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Cannes - 2005

     "What they do they do better than anyone else in the world," a critic pal noted cryptically, as we walked away after the 2005 Cannes Film Festival world premiere of what would emerge, days later, as winner of the 2005 Palm D’Or, Cannes’ luminous, prestigious jury first prize: the Dardennes brothers, L’Enfant/The Baby. I get what my friend means. Less is all! The Dardennes’ miniature fictions(La Promesse, Rosetta, Les Fils/The Son), shot handheld on the avenues of nowhere Belgian industrial towns, hold universal truths. These are vivid, unsentimental, and finally unforgettable portraits of the urban have-nots of the globe, scraping by in barely manageable, often petty criminal, ways. Life on the lumpen margins, wiggling at the bottom, here on earth, from Bombay to Boston.

     I can’t imagine many at Cannes felt gypped when this year’s official jury—which included actors Javier Bardem and Selma Hayek, filmmakers Emir Kusterica (the jury president), John Woo, and Agnes Varda, and Nobel Prize novelist Toni Morrison- went for L’Enfant. It was the second victory (also Rosetta in 1999) for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, whose Robert Bresson-inspired oeuvre, though distributed in the USA, is barely known by even discriminating American filmgoers.

     L’Enfant is the story of Bruno, a jumpy, excitable, 20-year-old, who steals and barters on the streets, accumulating cash to get through a day, barely noticing that his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia, has had his baby. As this child floats into Bruno’s consciousness, he dimly thinks: merchandise! He hits the sidewalks to sell it! "Bruno lives in the immediate," Luc Dardennes explained at a Cannes press conference. "The story is a mirror of our times. It’s difficult to find a center of gravity today,not just for Bruno, but for everybody." Jean-Pierre Dardennes: "Our film is not about paternity. It’s about a character who’s not really there, a lightweight, a bit like a child." Their title is blatantly ambiguous: which character is "the baby"?

     The jury’s runner-up award, the Grand Prix, was also a popular choice. It’s Jim Jarmusch’s bittersweet road movie, Broken Flowers, featuring Bill Murray as a middle-aged guy who goes on the trail of old girlfriends (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy) with not always benificent results. "I would like to say quickly that I do not believe in competition for artistic works," Jarmusch noted in his acceptance speech. Certainly hewas ambivalent at having triumphed at Cannes over cineaste colleagues whom he deeply admires, including Wim Wenders, Atom Egoyan, also Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whom Jarmusch called in his speech, "my teacher."

     At the Broken Flowers press conference, Jarmusch seemed relieved that much of the attention, and the sillier questions, were aimed at Murray. This American-star presence at Cannes was manna for journalists thirsty for some big-name sound-bytes.

     "When I was a kid, you scared me with Ghostbusters," a Latin American journalist blurted out. "You’re safe now. We got rid of them," Murray said.

     "How do you like being at Cannes?" another reporter cleverly inquired. "I think everyone of you should be screamed at by the ‘feeding pen’ [of photographers] while being photographed," Murray replied. "But I will be excited to walk up the Red Carpet. I hope I look well!"

     One critic asked Murray a question actually pertinent to Broken Flowers."How did the minimalism of your acting match the minimalism of Jim Jarmusch’s direction?"

     "An excellent question, a bon bon question," Murray joked away. "Minimalism comes from the erosion of my skills. I have less and less to give all the time."

     And on with the 2005 Cannes jury prizes, which this year--certainly not every year!-- were invariably on the mark. Best Director: Austria’s Michael Haneke for Cache/Hidden, a paranoia-inducing political thriller (it won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize for Best Film in Competition) about a smug French TV host (Daniel Auteuil) who finds his family’s apartment under seige by a clandestine videographer. Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, as a lonesome, revenge-obsessed cowboy in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a contemporary-set western whichevoked, for nostalgia-minded film critics, cowpoke classics of Fritz Lang, Budd Boetticher, and Sam Peckinpah. Were such critics stretching? Jones, who also smoothly directed the film, fessed up to have repeatedly watched Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

     The Three Burials brought a Best Screenplay award to Mexico’s talented Guillermo Arriaga, who previously wrote scripts for Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). And a gratifying choice amidst Cannes Eurotrash glamor: Best Actress to chubby, middle-aged Israeli cabaret performer, Hanno Laslo, off-the-cuff and endlessly amusing in Amos Gitai’s Free Zone. Therein, she drives a taxi transporting a young Jewish-American (Natalie Portman) into Jordan, where they meet with, and, entertainingly, squabble with, a middle-class Palestinian (Spain’s Carmen Maura). "Let’s give power to the women," Israeli filmmaker Gitai said at Cannes. "Maybe things will change in the Middle East."

     Was there minor carping about the Official Jury selections? If you felt that Haneke’s Cache was the finest film, then the Best Director award to the Austrian auteur was a mere consolation prize. Some critics such as The New York Times’s A.O. Scott believed that the great work at Cannes was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times, the same actor and actress dramatizing the same love story in the cinematic styles of 1911, 1966, and 2005. And many were sorry that David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a smartly conceived rendition of a mock-pulp graphic novel, went home to Canada undecorated.

     This one extends Cronenberg’s career-long obsession with pent-up rage and bloodlust, as a nice-guy, small-town-America restaurant-owner and family man (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself hounded by three tough criminals (Ed Harris and Co.), who claim knowing him from old Philadelphia days. What’s up?

     The most confident and centered of filmmakers, Cronenberg had fun at Cannes confronting the hysterical photographers’ pack with his own still camera and flash, shouting at them, "Don’t be shy!" The hetero Canadian director also turned heads during a formal photo shoot, mischievously kissing his male actors on the mouth.

     Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a semi-verbal spinning of the final hours of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star, is absorbing to watch (credit Harris Savides’s superb cinematography) but perhaps a pinch disappointing with so little narrative: it’s in the Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003) monosyllabic mode. Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking, starring and written by (overwritten by) Sam Shepard is a handsome, sumptuous movie about a desperately lost movie star suddenly seeking family connections. It’s tender despite being far too "lost-father" theme-heavy. Lars Von Trier’s Mandalay, his non-Nicole Kidman sequel to Dogville (2003), is less pretentious than the first, and, happily, much shorter. But its Cannes screening also caused far less controversy than its predecessor. Even Trier seemed surprised that nobody at the press conference challenged what they’d seen on screen: an idiosyncratic political tract about slavery on an Alabama plantation in the 1930s by a white-guy Dane. What does Trier, who has never been to the USA, know about American racial issues?

     If there were objections to how Trier makes his black characters complicit in their own enslavement, these weren’t expressed by the Cannes fourth estate. There was little space for criticism after cast member Danny Glover, who heatedly lectured the gathered on international racial politics, gave Mandalay his endorsement.

     There were two films in the Competition which I appreciated far more than many of my critic compatriots. The first is Batalla en el Cielo/ Battle in Heaven, by the Mexican filmmaker of Japon (2002), Carlos Reygadas. The second is Where the Truth Lies, from veteran Canadian director (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter), Atom Egoyan. Reygadas’s tale is a transgressive, intentionally grotesque story of a lumbering, middle-aged, Mexico City chauffeur who has a death-trip affair with the rich girl he drives about town. Battle in Heaven reminds of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977) with its acorn-brained protagonist on a suicide-trip. With it’s conscious, effective echoes of Bunuel and Rossellini, this is a stirring, disquieting work.

     Egoyan’s film is based on Rupert Holmes’s witty, urbane 2003 roman a clef imagining the sexually steamy behind-the-careers of a randy 1950s comedy team obviously based on Martin and Lewis. Egoyan has personalized Holmes’s story: visually, conceptually, thematically. The first part of the movie,set in garish Miami nightclubs and New Jersey Mafia haunts, is superbly zesty and stylish, virtuoso scenes you’d dream to get from Scorsese yet haven’t got since GoodFellas (1990). The denouement is a haunting, ghost-ridden, claustrophobic Egoyan family drama, his Exotica channeled through a frigid, mummy Hitchcockian mother. Finely chilled!

     Shown out of Competition was Woody Allen’s Match Point, shot in London, and with an almost all-English cast. Critics divided along nationality about the merits of this saga of an amoral Irish tennis teacher (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose greedy expectations for money, power, and status lead him on to brutal deeds. Some French proclaimed Match Point a masterpiece, some Americans (me among them) decided that, though flawed, this is Allen’s best film in some years. However, in line with other British critics, Jonathan Romney complained to me of Match Point that "It’s a fantasy London I don’t recognize, about a social structure that doesn’t really exist. Perhaps it will be much more convincing to the US."

     Woody himself? "The film came out pretty well, I thought," he said at Cannes, "and I’m usually a harsh critic of my work." How well? Allen is said to be asking $7 million dollars for American rights.

(Boston Phoenix, June, 2005)


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