PRINT September 1997


the fiftieth Cannes Film Festival

WEEKS BEFORE THE LAUNCH of the fiftieth Cannes Film Festival, the competition lineup was eliciting groans. By midfest, finding a film that generated passionate support was like securing a parking space on the Croisette, Cannes’ waterfront main drag. Critical dissent was running unusually high—even for Cannes, where one buff’s noir is often another’s bête. Whereas one critic, for example, proclaimed Curtis Hanson’s L. A. Confidential “a disaster,” another saw it as “the bright spot of the competition.” Decisive trends were visible from the start. Many hoped a spate of literary adaptations, including L. A. Confidential, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, and Francesco Rosi’s The Truce, might offer fresh interpretations of fictional works by key authors such as James Ellroy, Russell Banks, Rick Moody, and Primo Levi—these promises, however, were left largely unfulfilled. In a more remarkable trend, filmmakers and fans alike seemed drawn to the dark but familiar streets of the crime drama, where one found some of the strongest films.

The festival opened on a Wednesday with rain and French pop auteur Luc Besson’s sci-fi romp The Fifth Element (starring Bruce Willis and featuring Gaultier costumes). This film’s defenders could be counted on one hand; it inspired nearly palpable anxiety in many attendees about surviving the rest of this golden anniversary bash. The dreary weather continued in earnest, all the way through to the Sunday night spectacle of dozens of Palme d’Or-winning directors—from Francis Ford Coppola to Wim Wenders—lined up on stage in the Palais for the presentation of the first-ever “Palme des Palmes.” The honoree was a much-discussed no-show: the Salinger-like recluse Ingmar Bergman stayed home. (So much for French preproduction planning.)

As for the films, they weren’t dispelling any doubts. Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, the cathartic, largely autobiographical drama Nil By Mouth, drew its qualified supporters. The consensus was that the film is admirably serious, but hardly expands the boundaries of cinema or sheds fresh light on its blue-collar milieu. Fans of Brit director Michael Winterbottom, best known for Butterfly Kiss, which attracted attention at the 1995 Berlin film festival, were pleased enough with, but rarely passionate about his Welcome to Sarajevo, a fairly conventional wartime drama. More in keeping with the festival’s snakebit mise-en-scène, Johnny Depp’s arty melodrama The Brave was received with loud booing at its morning press screening. At the halfway point, the question was no longer “What have you seen that you liked?”—but rather, “Could Cannes’ fiftieth year really be so bad?” Patience was rewarded, however—in classic Cannes fashion—by pleasant surprises from unexpected quarters.

The jury wasn’t in passionate agreement about anything; as a result, they bestowed a number of prizes, including two top awards rather than one. The Palme d’Or winners—Shohei Imamura’s The Eel and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherry—weren’t necesarily the strongest works we’ve seen from these artists; rather, they seemed to reflect the jury’s urge, in the absence of a single breakthrough film, to acknowledge the work of master filmmakers. This was underlined by the presentation of a special lifetime achievement award to Egypt’s Youssef Chahine for Destiny. Many had been eagerly anticipating thirty-seven-year-old director Atom Egoyan’s latest film, The Sweet Hereafter, a dark fable about a tragic school-bus accident that divides and ultimately unites a small town. But although this recipient of the jury’s runner-up award makes dynamic use, with close-ups and strong compositions, of a wide-screen format to tell an intimate narrative, it is ultimately weighed down by arch references and general dramatic overkill.

Smaller gems, however, did appear on the festival’s fringes. It’s hard to remember, for example, the last time one heard a bistro full of critics rhapsodizing about the health of Norwegian cinema. Two classy Critic’s Week first-time-director entries from Norway—Junk Mail, a lively black comedy by Pal Sletaune, and Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia—inspired enthusiastic reviews and may join those rarest of Norwegian films: pictures that actually get exported beyond the shores of Scandinavia (Junk Mail has picked up a US distribution deal with Cinepix, while a deal is brewing for Insomnia). Set in Norway’s far north during its punishing twenty-four-hour summer sunlight, Insomnia stars Stellan Skårsgard—Breaking the Waves’ paralyzed husband—as a detective who is caught in his own investigative web while trying to solve the ritual murder of a young girl. Like one of the competition lineup's most eagerly anticipated—and critically divisive films—Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (a movie set in LA about a director of exploitation films), Insomnia uses elements of the standard crime drama to expose the roots of our destructive impulses, while meditating on the continuing appeal of celluloid violence.

Although the Cannes marketplace was virtually free of pictures that caught fire either critically or commercially, it did contain several criminal pleasures with an offbeat vitality. Genre buffs, for example, came away buoyed by some of the market’s cable- and video-destined products. Adding to the aforementioned evidence that the Scandis are starting to emerge from a bureaucratic and creatively encrusted state-run auteur system, the Swedish romantic crime melodrama 9 Millimeter, by Peter Lindmark, deals convincingly with unemployment and resentment in the immigrant population. The picture’s producers, who backed Sweden’s number one film last year, The Hunters, have been lambasted by cognoscenti for having had the bad taste to achieve commercial success, while others feel even slick young filmmakers on the Hollywood make should be given a chance to revivify a long-moribund film scene.

There’s nothing slick about the German prison comedy, Life is a Bluff, directed by ex-con-turned-TV-writer Peter Zingler. A broad farce with characters worthy of The Threepenny Opera, this film sketches the relationships between a quartet of male and female cons housed in the same country slammer, while spoofing “big house” Hollywood staples from White Heat to Con Air. Veteran actress Elke Sommer turns in a nice comic performance, and despite the ragged filmmaking and shaggy-dog script, the film’s straight-faced endorsement of true love and the pursuit of wisdom is surprisingly endearing.

Statesider Norman Gerard’s Snake Skin Jacket takes a low-budget American indie formula—a wacky bad-news couple turning the screws on a straight-arrow type—and separates it from the pack with character depth and clever plotting. An over-fifty first-time feature director, Gerard directed the debut production of LA’s acclaimed Asian-American theater company, East-West Players, thirty years ago; he later served as a cinematographer on Mean Streets and survived the decades by working on scripts, novels, and commercials. Finding evidence of a maverick artist’s endurance in the face of industry indifference is almost as great a festival pleasure as stumbling onto a single big discovery—and almost as rare.

Steven Gaydos is managing editor, special reports, for Variety. He is coauthor of Cannes: 50 years of Sun, Sex, and Celluloid (Hyperion, 1997).