Film

Desolation row

At Cannes this year, there was beauty in the ruins

June 10 2002
Film

Desolation row

At Cannes this year, there was beauty in the ruins

June 10 2002

Desolation row

Film

At Cannes this year, there was beauty in the ruins

There’s an unforgettable image in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which won the Palme d’Or at the recent Cannes Film Festival. After months of hiding out from the Nazis in Warsaw, scrambling through bombed-out buildings like a scared rat, the movie’s emaciated hero emerges from the rubble to

look out at what was once a street in the Jewish ghetto. Stretching as far as the eye can see is a demolished cityscape of silent ruins coated in ash, not a soul in sight. It’s a painterly image of harrowing beauty. And you couldn’t look at it without an anachronistic shiver—without remembering Manhattan in the eerie aftermath

of the World Trade Center attack.

At the festival’s closing ceremonies, jury president David Lynch declared that 'even though the world it reflects is in trouble, world cinema is alive and well.” Maybe so. But it offered no refuge. From the bull’seye wit of Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s documentary portrait of guncrazy America, to the cherry-bomb satire of Divine Intervention, Palestinian director Elia Suleimans surreal trip through Israeli checkpoints, the world’s troubles were just a shot away—and larger than life. In Columbine, Moore opens an account in an

American bank that, incredibly, offers a free rifle to new customers. In Divine Intervention, a Palestinian guerrilla flies with the magical powers of a Crouching Tiger warrior, deflecting a hail of Israeli gunfire into a halo—a crown of bullets.

Each May Cannes launches the new year in world cinema, often premiering films that challenge Hollywood at the Oscars— from Life Is Beautifiil to Moulin Rouge. This year there wasn’t one obvious breakout hit. But among the 22 movies in official competition, the quality was unusually high, and the content arresting. Whether by co-

incidence or Zeitgeist, a theme emerged. It comes down to the image of a man alone and bewildered in a ruined landscape, a random victim of calamity.

In The Pianist-—based on the miraculous ordeal of Polish Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpiliman—it was a man running scared from history. In Spider, from Canada’s David Cronenberg, it was a schizophrenic (Ralph Fiennes) trapped in the ruins of his own mind. And in a festival that doted on films about memory, the most universally loved was The Man Without a Past, the warmly deadpan tale ol an amnesiac in a derelict world by Finnish director Aid Kaurismäki.

In a similar vein, two popular U.S. entries, Paul Thomas Anderson’s PunchDrunk Love and Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, featured misfits who lose their bearings in the kitschy barrens of Middle America. And both revealed Hollywood stars in a new light. While Anderson exposed the creepy underside of Adam Sandler, Payne delivered a more nuanced Jack Nicholson than we’ve ever seen—a fine antidote for anyone who felt poisoned by his antics in As Good as it Gets.

Most critics expected Nicholson to win the best-actor prize. But the jury gave it to

Belgium’s Olivier Gourmet for Le Fils, a tense vérité drama by the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta). Gourmet plays an obtuse carpenter who hires his son’s adolescent killer as an apprentice—a perverse choice for the jury considering the Dardennes’ hand-held camera spends half the film glued to the back of the actor’s head. And while Miranda Richardson was expected to win best actress for her three-character tour de force in Spider, Lynchs jury gave that award to Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen, for what’s essentially a supporting role. Surprisingly, Spider was completely ignored by

the jury'. But at the 1999 festival, Cronenberg’s jury shut out Lynch’s The Straight Story. Now he knows how it feels.

The only Canadian to win an award this year was Jesse Rosensweet, whose animation gem, The Stone of Folly—a scenario of medieval brain surgery—received a runner-up prize in the short-film program. And Moore’s Canadian-produced Bowling for Columbine WAS honoured with a special 55th anniversary award. Atom Egoyan, meanwhile, premiered Ararat out of competition, loathe to submit a delicate film about judging Armenian genocide to the whims of a jury. But the competition has a way of focusing debate in Cannes, and Ararat just wasn’t sufficiently talked about. In hindsight, it’s a shame Egoyan didn’t go head-to-head with Polanski. Taking opposite approaches to the art of remembering genocide—contemporary deconstruction versus period melodrama—Ararat and The Pianist cried out for comparison.

Instead, the media can thank Egoyan for Jack Nicholson’s appearance in Cannes. His movie, About Schmidt, was originally set to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. After Egoyan pulled Ararat out of competition, Schmidt was given the vacant slot at the last

minute. After seeing Nicholson play a tired old man in Schmidt, an insurance actuary at the end of his days, it was a startling to see the actor in the flesh—looking positively frisky, with a beard that gave him the air of a gracefully aging bohemian. It seems every director Nicholson works with asks him to do something different. “They’re always saying, ‘Don’t give me Jack,’ ” he drawled, “but nobody knows the real Jack.” Payne, best known for the sharp satire of Election (1999), “asked me to play a small man,” said Nicholson. “He’s a miserable man to inhabit. He’s a

liar. He hates his wife. He’s a middlebrained mess. This is the least vain performance I’ve ever given.”

Nicholson called Schmidt the story of “a life unexamined,” a life of “quiet desperation,” which could also describe PunchDrunk Love. Set in the strip-mall wasteland of Los Angeles, it stars Sandler as a lonely nerd who sells toilet plungers from a warehouse, buys thousands of instant puddings to collect air miles, then falls in love with a frequent flier (Emily Watson) while running afoul of a vicious phone-sex pimp/mattress salesman (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

This is an American movie that wants to be French, ambushing the eye with visual non sequiturs and pop pastels worthy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. After Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson is still more adept at irony than enchantment.

But with the daredevil casting of a Hollywood franchise in an art film, he bridges the two solitudes of world cinema. And the jury rewarded his chutzpa with half the best-director prize—along with South Korea’s Im Kwon-Taek for Chihwaseon CDrunk On Women and Painting.

Chihwaseon tells the flamboyant story of renegade painter “Ohwon” Jang SeungUp (Choi Min-Sik), a legend in 19th-century Korea. There’s nothing so cinematic as watching someone paint on camera, and this is an action picture of ravishing brushstrokes, bamboo ink thrusts and

flower-petal daubs. The art alternates with gorgeous landscape shots, which tend to be more abstract than the paintings. And in between is a tortured artist hooked on booze and dames, who likes to destroy his work while it’s still fresh.

If only bad boy French-Argentine director Gaspar Noé had done that with Irreversible. It was the festival’s designated scandale, a spectacle of rape and revenge that made me realize I’d rather watch a tortured artist any day than be tortured by one. Irreversible runs backwards, like Memento, with the scenes unfolding in reverse chronological order. The first half hour is a vortex of pure hell, shot with a pinwheeling camera designed to induce vertigo. It begins with the climax, a brutal act of revenge in a gay-club dungeon called The Rectum, then works its way back to a nineminute, uncut rape scene of a woman being sodomized in a Paris underpass. If you make it through that, the rest is a breeze.

For some critics, Irreversible was the height of style. But this is art with too much time on its hands, a triumph of virtuosity over intelligence. The title, of course, is a practical joke, referring to the indelible imprint of its own imagery on the viewer. But you have to penetrate a movie to be disturbed by it. Over drinks one night on the Croisette, British actress Tilda Swinton blithely summed up the pretence of Noe’s shock cinema: “It’s so deeply conventional,” she sighed, “what we call, ‘fur coat, no knickers.’ ”

The stripped-down realism of Brit cin-

ema, meanwhile, can be unpretentious to a fault. With All or Nothing and Sweet Sixteen, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach mined a well-worn vein of working-class angst. Both films are exquisitely crafted, with pitch-perfect acting—notably by Sweet Sixteen s Martin Compston, who plays a teenage drug dealer trying to sell enough heroin to buy his mother a nice home for when she gets out of jail. But these mean streets always go one way, and the cumulative sense of despair can be as oppressive as English weather.

One director who managed to infuse the bleak landscape of the underclass with discreet magic was Kaurismäki. Like the Coen brothers or Jim Jarmusch, he invests every scene with an implicit irony. But his characters are more grounded, and unfiltered by cynicism. The Man Without a Past is the simple tale of an amnesiac (Markku Peltola) who scrapes together a new life, finding shelter in a rusted freight container, and romance with a Sally Ann worker (Outinen). Without sentiment, Kaurismäki paints a vision of dignified indigence. And employing a palette reminiscent of vintage Technicolor, he achieves an unearthly beauty.

Late in the festival, those colours popped up again, in a digital projection of a restored Singiri in the Rain. The quality was stunning, and for those who fear the digital image will be the death of cinema, reassuring. Earlier in the week, the evil emperor himself, George Lucas, was in Cannes, defending digital technology. But clearly it cuts both ways. You can use it to make Star Wars, or Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten—in the festival’s most unadorned drama, fixed video cameras in a moving car capture a series of candid conversations between Iranian women, whose concerns were closer to those of Western women than you might suspect.

En route to Cannes last month, I ran into a Canadian reporter on the plane who was flying off to cover a war in Sierra Leone. As we compared our assignments, and our wardrobes, I felt sheepish about braving the hardships of a film festival on the French Riviera. But at a time when the big screen has never seemed more trivial—in a season of blockbuster sequels to Star Wars and Men In Black—at least in Cannes you could convince yourself, however briefly, that movies still matter. E3

Read Brian D. Johnson's diary from the Cannes festival. ww\v. macleans.ca