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Cannes 2001

     "Life is short, Cannes is long," quipped an exhausted American critic friend in the midst of the seemingly endless 59th Cannes Film Festival. What bedazzles and seems so glamorous on TV-the azure French Riviera, the red carpet at the Palais, awesome, toothsome international movie stars-makes for the most sleep-deprived, twelve-day workaholic week of the year for the 4,000 journalists in attendance. They scramble from screening to cel-phone to interview to press conference to computer to e-mail from 8:30 AM to deep into the night. Yes, there are lush parties down by the sea, each apres midi and evening, but these are mostly gulp-a-wine and gobble-an-hors d'ouevre teases for on-the-job reporters, who rush away in the middle to make their nervous deadlines.

     Enough! I left Cannes behind this year after seven grueling days, catching up with shuteye on the plane and with only minimal regrets to be gone mid-fest. I'd miss the David Lynch press conference, in which he'd perhaps turn a light on his extremely cryptic Mulholland Drive, which I'd just seen. Interesting films still lay ahead by important Russian, Japanese, and Taiwanese cineastes. Though thirteen pictures had screened in the Official Competition, I had no clue yet what film might be chosen by the Liv Ullmann-led jury (which included Edward Yang and Terry Gilliam) to win the prestigious Palme D'Or grand prize.

     The only masterpiece at Cannes? The newly reconstituted Apocalypse Now Redux, shown out of Competition, cleaned up and reedited a bit (by genius Walter Murch) and with 53 never-before-watched minutes added to the movie, including another Brando scene as Kurtz (him reading aloud right-wing cheerleading of the Vietnam War from Time Magazine) and a half-hour episode in which Willard (Martin Sheen) and his small company stop along the river for a long dinner with a family of still-zealous French colonialists, who preach that "You Americans can win the War."

     How relevant is Apocalypse Now now? It's uncanny how much Willard, endlessly morose and deeply alienated from American policy, yet who nevertheless carries out all orders to kill, including gunning down an innocent peasant woman, seems like a ghostwalking Bob Kerrey.

     Francis Ford Coppola strolled about Cannes a deliriously happy man. Everyone championed the new version (I didn't hear a negative word). Tellingly, that included naysayers who had severe problems with the 1979 release, who found it politically incoherent and formally self-indulgent. I'm one of those skeptics: the new Apocalypse Now, which opens in the USA in August, is a great film of powerful ambition and intellect, simply wonderful from beginning to end.

     But there were no masterpieces in Competiton among what I saw.

     The most awaited films were uncomfortably, fatally flawed, such as Joel Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There, Lynch's Mulholland Drive, and the huge-budget festival opener, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. Several films I liked were dismissed by many critics, and probably by the jury, for being amoral and too violent (Cedric Kahn's based-on-life bandit saga, Roberto Succo), sexually disturbing and too kinky (Michael Haneke's La Pianiste). Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Safar E Gandehar was regarded as too small-scale and documentary-like to win a major prize, and Jean-Luc Godard's Elegy of Love too avant-garde and obscure. (Though Godard, 70, could be a sentimental choice for a Best Direction award.)

     The only film in Competition which practically everyone warmed up to was a tiny chamber drama by Portugal's Manoel De Oliviera called I'm Going Home (Vou Para Casa). It dramatizes the life of an aging, well-established stage actor (Michel Piccoli) in the aftermath of an off-screen car accident which has killed his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. Where should he find solace? In a new love? In doing TV? One day he is offered a bizarre acting opportunity: to play Buck Mulligan in a movie version of Joyce's Ulysses, this directed by an American (John Malkovich).

     "I was fortunate to have two great actors," De Oliviera said at a press conference. "Malkovich belongs to the world of pragamatism, Piccoli to the Mediterranean side of civilization." And De Oliviera? One of the world's wonders, directing a feature a year as he sails into his nineties, and these (The Letter last year) are improvements on the ones he made in his eighties. A journalist asked him what's the secret of his youth? "You must ask the Lord in Heaven," De Oliviera, 92 answered, bald, spry, and miraculously unwrinkled.

     Piccoli, an icon of French film since the early 1960s (memorably, Godard's Contempt), was seen as a shoo-in to win Best Actor at Cannes for his rich, nuanced, emotional performance in I'm Going Home. De Oliviera: "I chose Piccoli because he's an actor with a long life of experience behind him, but he's a youngster next to me.

     Piccoli (over 70?), laughing: "I didn't do the arithmetic but I could perhaps be Mr. De Oliviera's son!"

     Best Actress? Probably Isabelle Huppert in La Pianiste, for her transgressive turn as a thwarted, late thirtyish classical music teacher under the thumb of an abusive mother. She fights to gain a sexual identity by, first, becoming pornography-obsessed; second, by mutilating her genitalia; and, third-an unconscious parody of The Rules?--by formalizing (on paper) the regulations she insists adhered to for a sexual relationship with a young male pianist: a rondolay of extreme masochism, with her as the stepped-on, beat-upon slave.

     At the press conference for La Pianiste, puritan journalists in the house praised Huppert's thespian bravery while condemning her character as sick and revolting and deserving of being institutionalized. Neither Huppert or Haneke accepted the back-handed compliment. "When I read the script, a brush was a brush, a spade was a spade, I knew where I was going," said Huppert. Rather, she felt that the character, Erica Kohut, was the courageous person, for trying to upturn the male-dominant rules for defining a sexual tryst, and for appropriating male voyeurism, creating the Female Gaze.

     "She's neurotic but I don't think she's ill," Haneke, the Austrian director (also of Funny Games) lectured a blue-nosed journalist about his masochist heroine. "A sick woman? That's your interpretation."

(May, 2001)


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