Flims

APOCALYPSE CANNES

At a fin-de-siècle festival, a critic contemplates the death of cinema

Brian D. Johnson June 4 2001
Flims

APOCALYPSE CANNES

At a fin-de-siècle festival, a critic contemplates the death of cinema

Brian D. Johnson June 4 2001

APOCALYPSE CANNES

At a fin-de-siècle festival, a critic contemplates the death of cinema

Flims

Brian D. Johnson

It is 2 a.m. in Cannes, and over a glass of champagne Helga Stephenson is explaining how she was robbed blind by a thief in the night. He climbed onto her apartment balcony, slipped through the open door and stole her purse while she slept. At the police lost and found, the purse didn’t turn up, but she was tempted to claim a Chanel scarf or two.

“Have you ever been to the lost and found in Cannes?” she asks. “It’s beyond Holt Renfrew.” Stephenson, who once ran Toronto’s film festival and now works as a producers’ consultant, is a Cannes veteran. If this can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. Sure enough, two days later, I was at the police station to report a $ 1,500 theft from a bank machine, a scam so smooth I didn’t know I’d been robbed until the next day. I gave my story to a female cop right out of a French movie, who hummed and chuckled to herself as she typed very, very slowly with two fingers.

Every spring we put up with the Cannes con. We get fleeced, fight French bureaucracy and push our way through mobs to

get into films that, more often than not, people won’t pay to see in North America. Still, we keep coming back, braving the beach and the bubbly, to search for the grail of international cinema. Last year, we were rewarded with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, In the Mood for Love and Dancer in the Dark. Not to mention Yi Yi, Amores Perros and With a Friend Like Harry, three of the best movies in current release. This year, we waited in vain. There were bright spots, notably the enthralling Atanarjuat—the first Inuit-language movie, and the first Canadian picture to win the Camera d’or, for best feature debut. But a certain gloom settled over the Croisette as films about war, death and bereavement dominated.

The Palme d’or winner, The Sons Room by Italy’s Nanni Moretti, told a harrowing story of parents losing their teenage son. Ermanno Olmi’s The Profession of Arms chronicled the birth of ballistic weaponry under the Medicis. The horror of land mines surfaced in Iran’s haunting Kandahar and Bosnia’s darkly satirical No Mans

Land. In The Officer’s Ward, a French soldier undergoes four years of plastic surgery after getting his face blown off in the First World War—The English Patient meets The Elephant Man.

Meanwhile, films from old masters in their twilight years—names like Godard, Rivette, Imamura, de Oliveira—cast a long shadow over the festival. And at times we seemed to be mourning nothing less than the death of cinema, the dominant art form of the 20th century. It was also hard to escape the irony that the best movie at this year’s festival first premiered in Cannes 22 years ago: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Expanded by 53 minutes, it felt better paced than the original—less like surfing the Styx, more like a luxury cmise up the river of the damned. In the Pearl Harbor era, it also induced a profound nostalgia. Here was a war epic of psychological depth, without an iota of patriotic nonsense or a single computer-generated image.

At a press lunch in Cannes, Coppola remembered how the original movie had flummoxed the studio. “We were supposed to deliver an action film,” he said, “and it became more of a philosophical opera.” Later, Coppola’s cinematographer, the legendary Vittorio Storaro, talked about the death of cinema— in literal terms. Using an agenda book for a prop, he flipped it over and over, showing how the detail of a film negative is reduced over and over as prints are struck, and then again in video and DVD versions. Storaro also lamented the fact that classics such as The Conformist are literally dying, their negatives fading into extinction. He recalled that when he printed the extra Apocalypse footage, which was not properly preserved, “I cried, because I saw that I’d lost part of my life.” But then, delving into the alchemy of celluloid, he explained how a new Technicolor dyetransfer system saved 75 per cent of the image.

To look at these aging warriors, Coppola and Storaro, you could sense the sadness. Their best work is not only behind them; it’s vanishing, decaying like the human body. Cinema, that indomitable art form, turns out to be more perishable than paint. Apocalypse Now was also the watershed that marked

Hollywood’s last profligate adventure with the Sixties generation of renegade cinema in America. And if Coppola became its godfather, Jean-Luc Godard was the god of the movement that inspired it.

So it was only fitting that, aside from Apocalypse Now, the other great film at Cannes was from Godard, the old master of the French New Wave. At 70, Godard is the Bob Dylan of film, a sphinx-like survivor incapable of compromise. And Eloge de l’amour {Praise of Love) is his Time Out of Mind, a poetic elegy to a vanishing cinema, to a lost Paris and to memory itself—a film that holds time in its hands like a wounded bird. It is vintage Godard, narrative dissonance riddled with postmodern pranks. Along the way, there are jibes at Steven Spielberg in particular and at Americans in general—“who have no past so they buy the memories of others.” But what takes you unawares is the undertow of exquisite melancholy. With doting images of the Seine, Godard surrenders to nostalgia, that forbidden fruit of intellectuals. Then, after an

hour of black and white, he shatters the spell by cutting to the chemical hues of supersaturated video, as if conceding to the new technology with a shrug. While Godard delivered cinemas last rites, I went looking for f its future at a château in the hills, where a studio was staging a press junket for a movie that was not even finished: Lord of the Rings, a $270-million (U.S.) trilogy adapted from the J. R. R. » Tolkien classic. Consisting of three features shot concurrendy, it I will try to do for Middle Earth what Star Wars did for outer space. 1 The château was abuzz with workers erecting sets for a gala party 2 to which we weren’t invited. I watched a crofter nail a thatched roof onto a hobbit house with a staple gun. Herded into an al fresco news conference, we listened to a studio executive boast, “We’re not releasing a film. We’re not even releasing three films. We’re creating a brand.” He went on to insist “we’re not going to cheapen it with hype.” You’re not going to cheapen it with hype1 So what’s the deal with the busload of journalists at the château? The trilogy’s New Zealand director, Peter Jackson, enthused about computer-generated characters who have their own brains.

“You basically press a button and they start to fight. It’s weird, because at one point they started retreating when we didn’t tell them to.” We then interviewed the actors—groups of reporters grilling groups of hobbits—until I began to feel like a computer-generated journalist. A barefoot Liv Tyler, spacey and childlike, was persuaded to speak a phrase in “Elvish.” A reporter beside me passed a note: “Elvish has left the building.”

Back in Cannes, as the festival wore on, another theme (aside from death) began to emerge. This was the year of pastiche (not to be confused with pastis, a French drink that tastes like licorice). Left and right, directors were cannibalizing cinema’s past. Opening night’s Moulin Rouge, an Australian-made mirror ball, is pure pastiche—a brazenly fake foreign film from the borderless state of pop culture, with Nicole Kidman vamping through 19th-century Paris as a 21st-century fox. Paris kitsch is also the setting for CQ, Roman Coppola’s feature debut, executive-produced by his father, Francis. A jumble of 8 1/2, Barbarella and Austin Powers, it’s the story of a young American making a sci-fi movie about a babe in a white-shag spaceship. As a roman à clef (or Roman-àCoppola), it has curiosity value—the son playing in the cultural debris of dad’s generation—but little else.

There were half a dozen films about actresses, including Jacques Rivette’s urbane comedy of romantic errors, Va savoir, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which split the prize for best direction with Joel Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. Salvaged from a rejected ABC pilot, Mulholland Drive is basically Twin Peaks Goes to Hollywood, a dreamlike intrigue about two women, an amnesiac and a budding movie star “from Deep River, Ont.” There are funny moments, and lashings of hot lesbian sex. But Lynch’s surrealism still seems bogus, as if he’s selling smoke and mirrors like so much aluminum siding. Coen’s film, which stars Billy Bob Thornton as a barber drawn to blackmail, is a bloodless Blood Simple, a black-and-white descent into ’40s America in the noir style of James M. Cain. Immaculately crafted but deeply smug.

Cannes makes critics grumpy. At the awards, we were mystified as Liv Ullmann’s jury lavished three prizes on Michael Hanekes La Pianiste, a riveting but preposterous drama from France starring Isabelle Huppert as a piano teacher who sleeps with her mother and tortures a lovestruck student with dominatrix games. Only Huppert deserved her award, for remaining intensely credible against impossible odds. Canadians, meanwhile, could take solace in the Inuit triumph of Atanarjuat, signalling the birth of an aboriginal cinema still unblemished by cynicism.

Read the conclusion to Brian D. Johnson’s Cannes diary online.

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