CANNES FILM FESTIVAL - 1999
INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
LOSING THE PLOT has become
the great artistic development in late-century cinema. Raúl
Ruiz, Lynne Ramsay, Léos Carax,
Werner Herzog, and Bruno Dumont all did it at Cannes, in high style. They
riffed away at multi-strand, multi-character yarns where the filmmaker brings
the enigmas and the audience provides – or had better do – the unity.
Losing the plot is
one thing. Losing the stars was the inspired addition of the 52nd
International Film Festival. For once, we critics walked along the Croisette without bumping into Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise,
or the Spice Girls. We didn't have to make those tiring excuses: "Lovely to see you,
Tom/Julia/Posh/Scary. Can't stop now. Press show. Let's have lunch!"
spree made a virtue of Hollywoodlessness. Who – it
for once empowered itself to ask – needs these mega-cost dinosaurs? The motif
was even in the poster. Up on the red-orange image stretched across the Palais like a retinal apocalypse, two silhouette
stick-figures chased stars (galactic kind) with butterfly nets. No one had
told these Lotte Reininger
lepidopterists – or perhaps they had and the pair carried on regardless –
that "the stars have all stayed in Tinseltown
– they aren't coming this year." We were told that a major US
studio not unconnected with Star Wars cancelled its Carlton
bookings just before the fest. (See, you can always find hotel rooms.) We
were told that Cannes
had tried but failed to get The Phantom Menace and Eyes Wide Shut (or
even promo-bits) plus stellar players.
The real star,
surely, was Narrative In Crisis. Nowhere did it shine brighter than in Raúl Ruiz's Time Regained (in competition), closely followed by
the Brit sparkler Ratcatcher (out of
competition) and astral debris from France,
Ruiz was the cherished favorite of everyone who knew his film wouldn't win
the Palme d'Or, being too
weird. The Chilean prestidigitator exults in Proust's
fugacity of form. It doesn't matter if you feel, and you do, that you should
have freshly reread all fifteen books for the film. After versions by Losey – Pinter (never got off the page) and Volker Schlöndorff (never came off the screen), Ruiz is the
first Marcel-wave specialist to make the filmframe
responsive to the roman fleuve.
He doesn't just film
people catwalking their costumes and delivering beaux
mots. From the first scene in Proust's bedroom we are into magic lanterns, theater
gauzes, and images distorted by time, hallucination, or opera lorgnettes.
When the author revisits the past he does it literally, he and his chair free-floating
down from a window or up from the ground. When he looks towards Combray church from his bed, giant peepshow trees are
shuffled magically outside the window, in a skit on changing perspective, and
a distant cardboard steeple wheels into place.
This is hands-on
make-believe. There is nothing rarefied even about Marcello Mazzarella's Proust. He looks
like Inspector Clouseau lost in a stream of
consciousness. Scenes that might have been sacred are played for comedy, like
the writer spying voyeurishly on Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich) in a
male brothel. And just to provide a montage with a difference, Proust is made to stumble on a Venice flagstone, at which
point his involuntary half-forward plunge is "frozen" while
different backcloths whiz past behind him in a cycloramic Grand Tour.
Never mind that
Ruiz's cast is variable. Malkovich and Marie-France
Pisier (Mme. Verdurin)
are terrific, even if Emmanuelle Béart as Gilberte and Catherine Deneuve
as Odette are iconic French vacancies waiting for a story.
Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher was the best of
several Britpix rejoicing in atomized storylines
and featuring large casts interconnecting fragilely in a cluster of satellite
subplots. (Others: Jasmin Dizdar's
Beautiful People – Bosnian
immigrants mixing it with natives in modern Blighty
– and Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, a Short Cuts for
Londoners.) Ramsay had the best premise and period: Britain during a famous
garbage strike when black bags strewed the land, including this movie's
Glasgow, and moldering stasis became a form of existence. A boy drowns in a
canal; a drunken father hits his wife; a teenage girl, the local tramp,
acquiesces in gang sex; a SWAT team of kids armed with sticks beat the
garbage bags for rats; a rodent tied to a red balloon goes into outer space.
Terence Davies might
have made this ballad to spooked, parochial domesticity after a course of
Teach Yourself Non Sequitur. Trained in short films,
Ramsay uses disciplined enigma to stimulate her audience. She binds the
movie together not by story – only by the end do we fully know who relates to
whom and how – but by harmonizings of sound and
symbol. The rats are hell's policemen: they scurry about to ensure that
everyone behaves for the worst in the worst of all possible urban crises. Yet
the soundtrack is slyly redemptive, scored with timeless, poignant, often
barely perceptible notes of humanity. School playground noises; the sighs of
a railway shunting yard; birdsong when the movie makes brief forays to the
countrified edge of town.
Britain having since
cleaned up its garbage act, Ramsay had to build the filthy canal. It
was the biggest thing in the budget, bigger even than the mocked-up moon on
which the red-ballooned rodent lands. This moment of breakaway whimsy might
have been disastrous in any other film. But Ramsay – it's her gift – has no
time or space for standard notions of time or space.
Werner Herzog and Léos Carax came to town as old
and young extremes of ETS: enfant terrible syndrome. The Cannes
reactions to My Intimate
Fiend and Pola X were pretty much the
same: "Oh god, seen it all before, get a script, Werner/Léos, or alternatively get a life." Get a new
There was more drama in these two self-deconstructing films – more story (summoned to be shredded), more life (enhanced by
intimations of death) – than in any number of bouncy, affirmative,
rivals. I include such putatively countercultural US
pix as Tim Robbins's hymn to 1930s social idealism Cradle Will Rock (give
us this day our daily Brecht), David Lynch's The Straight Story (sweetnatured
folk wisdom and then some), and John Sayles's Limbo (rambling B-movie
with random-access ending). I even include, with sadness, Takeshi Kitano's
change-of-pace road comedy Kitijuro. This seems to want
to prove that the words "Tati" and "Keaton" are both contained in the director's name.
But so, on a bad day, are "shtik" and
X falls off in its second hour, as writer-hero
Guillaume Depardieu sets up a ménage à désespoir with Katerina Golubeva in a garrety, shadowy Paris
that might have been designed by Piranesi during a
blackout. But the first hour is mesmerizing. Carax
takes Herman Melville's Pierre and Gallicizes,
nay gothicizes its ambiguities. The pic is about a man who cannot put a face on his own life.
Everything exists in a state of nothingness. His beloved (Delphine
Chuillot) is shot in moments of self-concealment:
sweater pulled over her face (in erotic shower moment), head under a pillow,
bridal-veiled for a wedding rehearsal. His "sister" Catherine Deneuve plays existential hide-and-seek in a giant,
guilt-haunted chateau. And when a complete stranger, a girl with a
near-impenetrable accent, trysts with Depardieu in a midnight wood, exposing
a family past he never guessed at, Carax films
their walk and talk with a back-tracking camera gifted with nightvision. It is eerie, nervy, queasy:
one of the great creepy scenes of modern cinema.
The film is less an
essay in losing the story than a declaration that there is none. Each time we
try to I.D. our existences, our photo and credentials are snatched away and
we must start again. This process of serial erasure and rolling
self-abnegation doesn't make the movie easy. But it does make it
quintessential pre-millennial viewing. Soon time itself will turn into three
zeros, though at present it is alive enough to cry "Nein, nein, nein."
Herzog is simple as
cornflakes by comparison. His Klaus Kinski docu-portrait suggests that the actor spent an entire,
triumphant career losing the script. On set it was "Klaus, please do
this," resulting in Klaus unfailingly doing the other. Off set, the
German gargoyle would storm at coactors, threaten
his director, and scream at presspersons till his veins bulged.
That he was once a
pussycat to this critic I take as a business decision rather than a sign of
secret gentleness. At the end of a hitherto Kinski-less
I interviewed him at the Rotterdam Hilton after a chance sighting of his
shaven pate in the tea room window as I was driving away from the location in
my hired Trabant. In an ingratiating Peter Lorre purr, Kinski proceeded to
praise Herzog, reminisce expansively about Aguirre, and philosophize
about vampires. Two weeks later in Cannes
he exploded during a press conference and I caught some of the flying
knew he was mythic; he kept making himself more so. My Intimate Fiend is
not all new – much of the Fitzcarraldo location
stuff is borrowed from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams – but it has a great
message. It says: Movies are more than the sum of their wholes. They are
precious for their aggregation of sub-myths, of screen subplots and actorly histories and hysterias. When the story stops,
the life begins.
A HILTON HOTEL; a
vampire; how things repeat themselves in our existences. Over at the
Directors Fortnight in the Noga Hilton, entrance-queuers were husked daily by a giant inflatable cow with
vampire teeth. (And you Statesiders thought you
weren't missing anything.) It bucked and danced on its tie-ropes on a
neighboring roof, advertising some Market movie about bloodsucking ruminants.
It vanished on day 12 amid rumors that it had been torn from its mooring by a
mistral and sent out to sea, where gasping sailors thought it a new
constellation. We filmgoers merely embraced it as a metaphor. There we were, chewing the cud of film and siphoning the blood of
filmmakers while being buffeted about by chance, shock, and serendipity.
The Quinzaine, under new management, sustains its flair for
mixing fair-to-colorful efforts (Alex Winter's Fever, Sofia Coppola's The
Virgin Suicides) with cracking revelations. The Blair Witch Project, hosanna'd at Sundance,
proves that in the next thousand years good auteur movies will be made so
cheaply, so gymnastically, that the prophet Astruc's
"camera-stylo" will become a reality and the new
Danish directors (give a Dogma a bone) will be seen as a collective John the
It is not easy being
a visionary. There is pressure to toe the consensus, even that of the
multitude. For example: Was Almodóvar's lauded All About My Mother really
so great? The popsicle colors and demimonde dementia are lovable. But
haven't we been here before? The father-who-turns-out-to-be-a-transsexual,
the nymphomaniac nun, the AC/DC artistes, the high-color backstage bitching
of the thea-tah folk.
I preferred the
cooler, craftier attitudinizing of David Mamet's The Winslow Boy, shown
out of competition. And I much preferred the French Palm entry L'Humanité, which survived early
jeers to win the Grand Jury Prize. Bruno Dumont, of La Vie de Jésus, films spiritual crisis in a small French town
evidently twinned with the complete works of Emile Zola. A girl has been
raped and murdered; the town's bucket factory is on strike. Faced with this,
plus a sex-mad neighbor (Séverine Caneele, ex aequo Best
Actress with Rosetta's Emilie Dequenne) who likes to rut in front of him with her
boyfriend, the stricken detective hero (Emmanuel Schotté,
Best Actor) spends much of the film staring into space.
With his big,
bug-eyed face he resembles a somnambulant Lino Ventura.
His police boss (Ghislain Ghesquiere)
is even more arrestingly minimal. Dumont
films the man's sweaty, pulsing neck and all but stethoscopes his breathing patterns.
Sometimes, with the majesty of two characters waking from a pause in a
Beckett play, one will say to the other, "This is going to be
difficult" or "A tough case, this."
Is L'Humanité a comedy? Perhaps
not, though it is often hysterical. Yet we come to love its forlorn
deliberations and spooked stoicism, like those of a child attempting to make
its first Bresson movie. And Dumont's
pic was far more appealing than that by another darling
of minimalism, Aleksandr Sokurov's
about Hitler and Eva Braun, this confirms what dissenters have always
thought, that Sokurov is a Slavic Guy Maddin without a sense of humor. Give him a storyline, as
here, as opposed to the feature-length smoke-and-mirrors lacunae of Whispering
Pages or Mother and Son, and his empty solemnity tumbles out like
European cinema was
supposed to be in crisis before this fest began. The near-total absence of
the Sunset Boulevard crowd was supposed to mean sunset for the Boulevard de
la Croisette. We were expected to die from grief at
not being able to see Obi-Wan Baloney. But there were enough flicks,
especially from each side of the Euro-tunnel, to suggest that European cinephiles can get by very nicely on homemade product.
scoop-snoops, Ingmar Bergman also announced a new project, The Faithless, his
first feature in over seven years.)
As for storytelling,
that theoretical mainstay of moviedom, especially
in Lotusland California,
it may be more expendable than we think. I didn't see the Palme
d'Or winner Rosetta since I had to begin my
hitchhike back through France.
(Extend thumb; smile....) But I hear that the Dardenne
brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, are theorists after my own heart. They say:
"Telling stories is an obstacle to [the characters'] existence. The
less we tell of a character, the more that character exists on screen. We
tried not to narrate. Everything was done to avoid it, the direction, the
editing. Rather than narrating the events, we tried to find the essential
movements of the character."
Remember where you
heard it first. On these pages thirty paragraphs ago. And so to Cannes 2000
and clinking champagne glasses. Make mine a double.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1999 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
KENNEDY. All rights reserved.