FILMS

Movie time on the Med

Stars, big-name directors and circus vulgarity define Cannes

Brian D. Johnson May 27 1996
FILMS

Movie time on the Med

Stars, big-name directors and circus vulgarity define Cannes

Brian D. Johnson May 27 1996

Movie time on the Med

FILMS

Stars, big-name directors and circus vulgarity define Cannes

For two weeks each year, they converge on a small, absurdly expensive resort town on the French Riviera. Stars, moguls, directors and actors. Legendary artistes and desperate arrivistes. And as they parade their wares, a pack of 4,000 journalists scrambles for the best view. The Cannes International Film Festival is the world’s largest annual photo opportunity, a red-carpet extravaganza that outstrips the Oscars for pomp and ceremony. Organized with a French eye for hierarchy, it is a place where high-art refinement and circus vulgarity coexist in a kind of cannibalistic mating dance. “It’s like sharks in a feeding frenzy and the chum is film,” says James Spader, who ought to know. He won overnight success at Cannes in 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, and plunged back into the fray last week as the star of David Cronenberg’s Crash. “Everyone becomes bait to everyone else,” he told Maclean’s. “Everybody sits at that table feasting, but everyone is part of the meal.”

The menu of stars at this year’s festival, which ran from May 9 to 20, included Dustin Hoffman, AÍ Pacino, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Elizabeth Taylor and Holly Hunter. But away from the parties and photo-ops, the accent this year was actually on the movies, in one of the most promising programs in years. Rallying the forces of independent cinema, Cannes unveiled films from an all-star roster of directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Altman, John Sayles, Mike Leigh, Michael Cimino, Stephen Frears, Eric Rohmer, Chen Kaige, the Coen brothers and Cronenberg.

Among the 22 features in the festival’s main competition, Crash was by no means the most popular but offered the most extreme expression of a recurring theme. One film after another presented characters on a fateful collision course—and portrayed the human condition as an ugly accident waiting to happen. It is as if Crash, with a sense of pre-millennial dread, had unzipped the Zeitgeist.

In one of the competition’s best-received entries, Secrets and Lies, a sudden collision

of strangers rips open a poisonous family intrigue. A black optometrist tracks down her birth mother, a white factory worker who is terminally sad and spends her days stamping slits in cardboard boxes.

As secrets surrounding the illegitimate birth come to light, a dysfunctional family comes gothically unglued. With a heartrending performance from Brenda Blethyn as the tortured mother, British director Mike Leigh (Naked) keeps the movie sublimely balanced on a knife edge between pathos and comedy.

In Breaking the Waves, by Danish director Lars von Trier, a violent accident on an oil rig sends a romance between two newlyweds into a perverse tailspin. Filmed in Scotland, the story is set in a remote community ruled by a puritanical Christian sect in the early 1970s. From his hospital bed, the paralyzed husband orders his submissive (and mentally unstable) bride to sleep with other men for his benefit. It is an intensely compelling melodrama, featuring a spectacular performance by newcomer Emily Watson. Von Trier frames the raw narrative with eye-pop-

ping tableaux. And no matter how wild the story gets, superb acting by the largely British cast keeps it credible.

The British, in fact, kept cropping up in the strongest films at Cannes. Among the

highlights outside the main competition was Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, a stark and beautifully haunting adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure. Starring Sense and Sensibility’s Kate Winslet, it serves as a potent antidote to the more typically decorous 19th-century period pieces. It is, once again, a tale of fateful convergence—a bleak tragedy that, in the millennial twilight, makes Hardy seem at least as modern as Jane Austen.

For something completely contemporary, it was hard to beat Trainspotting, a flamboyantly profane drama about Scottish

punks hooked on heroin that makes Pulp Fiction look like a walk in the park. Taking the camera into the eye of the syringe, director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave) pushes back the frontier of cinematic insolence. But while plumbing the depths of degradation, he scavenges a surprising optimism.

Meanwhile, three American actors made their directorial debuts. Amid wild adulation, AÍ Pacino showed up to unveil Looking for Richard, a captivating documentary about his obsessive attempt to film (and make sense of) Shakespeare’s Richard III, Anjelica Huston showed up with Bastard

Out of Carolina, a harrowing tale of child abuse; and Steve Buscemi conducted an excavation of his small-town roots in the whimsical Trees Lounge.

Among the films from veteran directors, however, there were major disappointments. Robert Altman’s Kansas City, a gangster conceit set in the 1930s, gets lost in its own high-gloss reflection. It includes superb music sequences set in a black jazz club, but their authority only shows up the contrivance of the surrounding story. Even the impeccable Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a gun moll, is off-kilter. Stephen Frears, meanwhile, spins his wheels with The Van, the third instalment of Irish author Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. Doyle should turn the franchise into a sitcom and be done with it.

Bertolucci drew a mixed response with Stealing Beauty, a voluptuous but lazy exercise in nostalgia and soft-core voyeurism. Filming in Italy for the first time in 15 years, he spins the rhapsodic tale of a 19year-old American (Liv Tyler) who goes to Tuscany to have her portrait painted, to solve the riddle of her parenthood, and to lose her virginity. No one photographs skin and landscape more lovingly than Bertolucci—his camera ravishes everything in sight, literally stealing up the thighs of its young star. But, while immensely watchable, Stealing Beauty goes only skin deep.

Among the Canadians at Cannes, meanwhile, director Mary Harron was a hit with her evocative feature debut, I Shot Andy Warhol. And two Canadian films premièred in noncompetitive categories: Sous-Sol, from Quebec director Pierre Gang, and Lulu, by Toronto-based Srinivas Krishna. Lulu, an unaffecting tale of a Vietnamese mail-order bride in Toronto, left many critics wondering how it got on the program, while Hard Core Logo, from Highway 61 director Bruce McDonald, had to fight for attention in Cannes outside the official program. A mock “rockumentary” in the Spinal Tap vein (but with a grittier style), Hard Core Logo follows a fictional punk band on the road through Western Canada. Its paradoxically upbeat nihilism is a treat. And although the movie could use some cutting, it is what all McDonald’s previous work seemed to be driving towards: the great Canadian rock ’n’ roll movie.

Last week, McDonald sat in a café where he had persuaded the waiters to wear Hard Core Logo T-shirts. He had just finished attaching his movie posters to palm trees and slipping cards under windshield wipers, just as David Cronenberg did 20 years ago to promote Shivers. McDonald has not paraded up any red carpets. But he had some interest from major distributors, and in the final days of the festival, he was waiting for them to take the bait—and hoping to secure a place at the table in the Cannes feeding frenzy.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON