Film

THE CANNES MATRIX

In the unreality of the Riviera, Hollywood and high art coexist

Brian D. Johnson May 26 2003
Film

THE CANNES MATRIX

In the unreality of the Riviera, Hollywood and high art coexist

Brian D. Johnson May 26 2003

THE CANNES MATRIX

Film

In the unreality of the Riviera, Hollywood and high art coexist

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

THIS YEAR I come to Cannes early. A few days before the festival’s opening night, this pretty resort town—where female cops direct traffic in skirts and high heels—is awaiting the onslaught. The Croisette, its beachfront promenade, will be soon be jammed with people who appear to be talking to themselves but are actually speaking into tiny cellphones. For now the place is eerily deserted. A gold-painted mime with a movie camera stands frozen in a statue pose for an imaginary crowd, as if locked in a dress rehearsal. On a chaise by the sea, a topless Frenchwoman of a certain age tans herself into a walnut.

Over the next couple of days, I watch the festival literally rise out of the sand. Rows of white pavilions with Dairy-Queen roofs are bolted into place on the beach, forming an international bazaar where films will be bought and sold. The old walls of the rococo Carlton Hotel, that seaside slice of meringue, are draped with immense banners for The Matrix Reloaded, vertical strips of green and black that are unfurled like some strange display of Zen fascist heraldry. And the elegant hotel entrance is framed with a vast gunmetal billboard for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. The final insult.

Cannes maybe the world’s annual summit of independent cinema, but with 4,000 journalists in attendance, the Hollywood machine likes to make its presence felt. And in this summer of sequels and cartoon superheroes, America’s warrior icons are out in force. Arnold, Clint, Van Damme—and Keanu, that mild-mannered Canadian ninja—have all made the pilgrimage to the Riviera (although Eastwood is here as an auteur, not an aging action hero). Only weeks ago, as war raged in Iraq, America cast France as the pariah of the Western world, turning an entire country into a talk-show joke. But now Arnold Schwarzenegger, a staunch Republican, is the guest of honour at a Sony/MTV soirée in a French chateau. The beauty of a pop culture that lives in an eternal present, with no sense of history, is that

it’s quick to forgive and forget.

As various Hollywood luminaries faced the media in Cannes, they were inevitably asked about the strained relations between France and America. Each time the response was baffled denial. Asked if he’d felt any tension, Keanu Reeves offered a quizzical smile. “Personally I haven’t, but I just got here. Cin-

ema and a film festival should be a place to celebrate art and humanity.” Director Steven Soderbergh, a member of the Cannes jury, insisted that nothing could have stopped him from coming. Being on the jury, and seeing the festival “from behind the curtain,” he said, was a fantasy he’s had for 14 years, ever since his first feature, sex, lies and videotape,

won the Palme d’Or. And jury colleague Meg Ryan, with tired eyes and remarkably plush lips, reminisced about first coming to Cannes as a young backpacker and sleeping on the beach. “I’m here as a student,” she said, “and I’m looking forward to seeing movies that I wouldn’t see in the States.”

No kidding. The 20 films in competition may include future Oscar winners—like last year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Pianist. And promising entries this year include Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, má Les Invasions barbares (The Invasion of the Barbarians) by Quebec’s Denys Arcand. But at least half the competition titles will never reach the multiplex. With galling slight of hand, Cannes feeds the starmaker machine while fanning the ghostly flame of pure cinema.

And what makes this place unique is that it presents the illusion of a level playing field. Iran’s Samira Makhmalbaf is accorded the same red-carpet procession, flanked with a French honour guard, as Keanu Reeves. In the real world, of course, there’s no contest; Hollywood rules. But Cannes is a grand contrivance. It creates its own matrix, a buoyantly artificial world where everyone pretends that art matters as much as commerce, and where anything seems possible. In one day, you can swing from abject cynicism to absolute enchantment. Take the second day of the festival:

We begin with an 8:30 a.m. screening of The Matrix Reloaded, which is playing out of competition. I try my best to be thrilled by the state-of-the-art fight choreography, computer effects and set design. And there’s much to marvel at. This cyberspace Star Wars is a biblical epic for the digital age, a pageant of holy war punctuated by Philosophy 101 koans about free will and determinism—De Mille meets Hegel on a high-fashion runway. But it’s like watching a machine. And the audience feels inert, with none of the spontaneous screams of delight that galvanized the Cannes premiere of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon three years ago. The only scene that gets a rise from the crowd is Lambert Wilson’s droll parody of a snobby French restaurateur giving Neo (Reeves) a Cartesian lecture on “causality.”

After the screening, hundreds of journalists pack a press conference attended by The Matrix Reloaded stars and crew. It’s ridiculous. There are 15 people on the dais, everyone except the directors, the Wachowski

brothers, who are labouring on The Matrix Revolutions (due out Nov. 5)—and have turned themselves into cult figures by declining all media. An august Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) parries most of the questions aimed at the cast, while Reeves and Canadian costar Carrie-Anne Moss remain virtually mute. Reeves appears to be suspended in “bullet time,” deflecting questions with deadpan nonchalance. Asked if fame has eroded his privacy, he pauses. “No.” Another pause. “Not really... the answer is no.”

It’s enough to make you ask the question

that permeates The Matrix Reloaded: why am I here? But this is how the day ends— stepping out of a theatre to see a full moon rise over the Mediterranean, my eyes blurred with tears. I’ve just seen Panj É Asr (Five in the Afternoon). Directed by Makhmalbaf, a 23-year-old Iranian, it’s set in the ruins of war, in post-Taliban Kabul. A girl, who sneaks off to school in a horse-drawn cart against her father’s wishes, has fantasies of being president of Afghanistan. A young man offers to take campaign photos. Meanwhile, there’s no water, food or shelter. The girl’s sister

clutches a baby dying of starvation. A story emerges from the barren landscape as gently as a blue burka being lifted from the girl’s face. The story narrows to a vanishing point in the desert, a primal place where metaphor, poetry and politics fuse with a slow, scarring flame. Each frame is composed with heartbreaking economy, and terrible beauty.

Then, passing from desert to beach, you step back into the “real world” of Cannes, the glittering Matrix on the Mediterranean, where even the moon looks fake. Fellini would feel at home here. And this year, the 10th anniversary of his death, the festival is dedicated to his spirit. Cannes is officially unfolding “under the sign of Fellini,” as if Italy’s sentimental surrealist has been canonized as a saint of the zodiac. A big screen is set up on the beach for public showings of his movies, from Amarcord to 8V2. And Fellini soundtrack music is piped all along the Croisette, creating the ambience of an art-house Disney World. Another ghost in attendance is Charlie Chaplin. He’s being honoured with a new documentary, and a retrospective capped by a restored version of Modem Times—the original Rise of the Machines.

Now in its 56th year, Cannes clings to the romance of a phantom cinema, the dolce vita of a golden age. Setting the retro tone, the festival opened with a remake of a 51-year-old French farce, Fanfan la tulipe. This swashbuckling confection, which stars Penelope Cruz, is a puff pastry of martial arts musketeering without a single special effect, or original idea—a film that proves the French can make irritating nonsense as well as the Americans.

As cinema cannibalizes its past, we live in a world of remakes and sequels. The remake is the more dignified approach—witness Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris. But with franchises consuming the market, sequels have become the safest currency. And this summer is seeing a record number of them—X 2: X-Men United, Terminator 3, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Legally Blonde 2, Bad Boys II, another Tomb Raider, Dumb and Dumberer...

In Cannes, however, there is a dignified sequel in competition. No one could accuse Arcand of quickly cashing in on The Decline of the American Empire; he took 17 years to make Part Two. And as it premieres this week, with the title alone—Invasion of the Barbarians—he already has the last word on the bizarre spectacle that is Cannes. fill