PRINT September 1997


D'Or Prizes

AS EVERYBODY KNOWS, the best parties happen all by themselves. Nonetheless, the organizers of the Cannes Film Festival seemed compelled to plan exactly how they’d celebrate 1997 (supposedly Cannes’ fiftieth anniversary, but actually the fiftieth festival, since there wasn’t one in either ’48 or ’50). And they certainly came up with an impressive array of events. There were ceremonies and speeches, balls and fireworks, a ballet by Philippe Decouflé, and a “Palme des Palmes” awarded by all the living recipients of the Palme d’Or to Ingmar Bergman, the greatest of those yet to be so honored. Bergman certainly deserved this accolade; too bad he didn’t show up.

As it turned out, the real fun was elsewhere—in the official selection of films, the public’s reaction to them, and the awards—though things began less than auspiciously. Executive director Gilles Jacob admitted as much when he presented the official selection, explaining that it would be necessary to “make do,” because, uncharacteristically, the program was incomplete. An unholy alliance between the fates and numerous authorities resulted in a program that was immediately labeled minor and uneven. In an age when marketing strategies are calculated like NASA flight plans, Hollywood refused to send its big films to the Croisette, which it deemed “too unpredictable.” Meanwhile, Iran’s mullacracy attempted to block The Taste of Cherry by one of the greatest living directors, Abbas Kiarostami, for its depiction of a man contemplating suicide; and, at the last minute, in retaliation for an invitation extended to director Zhang Yuan, considered a dissident, Beijing officialdom banned Zhang Yimou’s Keep Cool, a wry look at love and money in post-Communist China.

The effects of these decrees were compounded by the dictates of chance, which willed that works by major filmmakers (such as Alain Resnais or Claude Chabrol), who had already been recognized and duly rewarded, weren’t ready. In a word, no one really knew where things were going, and last-minute changes were to set Cannes spinning off course yet again: Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry finally arrived, and Youssef Chahine’s film Destiny, which tells the story of Cordoban twelfth-century philosopher Averroës and his battle with Islamic fundamentalism, went from honorary “noncompetitive official selection” to competition.

This chaos produced a curious phenomenon—on the Croisette, the terrace of the Majestic, the steps of the Bunker, film was the talk of the town. It even replaced the usual topics: money, hard-won invitations for a particularly posh reception, spectacular all-night parties, surprising or rumored celebrity affairs, television. This time, though, the lack of familiar reference points, the range of films selected, and the grim realism or violence of many entries shook things up, stimulating heated, deep-felt debate. During the first weekend, one shock wave in particular contributed to these seismic shifts—the presentation (out of competition) of two absolutely splendid episodes of Jean-Luc Godard’s video series Histoire(s) du cinéma, which suggest that film, at its radical best, blends urgent philosophical and political questions, poetry, and aesthetics.

All the films in the competition that deserved awards received them, except one: Funny Games by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Forcing viewers to question how they look at violence, Haneke’s film was a decided high point of the festival as well as a catalyst for reflection on cinema. This omission aside, the list of prizes was remarkable, unlike that compiled by any other jury since the festival began: the Palme d’Or was shared by Iranian Kiarostami for The Taste of the Cherry and Japanese Shohei Imamura for The Eel, a moving portrayal of a man who has served an eight-year sentence for the murder of his wife; the fiftieth festival prize went to Egypt’s Chahine for Destiny and for lifetime achievement; the Grand Prix was awarded to Canada’s Atom Egoyan for The Sweet Hereafter, an adaptation of the Russell Banks novel; the prize for best direction to Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai for Happy Together, a dark portrait of a disintegrating love affair between two Hong Kong homosexuals set against a Buenos Aires winter; and the jury prize to France’s Manuel Poirier for his road-movie-cum-love-story Western. This jury ignored issues of diplomacy and status, focusing for once entirely on the works themselves. And (without allowing “humanitarian” concerns to take precedence) it protected some directors as well—from political repression in Iran, Egypt, or Hong Kong; from economic pressure in Japan or Canada.

This dream list turned out to be the real cause for celebration at the fiftieth festival. And in no small measure it was due to the uniqueness of this year’s jury, one made up solely of artists: actresses Gong Li, Mira Sorvino, and Isabelle Adjani (who served as the jury’s president); directors Nanni Moretti, Mike Leigh, and Tim Burton; writers Paul Auster and Michael Ondaatje; theater director Luc Bondy; and dancer Patrick Dupont. This is one scenario that’s unlikely to be repeated—juries will doubtless return to the kind of professional balance that results in far-too-tepid or far-too-clever awards. Which is one more reason for dismissing the notion that there’s no point in picking on machinery as sluggish and official as that of Cannes. This year, to its credit, and to cinema’s benefit, it actually got jump-started, so we’ll have to wait till next year to complain. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, “If you don’t like Kiarostami, if you don’t like Imamura and Chahine, if you don’t like Wong Kar-Wai and Egoyan—you can go fuck yourself!”

Jean-Michel Frodon is film critic for the Parisian daily Le Monde. Translated from the French by Miriam Rosen.