She is a long way from Avonlea. It is 1 a.m. on the French Riviera, and the beachfront party celebrating the Cannes première of Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is just getting under way. Sarah Polley, a flute of champagne in her hand, strolls out to the end of the pier and surveys the fabled Croisette—the ice-cream facade of the Carlton hotel, lit up like an opera set and plastered with Hollywood billboards for Con Air and The Lost World.
“This is the most sophisticated and the most tacky place I’ve ever been to,” declares Polley, still unsure if she should be appalled or thrilled by her surroundings. The 18-year-old actor, who spent her adolescence starring in the CBC series The Road to Avonlea, has stunned critics in Cannes with her performance in The Sweet Hereafter, one that shows a poise and emotional clarity reminiscent of the young Jodie Foster. Now, Polley is trying to enjoy the moment.
But she feels guilty—guilty about the luxurious attention, which she fears may be addictive. Guilty about abandoning her campaign work in Toronto for federal NDP
candidate Mel Watkins. And guilty about The Dress. Polley never mentions The Dress, which she bought for Cannes, without some disdain in her voice. It is a perfectly good dress, a pearl-grey gown with a princess neckline, but she is suspicious of what it seems to represent. For warmth, she has put on a friend’s tuxedo jacket, which hangs loosely on her delicate frame. Polley is still trying to get a fix on Cannes. “Last night, I couldn’t sleep,” she says, explaining that she had recurring nightmares of tripping on her face while mounting the red-carpeted staircase of the Palais theatre for the première. When the time finally came, “I was terrified,” she recalls. “I actually felt myself tripping for a second. I felt myself going down and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s happening.’ ”
But Polley stayed on her feet. And by the time the final credits rolled at the 2,500-seat theatre, the gala audience was on its feet, awarding Egoyan with his first standing ovation in Cannes. The 36-year-old director was already popular in Europe. His previous film, Exotica, had won the International Critics’ Prize in Cannes two years earlier. And late
last week The Sweet Hereafter captured the same honor. In fact, even before people had seen his new film, the buzz on the Croisette suggested that, among the 21 entries in official competition, it was the leading candidate for the top prize, the Palme d’or. “There was this barrage of expectations,” says Egoyan, who, after serving on last year’s jury, understands the pressure and paranoia of competing at Cannes all too well. ‘Exotica was a dark horse. Suddenly to have a film that starts out as a favorite is bizarre, and in a way you miss that spirit of discovery.”
But at the festival (May 7 to 18), which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, there were other Canadian film-makers who did feel the thrill of being discovered. While the black-tie crowd—which included director
David Cronenberg—sipped Moet et Chandon at Egoyan’s swank beach party, a group of six young Montreal directors quaffing beer outside a pub called the Petit Majestic celebrated a surprise triumph. Their movie, an omnibus weave of stories titled Cosmos, had just won the one prize issued by the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight program— an award that cited the film for its “artistic qualities, originality and creative freedom.”
Meanwhile, Love and Death on Long Island, a Canada-Britain co-production shot in Nova Scotia, offered a droll take on the gulf between European refinement and American vulgarity. John Hurt plays an erudite English author who discovers TV and develops a mad crush on a teen idol—played by a maliciously typecast Jason Priestley, the Canadian actor from Beverly Hills 90210. And Vancouver writer-director Lynne Stopkewich, 33, received another round of acclaim for Kissed, her strangely charming necrophile romance, which played to enthusiastic applause in the Directors’ Fortnight.
This year, Canada reinforced its reputation for making disturbing films about disturbed characters, unheroic stories of individuals losing their bearings in austere landscapes. And after the scandal that swirled around Cronenberg’s Crash at last year’s Cannes festival, some viewers may have wondered if they were in for another outbreak of Canadian controversy as they sat down for The Sweet Hereafter's première.
The movie’s opening scene depicts a man getting stuck in a car wash while taking a cell phone call from his estranged drugaddicted daughter. Just what is it with Canadians and car washes? There is a car-wash sex scene in Crash. There is another one in Kissed—a necrophile kisses her first corpse in a hearse as it is scrubbed down. Now, Egoyan arrives with yet another movie that treats the car wash as a kind of cleansing rite of passage, a baptism with brushes.
The parallels, the director insists, are coincidental—“It’s just one of those bizarre things.” In fact, there is nothing terribly shocking or controversial about Egoyan’s new movie. After Exotica, which revolves around the denizens of a strip club, The Sweet Hereafter marks a bold departure. Based on the 1991 novel by American author Russell Banks, Egoyan’s seventh feature is his first that he has not written from scratch. like Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991) and Exotica, it is about loss and bereavement. But the story is simpler, the characters more direct and the emotions closer to the surface. The drama centres on a big-city lawyer who provokes a rural community into suing authorities after a school bus crash kills 14 children. Transplanting the novel’s setting from New England to the B.C. Interior,
Egoyan takes his camera into Canada’s natural landscape for the first time, and focuses on a small-town world of ostensibly normal people.
“I had a lot of trepidation about doing this film after Exotica,” he says,
“because Exotica had such a seductive setting. But while serving on last year’s jury, I was hugely influenced by [Palme d’or winner] Secrets and Lies, just the disarming simplicity of it. It was so liberating to see that a film in this drab location with these very real, drab people could be rivetting. This is the first time I’ve dealt with ordinary people, as opposed to individuals consumed by their private demons.”
In adapting the novel, which is narrated by a quartet of voices, Egoyan put the focus on Mitchell Stevens, the lawyer who exploits the school-bus crash with a perverse sense of mission. The director had originally cast Donald Sutherland in the role. But there was much wrangling over the actor’s fee, which the producers feared would put too much strain on the $5-million budget. No contract was ever signed. And 10 days before cameras were set to roll last winter, Sutherland dropped out, claiming exhaustion.
In his place, Egoyan cast British stage veteran Ian Holm, an almost opposite personality type. Sutherland is tall and flamboyant, a larger-than-life presence; Holm is short, squat and understated. “They can both be quite menacing,” says Egoyan. “But with Ian, it’s the menace of being discreet and yet full of anger and frustration. With Donald, it’s the sense of being sexually seductive and yet quite grotesque and evil.”
Holm’s intricate performance, gnarled
with fear and rage, leaves ample room for the rest of the film’s ensemble of Canadian actors. They include Egoyan regulars Gabrielle Rose as Dolores, the driver of the school bus, and Bruce Greenwood, who displays a disarming power as Billy, a widower devastated by the loss of his children. Polley fills the key role of Nicole, a young girl left half-paralyzed after the crash, whose testimony is crucial to the lawyer’s case. And Tom McCamus portrays her father, Sam,
The Sweet Hereafter breaks with this country's tradition of shocking Cannes
whose incestuous relationship with his daughter adds another tragic complication.
The Sweet Hereafter unfolds with an aching intimacy. But the director does not make it easy for the viewer. His narrative shifts back and forth through a mosaic of time frames. The tragedy is unrelieved by catharsis. And the sketched-in subplot of father-daughter incest—which is more consensual than in the novel—is disorienting. “Incest has become almost a cliché in books and movies,” says Egoyan, “I wanted to show the other kind of incest, a seemingly consensual situation, which can be even more damaging. Without getting specific, I’ve seen that situation, with people I know.”
Adding an inspired touch to the novel, Egoyan has interspersed the story with quotations from The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It lends the film an air of fable, which is enhanced by the medieval-flavored score by Canadian Mychael Danna, who also scored Ang Lee’s Cannes entry, The Ice Storm. Polley, whose character is a singer, wrote lyrics for the film and—with impressive talent—
sings several numbers on the sound track.
The demanding intensity of a film like The Sweet Hereafter is not ideal fare for a tired, impatient media corps nearing the end of a Cannes marathon. Even then, after a subdued press screening, the film drew largely positive reviews. Le Monde loved it. Interviewed right after seeing it, Dave Kehr of New York Daily News said: “It’s Egoyan’s most fluid and natural work. It’s far more emotional and vivid than his past films. But I wish he’d lay off the metaphors. He’s always pushing the intentionality of every scene.”
And Harlan Jacobson of USA Today said: “It’s really terrific. I think that everything that has been in his work is in there, only more so. It’s even more mature than his previous works, which are probably the works of someone who has been mature all his life.”
At week’s end, it was anyone’s guess who would take home the Palme d’or. On the weekend, the 10-member jury was whisked off to a country château. “It’s protected by guard dogs and bugging devices,” said Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, who showed up at the annual Canadian cocktail party on the beach. “We won’t even have phones. Then they take us by motorcade directly to the awards ceremony. I feel like I’m on the O.J. jury.” Ondaatje, of course, was forbidden to talk about the films. He did mention, however, that among the jurors, an eye infection had been going around.
It is midnight. At a hillside villa, high above the twinkling shoreline of the Riviera, Kissed star Molly Parker, a 24-year-old actor from Vancouver, strikes a pose by the swimming pool and fields questions for French television. With two cameras and a big-boom microphone, it looks like a movie set. And Parker, who matches the pool in her pale turquoise gown, a silk cocoon with a mandarin collar, looks every inch a star. But there are a few details that suggest the movie in question is not entirely conventional—the funeral bouquets and the inflatable man-doll that lies, uninflated, at the bottom of the pool.
Parker herself seems to be floating on air. “This is my first time in Europe ever,” she says, “I’m having a really great, great time. I had anticipated that it would be so insane and that I would be so overwhelmed by filmbusiness types that I wouldn’t like it. I’m really enjoying myself.”
How could she not? The other day, far from the madding crowd of Cannes, she and director Stopkewich lunched up the coast at the ultra-exclusive Hôtel du Cap. “Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley were at the next table,” Parker recalls. “And Kevin Kline was there.” Stopkewich’s husband, film-maker John Pozer, swears he spotted AÍ Pacino by the buffet. “But it was probably just a waiter,” she says, “one of those beach bums— they all look like AÍ Pacino here.”
Although it is more poetic than profane, the taboo-breaking Kissed enhances Canada’s image as a nation of kinky film-makers. “It has been compared to Crash,” says Parker. “All the time, people ask me, What is Canada doing making these films every year?’ and What does this say about Canadians?’ They’re difficult questions. It’s one thing to ask them within Canada, because we’re so obsessed with just what it is we’re saying in our films and our literature and everything. It’s another thing to try to answer those questions in an international forum. And I still have no answer to them.”
In the lobby of the Carlton hotel, Roger Frappier, the Montreal-based producer of Cosmos, is beaming. The official competition awards are still three days away. But in his hand he clutches a red-ribboned scroll, the prize that he has just received from the Directors’ Fortnight. With Frappier are the six
young Quebec directors, aged 27 to 32, who shot the film. Cosmos started out as a collection of short films, but ended up as a serendipitous spool of stories, threaded through the ironic odyssey of a Greek cab driver in Montreal. Richly photographed in black and white, it is witty, elegant, casually lyrical—and somehow reminiscent of a less jaded, more playful era of cinematic art.
Frappier, 51, is a Cannes veteran. He has basked in the Croisette spotlight as producer of Denys Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989). And his career goes back to the early ’70s, when he sold everything, moved to California and landed his first film job—driving Robert Altman’s Mercedes from L.A. to the set of Nashville. Last week in Cannes, Frappier took his troupe of Cosmos directors to a party on Altman’s yacht. They met Lauren Bacall “and a lot of really old Hollywood people,” recalled Manon Briand, one of the six directors. Frappier laughed. He looked like a proud godfather, offering to give a new generation a chance to shoot for the stars. □
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