"You're a Cannes virgin?" I was asked by disbelieving journalists, some of whom have been coming to the Cannes Film Festival for thirty years. "Well, brace yourself to be very lost and very confused." Oh, yes! For the first five days at least, I stumbled about the high-flying Fest many steps behind everyone hip, professional, and cool.
"Here's my pager number, and come see us at this-or-that hotel to set up an interview," PR people would rush me, and I'd nod and immediately forget. What hotel? Who did they want me to talk to? Fatally jet-lagged, I overslept several essential Competition films, including the gradual winner of the runner-up Grand Prix, Roberto Benignini's Life is Beautiful. (Cruelly, these are screened at 8:30 a.m. daily to the heavy-lidded Cannes press.) I left the Festival a bit before its finish, so I can't report on the late-unveiled winner of Cannes' Palm D'Or, Theo Angelopoulus's Eternity and a Day, the unanimous first-place choice of Martin Scorsese and his actress-heavy (Winona Ryder, Lena Olin, Sigourney Weaver, Chiara Mastroaianni) jury.
I even failed at Cannes' most basic and primal excitement: movie star sightings. I witnessed in the flesh exactly one Hollywood big name, Mira Sorvino, who was ubiquitous at the Fest for days. However, I wasn't at the luncheon when Sorvino told off The New York Daily News critic Jami Bernard, for uncovering for her paper Tony Tarantino, the missing biological father of Sorvino's ex-boyfriend, Quentin. I also missed out on, among others, Sharon Stone and Roman Polanski and Johnny Depp, all of whom rubbed routinely, party after party, against my heavy-with-invitations journalist colleagues.
Nor was I invited to hear Bruce Willis play harmonica with his blues band at Cannes' downtown Planet Hollywood, or to be among the chosen press honored to be with Bruce for a 55-minute sneak preview of his Summer 1998 Armageddon. I learned only by reading The Hollywood Reporter's daily Cannes update that Willis's oil driller-against-the-asteroid hero pic had been laughed at, that a nervous Willis afterward facetiously lectured the gathered, "Thank you for enjoying the comical aspects of the film. I'm glad you all take the end of the world so well."
(In contrast, Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar's anti-special effects Last Night, doomsday as suffered by a group of non-hero Torontonians, none of whom is capable of stopping the apocalyose, was one of the genuine hits of the Fest.)
I was there for Cannes' keenest film disappointment in Competition, Lars von Trier's Idiots, his perplexing follow-up to Breaking the Waves. And I might have seen the best film to premiere at Cannes, Todd Solondz's Happiness, his Out of Competition- follow-up to Leaving the Dollhouse.
Idiots, is an astonishingly indulgent, Hair-era retread in which a bunch of youthful, good-looking Danes drop out of society and form a communal house. There, I kid you not, they "get in touch with their inner idiot," which Trier insinuates is some blissful state of mental patient-like irrationality. Yes, we've actually regressed to the King of Hearts sentimentalization of running around naked (there's X-rated sex) and acting spastic as the only proper response to the repugnant outside world. In Idiots, all straight people are ridiculed and reviled, and only the babbling collective of idiots are given any respect.
But there's little to respect about Trier's vanity production of a film, which is shot with grating handheld camera, and badly acted by a cast which seem like college sophomores posturing to be sexy and avant-garde. Also, there's no script, just improvised nonsense. Poor October Films, stung by von Trier. Gambling on another Breaking the Waves, they expensively pre-bought Idiots, which seems almost unreleasable.
October Films is also distributor for Happiness, another difficult sell, though the problem isn't idiocy but director Solondz's courageous refusal to compromise his dark, important vision in even the teeniest way. There are some extraordinary stretches into sexual arenas for an American independent film: several masturbation-induced cum shots and some torturous, graphic descriptions of pedaphilic sex, a Ronnie Howard-like dad (Dylan Baker) telling his freaked-out young son what crimes he has committed on his son's youthful playmate. After drugging the youngster's tuna fish sandwich!
The story? Happiness offers a series of interconnected episodes surrounding a suburban family: three grown daughters, one married (Cynthia Stevenson) and cheery with children and two (Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle) single and estranged, also their separating parents (Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser) and the seriously screwed-up men (Jon Lovitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who come about courting. The stuff that happens in this movie is horrible, pathological, though often weirdly, sadly, hilarious also. Happiness has been compared, in its web of dementia, to Robert Altman's Short Cuts, but that one was mean and this one is tender, compassionate, with respect by Solondz for even his most depraved, hate-filled misfits.
"People read the script and said how funny it was, 'the pedophile comedy.' But that made me nervous because I didn't want to mock the characters' world but get inside it and explore it," Solondz told me in an interview. "And I don't want the audience to see a bunch of freaks.These are real people you meet at the supermarket."
As for the father-turned-pederast/rapist, "What makes it tragic is that he loves his son, but he's cursed and destroyed by a monster within, so deeply imbedded in his sexuality. I don't have to say in the movie what he has done is wrong. Of course it's wrong with a child: anal penetration! But I felt I had to be make the leap and be honest about the horror of what is going on."
Both Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are set in Solondz's very own blighted New Jersey, though he hopes it's clear that Happiness could occur "in Ohio or any suburb, and that the film could be read as a critique of America, and the society in which we live. No people have greater liberation than Americans, but there's a terrible price to pay. I think Americans suffer more alienation and lack of rootedness than anyone in the world. Everyone here says I have a sister Boston, a brother in San Francisco, and, if they aren't divorced, parents in Arizona."
Solondz's next film? "We'll see. I would have loved to have done Lost in Space."
Cannes 1998, the 51st Festival, was thought ahead of time to have the strongest lineup of Competition films in years, but that proved way off. Taiwanese great Hsiao-Hsien Hou's Flowers of Shanghai, a chamber drama set in a 19th century Chinese brothel, might be a masterpiece but it sure is boring.(One pretentious critic watched this dour two-hour drama twice in a row.) John Boorman's The General proved a competent but routine British gangster saga.(The Cannes jury wrongly gave veteran filmmaker Boorman the prize for Best Direction.)
Erick Zonca's The Dream Life of Angels, championed by many as a genuine discovery, seemed to me just another OK entry in an endless recent genre of hardluck French films about the non-Parisian working class. But I don't begrudge the joint awarding for Best Actress of this film's stars, Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Regnier.
Three American selections were disliked by most critics: Terry Gilliam's undisciplined, incoherent Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan, a dank, monotonous retelling of the obvious, that the life of a high-priced hooker (the excellent Katrin Cartlidge badly miscast)is drab and alienating; and John Turturro's lluminata, a too-plotless, quickly unfunny satire of life backstage at the theater, which wasted such talents as Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon.
My favorite American movie in Competition was Henry Fool by indie Hal Hartley, which won the jury's prize for Best Screenplay. Normally, I'm a Hal Hartley hater, exasperated by his endlessly self-conscious talk. But he has a good story this time, the odd friendship of a Mephistophelean ex-jailbird, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan, my choice for Cannes Best Actor), and the hangdog garbage collector (James Urbaniak) whom Henry encourages to be a poet. There's a bang-up performance by the great Parker Posey as the would-be poet's nympho sister and, completely new for Hartley, some dumb-and-dumber scatological hilarity. Henry on a toilet farts and loudly poops. The poet, forced to kiss a woman's bottom, instead vomits all over her bare rump.
"Were those scenes Brechtian?" Hartley was asked by a French critic at the Henry Fool press conference. "I was thinking more The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy," Hartley replied, explaining that he studied the editing of slapstick scenes hoping to get them right for this movie. "The puking scene I screwed up pretty badly, because I needed a closeup of the woman, Amy, responding to being puked on. But we're all shy people, and we couldn't have this woman with her pants down any longer. The actress (Dianna Ruppe) was pretty upset, with six or seven of us lugs hanging around. So, I forgot to get the shot! I forgot to get the shot!"
(Boston Phoenix, May, 1998)