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A Blow to the Head 

The 51st Cannes film festival

Wednesday, May 27 1998
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One of the easily foretold truths about the Festival International du Film, as the Cannes film festival is properly called, is that at any time of day or night, the unfamous are in desperate search of a glimpse of the famous. During the day, thousands upon thousands with no professional ties to the festival drift around the Palais convention center and up and down the seaside Boulevard de la Croisette. Some beg for screening tickets and party invitations, but since these are impossible commodities, most simply mill about, bunching into knots in front of the red-carpeted stairs leading into the Lumiere, the Palais theater where the competition films play day and night. To an extent, the evening screenings at the Lumiere, which are strictly black-tie, are the raisons d'etre of Cannes; certainly, they are the festival's most publicized rituals, exchanges between the haves and the have-nots in which the rich, famous and countless connected others are briefly offered up to a rapt public, much of which - its sightlines blocked - gazes up at the enormous video banks flanking the entrance to watch Johnny, Mira and Sharon float up the stairs a mere hundred feet away.

That most of the people who gather nightly in front of the Lumiere will never see the films screening inside is not nearly as ironic as the fact that most would probably never want to see the majority of these movies to begin with. Although it's old news that no one in the United States goes to foreign films, the situation is not much different in the rest of the world, as the parade of Leonardo DiCaprio posters for sale on the Croisette plainly attests. At the start of the 51st Cannes film festival, the number four film in France was Titanic, the number one film in Italy was Mercury Rising. One morning, while scanning one of Variety's daily Cannes editions, I read the following and found myself strangely unmoved: "Ten years ago, the market share of foreign language films in the U.S. was 7 percent . . . today, it stands at less than 1 percent."

That same day, I watched an extraordinarily beautiful Russian film called Khroustaliov, My Car! Directed by Alexei Guerman, the frantic, comic epic set in the early '50s and '60s is essentially impenetrable save for its metaphoric resonance - the gulag as carnival, perhaps - and for its stunning black-and-white visuals; it features some of the most sophisticated, mercurial and highly choreographed use of film space I've ever witnessed. I watched for over an hour and a half before giving up, but Peter Scarlet, director of the San Francisco film festival, is high on the movie, so at the very least it's likely to show up in the Bay Area sometime. In the press materials, Guerman notes that his original American producer had asked him to explain who Stalin was; in the face of the film's willful hermeticism, that revelation seems somehow less interesting than I imagine Guerman believes.

For the critics, the Festival Interna-tional du Film is exactly what its name self-importantly suggests. This year in the competition alone there were new features from, among others, France's Benoit Jacquot (L'ecole de la Chair, a meticulous vanity production for Isabelle Huppert), Greece's Theo Angelopoulos (whose Eternity and a Day won the top prize), the U.K.'s Ken Loach (disappointing with a weirdly upbeat drama about an alcoholic, My Name Is Joe), Australia's Rolf De Heer (the brutal Dance Me to My Song, written by and starring a woman stricken with cerebral palsy), Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang (The Hole, a sumptuous farce with bursts of song and dance), and the U.S.'s Lodge Kerrigan (suffering crushing defeat with Clair Dolan) and Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, a much anticipated, ambitious period piece about glam rock that also, for better or worse, had one of the most widely anticipated parties - you needed your passport to collect your invite).

Most memorable of all was Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien, unveiling his Flowers of Shanghai, a masterpiece set in the late 19th century about prostitutes and their clients that will, no doubt, never find distribution in this country. Exacting and voluptuously paced, the film unfolds in single takes punctuated by fades to and from black that wreak havoc with standard notions of movie time and space. In between, Hou presents a series of dazzling tableaux in which men and women negotiate a labyrinth of power in which every gesture and word reflects not just their personal relationships but the world offscreen. As the prostitutes, their faces powdered white and their feet bound, hobble across the rooms to fill another opium pipe, a tragedy unfolds that in its attention to power, status and the human soul recalls the work of great social observers such as Edith Wharton, even as it remains wholly original in its formalist conceit.

For the industry, Cannes has little to do with obscure Taiwanese masterpieces - and, to be fair, the press and the jury, which ignored Flowers of Shanghai entirely, were not much more interested. The festival is instead the place to self-promote, to flex muscle (Lions Gate announcing that it's paying DiCaprio a disputed $21 million to star in American Psycho), to trumpet projects (coming to theaters next year: the animated Anne Frank), to test waters (Miramax announcing that Roberto Benigni, star of its critically maligned Holocaust heartwarmer, Life Is Beautiful, received a special award from the mayor of Jeruselum). Occasionally, there's even a film to buy. Fox Searchlight, hoping for another Full Monty, bought the terminally cute, British audience pleaser Waking Ned for somewhere between $6 million and $7 million. Sony Classics purchased one festival favorite, Erick Zonca's Dreamlife of Angels, and October picked up another, Thomas Vin-terberg's rollicking The Celebration, one of at least three incest comedies at the festival. By far the most beloved incest comedy was Todd Solondz's Happiness, a Directors' Fortnight selection featuring pedophilia and not one but two sight gags involving cum.

Although October, in the wake of its purchase by Universal, often inspires comparisons with its old rival Miramax, the company continued to prove its singular commercial savvy by arriving at Cannes with Happiness (a sure MPAA freak-out) and the new Lars von Trier film, The Idiots. (The company's future was much speculated on after news hit that Universal had snapped up PolyGram, a merger that could have deleterious repercussions on October and on PolyGram's own Gramercy Films, as well as anyone with an interest in independent cinema.) Like Celebration, The Idiots was shot within the guidelines set forth by a Danish film group called DOGMA 95, composed of von Trier, Vinterberg, and two other directors, Kristian Levring and So/ren Kragh Jacobsen. The DOGMA 95 statement of purpose is outrageous, provocative, borderline silly: "The new wave proved to be a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck." Given the absurdity of the group's decree and its rules ("shooting must be done on location," "the film must be in color"), it's difficult to gauge just how seriously it takes its own call to aesthetic arms. Breaking the Waves was a DOGMA 95 production, though von Trier, breaking the rules, put his name on the film. For The Idiots, about a collective of healthy young Danes who spend their time pretending to be mentally retarded (in order to get in touch with their inner idiots), the director opted to leave his name off. It was a gesture that did little to appease critics, quite a few of whom felt that with this film von Trier had definitely succeeded in reaching his own inner idiot. Me, I thought it was pretty funny.

One afternoon, while searching for a seat in the darkened Lumiere, I paused and was promptly hit hard on the head. Stunned, I turned to find a broadly smiling woman gesturing for me to move out of the way; I had, apparently, blocked her view of the French subtitles. It was a small violence, but entirely appropriate to a festival that at every turn bludgeons you with its importance and enormity even as it reminds you of your own irrelevance.

On a personal level, that irrelevance was made conspicuous each time I slipped my press pass around my neck, broadcasting my status with the color of my badge. I wore pink - shamefully, at first - which placed me above blue but beneath pink with a yellow pastille, and the coveted white. After a sulk, I recovered. Pride had something to do with it, but mostly it was the movies - movies, such as Shoei Imamura's new, wonderful Kanzo sensei, that would prove their importance by remaining absolutely, irredeemably irrelevant.

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