Brad Pitt. Fireworks to the left of Brad, fireworks to the right. Like a true star – as in Keat’s “Would I were steadfast as thou art” (see Jane Campion’s competition entry BRIGHT STAR, all about Romantic poetry’s finest pyrotechnician) – the lead performer of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS merely shone the brighter and steadier. He even found time for a preux chevalier gesture of perfect judgment, ducking back to the base of the escalier to take the hand of his life partner, hanging back in the shadows, one Angelina Jolie. (Last year she, as star of Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELING, pulled him out of the shadows).
At the other end of the Croisette erupts another nocturnal light show. Weren’t they more numerous than ever this year, the evening seagulls that wail like wandering comets, that wheel in lyric and angelic torment, while the town’s megawatt illuminations cast upon them an underglow, eerie, white-bright, incandescent? For Cannes regulars, jaded with les feux d’artifice – artificial fires – these aerial beauties are a Platonic ideal of pyrophilia. Rags of purified, animated radiance, dancing in the midnight air.
How apt that the birds circle over the site of the old Palais des Festivals: the one knocked down to create a casino hotel that now house in its basement, the Directors Fortnight. The gulls must be ghosts of the bygone demigods who frequented the festival’s first heyday. That seagull up there must surely be Jean Cocteau; that one over there, Marcel Carne. The gull show is fireworks without explosion, fireworks almost without sound. Yet these magical spirit-flames honour the magic continued on this acre by the Quinzaine des Realisateurs. (By the way, in an event that in bad years can be strictly for the birds, let’s hear it for the 2009 Quinzaine’s best-in-show. Xavier Dolan’s J’AI TUE MA MERE. Dolan lights the fuse to a comedy-drama witty with its own detonations. It’s a teenager’s film about a teenager – played by Dolan – dealing with incipient incest. “Oedipus Schmoedipus,” goes the adage, “what’s wrong with a boy who loves his mother?” Several things, suggests the filmmaker/star. And there are several imaginative ways, including matricide, to see the problem off).
But no firework display at Cannes, indoor or outdoor, can beat the ovation accorded a loved director. This happens in the day’s main afternoon showing at the Salle Lumiere. The applause – five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen – crackles like gunfire. The flashbulbs burst in eye-searing staccato. The happy recipient or tear-drowned victim waits it all out, not knowing whether to wave, smile or faint, or hold a hand to his heart, or try at some point to placate the storm with a gesture resembling Moses telling the Red Sea to calm down.
Yes. Anything the real fireworks can do, out there in the bay, we festivalgoers can match in the combustible world of the Cannes viewing theatre. We are forged in fire, gunpowder, conflict and alarm. On the Cote d’Azur, in that momentous month between April and June, every day is a “Mayday!”
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved