Creeping Benigni-ism? An eye to feel-good box office? Some genuine personality transformations? Whatever, a gentler, kinder cinema prevailed in last month's competition at the 52nd Cannes Film Festival, even from the most hardboiled, brooding, scabrous of filmmakers.
Japan's Takeshi Kitano, world-famous for his blood-soaked, self-starring cop movie Hana-Bi ("Fireworks"), unveiled Kikujiro, a sentimental tale of the friendship of a retired yakuza (Kitano) and a lonely little boy. "I got tired with making gangster movies in a row," he explained. "You get fed up eating the same food all the time." Except when Kitano forgets his new pacifism and beats up a gay pedophile, there's almost no violence in Kikujiro. A cynical film critic called it "Patch Kitano."
Tim Robbins went from directing the execution-chamber horrors of Dead Man Walking to, at Cannes, the let's-put-on-a-show agitprop cheerleading of Cradle Will Rock. Spain's Pedro Almodóvar left behind his tacky-colored, high-heeled, gay comic world for, with Todo sobre mi madre ("All About My Mother"), a humanist melodrama about a middle-aged woman (Cecilia Roth) whose son has been killed in an auto accident.
Canada's Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) remained true to his romantically ghoulish world view in Felicia's Journey, in which a pregnant young Irish girl (Elaine Cassidy) searching England for the boyfriend who has abandoned her is befriended by a serial killer (Bob Hoskins). Yet even the uncompromising Egoyan felt compelled to change the chilly conclusion of the William Trevor novel on which the movie is based.
And what can be said to exonerate the new David Lynch -- our David Lynch of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks -- for weighing in at Cannes with the heartwarming, totally non-ironic The Straight Story, whose title tells all. This is a based-in-fact tale of an elderly Iowan named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) who, in 1995, drove 350 miles atop a John Deere lawnmower to see his ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton) and end their long-time enmity.
"You'd have to say it's not like films I've done lately," Lynch said at a Cannes press conference. "It was the emotion of the script, and I think it was the phenomenon of forgiveness, that struck me. People react to things, and I reacted to it. Something is in the air; it seemed the right thing to do."
Something is in the air? Has Lynch, with his aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart voice, really been lovably conservative Stewart all this time? "He's a Reaganite Republican," a critic who has visited Lynch at home told me. The critic believes that Blue Velvet's sappy closure was actually meant sincerely by Lynch. "This is a desperately unhappy world," the critic told me Lynch has lectured him, "so you have to believe in something."
At Cannes, it wasn't just filmmakers who embraced positive thinking but film critics as well, even the usually iconoclastic. I was amazed at those who championed the feel-swell antics of Cradle Will Rock, Tim Robbins's vastly disappointing panorama of intellectual and political life in the American 1930s, in which everyone famous, from Diego Rivera to John Houseman, is reduced to caricature. The worst: Angus MacFadyen's arm-flailing, boorish, pre-Kane Orson Welles, bereft even of the booming voice.
Critics were divided over whether Kitano's Kikujiro was a delightful throwback to the slapstick of Chaplin and Keaton or just a throwaway. (I'm in the middle: some extraordinary sight gags, minor Kitano.) Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre was the most popular film by far at Cannes, and practically every journalist's choice for Cannes's grand prize, the coveted Palme d'Or. (I didn't see it! The most feeble of excuses, but my alarm clock didn't go off for the early-morning screening. I swear!)
The always vocal French press ran about proclaiming Lynch's The Straight Story a "masterpiece!" I liked it okay, but Freddie Francis's marvelous cinematography excepted, this Lynch movie seemed no more than an accomplished HBO movie. About Felicia's Journey, there was near unanimity: a noble try by Egoyan, very effective in parts, but finally something less than The Sweet Hereafter. My take is that the movie suffers from the fatal flaw of Trevor's book: all the determined art cannot disguise the fact that the psycho serial-killer story at the center is tabloid trash.
Two movies in the official competition were despised by one and all, Nikita Mikhalkov's The Barber of Siberia and Peter Greenaway's 8-1/2 Women. Mikhalkov's vanity-press production (the most expensive Russian film ever made) combines inept farce, a stupid 1885-set historical story, a charmless, grating performance by Julia Ormond as a beautiful (?) American woman in Moscow, and a stupefying three hours of running time. A veteran Variety reporter told me that "The Barber of Siberia is Cannes's worst opening-night film in at least 15 years." Could be.
I've liked every other Mikhalkov movie I've seen (The Slave of Love, Burnt by the Sun, etc.). Yet somehow the disastrous Barber of Siberia showing seemed a proper comeuppance for the pompous, patrician filmmaker, who is contemplating a run for the post-Yeltsin presidency on a Russian nationalist platform. Back home, The Barber is supposedly a mega-hit. Mikhalkov bragged to a Dutch critic that, in Moscow, every third viewer marches to the box office afterward and purchases a ticket to see it again. If true (horrors!), Mikhalkov is the Russian George Lucas.
As for my catching Greenaway's 8-1/2 Women: the daily punitive 8:30 a.m. screenings of the competition films had gotten to me deep in the festival. After watching a few minutes of nonsense in which a rich man (John Standing) and his spoiled adult son (Matthew Delamere) bed down together in the nude and discuss their penises, I fell into the deepest sleep, only to be jarred awake at the end by a theater of boos from the antagonized press.
I began this report by noting the movement toward "nice" in the official competition. Fortunately, in line with my own poisonous, life-is-a-failure-and-then-we-die aesthetic, there were several vivid exceptions. Here is where I parted from disbelieving journalist friends, who were revolted by my admiration for Aleksandr Sokurov's Moloch, a film that imagines two days in the romantic life of Hitler and Eva Braun, and for Bruno Dumont's L'humanité ("Humanity"), which concerns the ever-foiled attempts of an unfathomably dimwitted cop (Emmanuel Schotté) to ferret out a rapist killer.
Moloch shows Hitler arriving at a castle in the air, where the athletic Eva (she dances about like an Olympiad Leni Riefenstahl) awaits him. They have meals with Martin Bormann and Mr. and Mrs. Goebbels, and everyone acts coarsely. Adolf and Eva go to their bedroom and play silly erotic games. The next day, Adolf departs.
What's the point, people kept asking, frustrated. But there's no point from the fine Russian filmmaker of Mother and Son except a perfect dramatization of Hannah Arendt's riveting concept of the banality of evil. Sokurov imagines on screen the oafish, stultefyingly mediocre private life of the Nazi architects of doom. The Russian actor Leonid Mosgovoi is Hitler.
And the much-loathed L'humanité? This was my personal choice for the Palme d'Or, a metaphysical policier cast with non-actors from Normandy. Among the audience turnoffs: close-up shots of vaginas, three long episodes of screwing involving two very ugly people, and endless scenes of the bug-eyed, slow-slow-talking detective fumbling about while the child murder goes unsolved.
"Understanding the meaning of my film should be able to appease the horror," L'humanité filmmaker Dumont (director of The Life of Jesus) said at Cannes, "but I film it in all its crudeness. Film should film the inhuman."
I was surprised when the Cannes jury gave its Best Screenplay Award to Moloch. I was amazed when it awarded L'humanité the prestigious second-place Grand Jury Prize. I was incredulous when it gave Best Actor and shared Best Actress to L'humanité's amateur stars. (Séverine Caneele, who plays a sexually charged factory worker, is hunk-shouldered and plain-faced, a distinctly working-class type deliciously out of place as a leading lady!) The awards were hissed and booed, especially as Dumont thanked the jury: "This prize will give me strength to impose this kind of cinema -- demanding cinema, cinema as is should be."
The Palme d'Or went to Rosetta, by the talented Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (La promesse), a film about the harsh life of an unemployed young woman (Emilie Dequenne, who shared Best Actress). People liked Rosetta despite its darkness, but it wasn't exactly a dazzling public-relations pick. Not when there were decent films in the competition by Robbins, Egoyan, Lynch, Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), John Sayles (Limbo), and Almodóvar. Almodóvar got a bit of consolation: the prize for Best Director.
Who made up this notorious jury? It was headed by David Cronenberg and included actors Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum and Aussie filmmaker George Miller (Mad Max, Babe: Pig in the City). "We had no agenda," Cronenberg told USA Today, "except to confront the films as we saw them without any preconceptions."
Thanks, David. For once I felt vindicated; for once what I saw as potent, meaningful cinema got endorsed at the top. How different from the alienating Spielberg-is-beautiful, Miramax-in-love Oscars! Hooray for Cannes!
(Boston Phoenix, June 7, 1999)