Films

A celluloid circus

Glitz mingles with art as the festival turns 50

Brian D. Johnson May 19 1997
Films

A celluloid circus

Glitz mingles with art as the festival turns 50

Brian D. Johnson May 19 1997

A celluloid circus

Films

Glitz mingles with art as the festival turns 50

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

ON ASSIGNMENT

IN CANNES

Bruce Willis had just declared the death of print journalism. Never mind that his new sci-fi extravaganza, The Fifth Element, had received a severe critical thrashing on the day of its première at the opening of the 50th annual Cannes International Film Festival (May 7 to 18). Willis, striking a Euro-terrorist pose in dark glasses and a black cap, sat before a throng of journalists and told them that “no one here reads reviews,” and that only cameras count. And that evening, as he mounted the red-carpeted steps of the festival’s Palais, a vast phalanx of photographers, all dressed in mandatory black tie, suggested that he had a point.

Flanked by an honor guard of sword-bearing French soldiers, and thousands of screaming fans, Willis slowly mounted the red staircase with his wife, Demi Moore, at his side. Beside them, his Ukrainian-born co-star, exmodel Milla Jovovich, took the arm of Fifth Element's French director, Luc Besson.

Jovovich certainly knew how to work a room. She had appeared at a midday news conference deliriously overdressed in a silver-lamé evening gown. Now, for the evening première, she was outrageously under-dressed, in an outfit that was little more than an exaggerated necklace, a bikini web of gold rigging and a chain-mail loin cloth. It was a regal parody of a Cannes cliché—the nude starlet on the beach. And as Jovovich drove the photographers into a frenzy, Moore, encased in a black gown and billowing cape, was completely upstaged. Acting as unamused as Snow White's wicked queen, she made no attempt to hide it. And as the Hollywood star cast dark glances at this otherworldly Other Woman, Willis, looking smug, gave his wife consolation kisses for the cameras.

Ushering in the golden anniversary of the world’s biggest film festival, it was a telling moment. Cannes is the royal court where

Hollywood and the rest of the world’s cinema compete for attention. And Hollywood does not always win. “Luc Besson lays siege to Hollywood,” trumpeted a French headline the next day, treating Besson as a conquering hero for having made a faux-American blockbuster, in English—with the equivalent of $100 million (U.S.) in French money. If this is the new New Wave, European cinema may never be the same.

The Cannes festival began as a quiet, dignified affair on the Riviera. Now, it is a circus, a trade show and, with 4,000 media people accredited, the ultimate photo opportunity. In the first few days of the event, such diverse stars as Michael Jackson, Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and Claudia Schiffer made appearances. But glitz notwithstanding, Cannes is also an exalted celebration of an art form, one that no one fetishizes quite like the French. The Oscars may be Hollywood’s Super Bowl, but Cannes is the Olympics of world cinema. “It’s the one place where Hollywood doesn’t

have the upper hand,” says Robert Laníos, chairman and CEO of Toronto-based Alliance Communications Corp. “It’s still the queen of festivals, and the only one where winning a prize or being discovered is guaranteed to mean something. It remains the mecca.”

Last year, Lantos capitalized on Cannes to jump-start the controversy around David Cronenberg’s Crash. This year, he is putting Alliance’s promotion muscle behind another Canadian contender in the festival’s official competition—Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, which is competing with 20 films for the grand prize Palme d’or. This is a strong year for Canada, which has three other movies programmed in non-competitive categories: Kissed, Vancouver director Lynne Stopkewich’s necrophile romance; Cosmos, an anthology drama filmed by six Quebec directors; and Love and Death on Long Island, a British coproduction from Halifax.

Meanwhile, Toronto novelist Michael Ondaatje, fresh from the triumph of The English

Patient at the Academy Awards, adds a Canadian voice to the festival’s 10-member jury. Asked if he has suddenly been seduced by cinema, Ondaatje told reporters at Cannes: “I was seduced by cinema at the age of 8, and I haven’t recovered.” Then, insisting he is not about to abandon the profession that has thrust him into the limelight, he added, “I want to be a writer and will continue to be a writer.”

Headed by French star Isabelle Adjani, the jury should provide Ondaatje with some interesting dinner companions. Other members include actresses Mira Sorvino and Gong Li, and directors Tim Burton (Batman) and Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies). In fact, there is perhaps no more pampered citizen of Cannes than the jury member, as Egoyan discovered last year. “I had this incredible suite, and all I had to do was watch two films a day,” he recalled. “And I had this card that allowed me free access to the best restaurants, and any screening I wanted. The only downside is that I was alone, and at a certain point you realize that the lifestyle becomes very lonely.” (His wife, Arsinée Khanjian, was back home performing in a play.) This year, Egoyan intends to breeze in and out of Cannes in two days. “When you’re a film-maker there,” he says, “you’re just one of many, and if you hang around longer than that, it takes the glow off it.”

Cannes is the royal court where Hollywood competes with the world

Besides, adds Egoyan, the bash planned for the festival’s anniversary would feel anticlimactic after his experience at a pre-50th celebration last year. “There was something mythic about it,” he says. “The jury was led from the Palais to a boat, and we arrived at the beach to fireworks and a fanfare of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie. Francis Coppola was president of the jury, and I remember seeing him standing, this shadow, at the stern. It was actually like being in Apocalypse Now, going up the river.”

At this year’s celebration, Cannes will be overrun with film-making legends as the festival plays host to previous winners. Luminaries on the guest list include Martin

Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch, Constantin Costa-Gavras and Jane Campion. But with a few exceptions (notably Japan’s Shohei Imamura and Germany’s Wim Wenders), many of the directors competing for the golden-anniversary edition of the Palme d’or are less celebrated. Among them are four novices, including two actors-turned-directors:

Depp, who directs The Brave, casts himself as a native American volunteering to sacrifice his life for his impoverished family; and Gary Oldman, who offers an excoriating descent into junkie hell, alcoholism and domestic savagery with his autobiographical drama, Nil by Mouth.

Although it appears unlikely that any film will ignite the kind of scandal that Crash caused last year, political controversy is never far from Cannes. Last week, the festival dropped director Zhang Yimou’s new comedy, Keep Cool, from the competition after Chinese authorities, in what appeared to be censorship, declared “a copy is not available.” And at the last minute, after Iranian authorities lifted a ban against Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry, it was added to the competition.

Political reality, meanwhile, makes a harrowing appearance in two dramatic features

about the war in Bosnia, both filmed in the bombed-out ruins of Sarajevo. The two movies are stories of men trying to evacuate children from the city. Perfect Circle, which opened the non-competitive Directors’ Fortnight program, comes from Bosnian director Ademir Kenovic, who began filming in 1992, during the war. Staging scenes against panoramic views of devastation—with fire trucks, UN armored cars and charred trams wheeling in and out of the action—he creates an unprecedented mix of dramatic fable and war-zone document.

If Perfect Circle comes from the heart of the Bosnian conflict, Welcome to Sarajevo is about the eyes and ears of the war. In the tradition of The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields, it is told through the eyes of a Western correspondent. Filmed just after the war by Briton Michael Winterbottom (Jude), it is loosely based on the true story of English TV journalist Michael Nicholson’s attempt to rescue a young girl from Sarajevo. With Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei in supporting roles, it is much slicker than the Bosnian film. But driven by Stephen Dillane’s convincing performance in the lead role, its simple, unsentimental story conveys the horror of war without cheap heroics. And Winterbottom, who intercuts drama with video news footage, delivers a stunning indictment of how the Western media can reduce human suffering to a photo opportunity.

Cannes, of course, is a photo opportunity of a different order. Last week, as a rapt audience watched the Bosnian hell of Perfect Circle in a basement theatre, next door a huge crowd jammed the fabled Croisette in front of the Carlton Hotel. All eyes—and cameras—were trained upwards, at a sixth-floor balcony where Michael Jackson had just made a flirtatious appearance, punctuated by his toy-fascist salute. Chanting “Michael, Michael,” the faithful waited for the Gloved One to return. An old French busker in a beret, a banjo under his arm, strolled through the horde. “He’s not real,” he laughed. “He’s just a copy.” In camera-conscious Cannes, where the real world is always just a shot away, it hardly matters. □