Under the Skin 

The 52nd Festival de Cannes

Wednesday, May 26 1999
DELIRIUM SET IN SOMETIME MIDFESTIVAL. THE crowds had become a roiling, nearly impenetrable swirl into which attendees at the 52nd Festival de Cannes would fling themselves like salmon, seemingly driven by instinct and little else in an attempt to reach their collective goal, the Palais. Outside the enormous concrete mass that is the cold heart of the Cannes film festival, passersby gaped in place and thugs in soiled sneakers roamed the streets, grabbing at women, purses and even the sack of a street accordionist. There is a degree of madness in seeing something like 40 films in 10 days, but 40 films is only a drop in the proverbial munificence. The festival presents 76 films in its four most distinguished programs, those in Competition, those out, those in the noncompetitive category, Un Certain Regard, and those in the Directors' Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs), a platform for new directors from around the world.

That Cannes is a shared madness is reassuring only in part. During the course of the festival there are countless dramas and intrigues, most of them well-projected in theaters, with ample seating and good raking. After a while, though, after the 30th or 35th film, the dramas unfolding among the expatriate community of critics, journalists and everyone else from the world of cinema can become indistinguishable from those unfolding onscreen. Was that a fight with a friend, or was that a remembered moment from Raoul Ruiz's film about Proust, Le Temps Retrouvé? Was that a flirtation, or a scene from Manoel de Oliveira's eccentric A Carta? I am turned on by the sex in one film (Leos Carax's Pola X) and turned off, I worry perhaps forever, by the rutting in another (Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité). Everyone drinks too much, but not as much as the sodden lost souls in cinematographer Christopher Doyle's very terrible Away With Words.

The films keep coming. Trends are latched on to, invented, an admittedly reductive exercise that nonetheless helps to put order to the millions of feet of unfurling celluloid. There are what I quickly come to think of as the We Are the World movies: Two British films, Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland and Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People, the French Nos Vies Heureuses by Jacques Maillot, and a Canadian feature, The Five Senses, by Jeremy Podeswa, adapt the quasi-Altmanesque strategy of knitting together various lives in order to score larger points about the whole of humanity. Although Podeswa's is the most formally exacting, it shares with the others the sort of gooey humanism that, while anathema to Altman, characterizes Hollywood apologies such as Grand Canyon, films that invariably extol solipsism over anything resembling politics or faith.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the inevitable essays in miserablism (festivals are always full of these), including Lynne Ramsay's beautifully composed, narratively impoverished Ratcatcher, Arturo Ripstein's logy El Coronel No Tiene Quien le Escriba, and incontrovertibly the most disputed selection in competition, Dumont's demented L'Humanité. Dumont, whose first feature was the highly regarded La Vie de Jesus, which last year opened at the Nuart to about $5 in business, is, as they say, a filmmaker of ideas. This is sometimes a very good thing, as with Jesus, a discourse on the lives of disaffected provincial youth.

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L'Humanité opens with a visual quotation from Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, only to rapidly up the anxiety of influence with a re-creation of Marcel Duchamp's inscrutable masterpiece Étant Donnés, a tableau that features the waxy body of a naked woman, her vulva shaved and a lantern clutched in one hand. The female pelvis in the Dumont film is arranged similarly to that in the Duchamp, and similarly exposed, but is horribly bloodied because it belongs to an 11-year-old girl who has been raped and left dead in a country field. This vision, like nearly every shot in the film, made for one of the most powerful in this year's festival, and one of the most unforgettable. If only the film as a whole didn't collapse in on itself, and quickly become a near parody of artistic reach.

Nominally the story of a police investigation, the film is more accurately an exploration of art and truth, grace and evil, flesh and consciousness. Or to cite Dumont himself, "L'Humanité is a tragedy because it contains the painful emergence, slow, brown and carnal, of a dazzled and mystical consciousness." Given the director's stubborn aesthetic and his almost poignant inability to locate and sustain the right tone for such a weighty project, it was no great surprise that during the film's premiere press screening, prestigiously scheduled midweek in the festival's biggest theater, the audience soon divided between those who could barely suppress their laughter -- including numerous American and British critics, whose giggling swept the theater like a virus and sounded a likely death knell for a release in either of their countries -- and the rest of the international press, who periodically yelled "Silence!" with futile, mounting outrage.

THE FILM THAT DUMONT HAD SO BOLDLY ATTEMPTED was realized in the festival's genuine triumph, Rosetta. Written and directed by Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, whose first feature was La Promesse, this meticulously detailed, wrenching story of an impoverished teenage girl struggling to find a job, as well as a small measure of happiness, was the unexpected, greatly deserved winner of the festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or. (The only other sane choice would have been Pedro Almodóvar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre, a vibrant, hugely pleasurable rethinking of classic melodrama.) An acquaintance called Rosetta the meta-movie of the festival, a story of interminable struggle and hard-won faith. The film, surprisingly and happily, was bought by the new company USA Films, the Barry Diller venture that now encompasses October Films and Gramercy Pictures.

Rosetta, which was shown on the last day of the festival, helped to alleviate the numerous high-profile disasters and disappointments, including Peter Greenaway's execrable 8 Þ Women; the crushingly inadequate Kikujiro, a farrago of bad comedy and bathos from Fireworks' Takeshi Kitano; Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, limned with Emerald Isle platitudes and spiritual cynicism; Chen Kaige's tedious historical epic The Emperor and the Assassin; and David Lynch's The Straight Story, an upcoming Disney release based on the adventures of a septuagenarian Iowan who traveled 350 miles on a lawn mower to visit his ailing brother. The well-leathered Richard Farnsworth is the main attraction in Lynch's one-note film, whose inane, fraudulent script, co-written by the director's wife and editor, Mary Sweeney, plays like the greatest hits of Peggy Noonan.

One of the better selections in Competition that managed to disappoint nonetheless was Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, an underrealized work about black masculinity held together, though barely, by Forest Whitaker's soulful lead performance and a soundtrack from the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. The film's brilliant central conceit is black survival strategies -- in this instance, a hit man embraces the code of the samurai -- a conceit that's soon overrun with easy jokes and a miscued white righteousness that tends to cancel out the tougher, more thoughtful stretches. A more ambitious American film at the festival, and likely one of the best, most exciting American films we'll see this year: Kevin Smith's Dogma.

A raucously funny satire crammed with uneven performances and comedy of the lowest order (anal sex) and highest (the Apostles), Dogma premiered without the benefit of an American distributor. Although the film was bankrolled by Disney's Miramax, it will be distributed by another company ostensibly because of the potentially inflammatory subject matter -- George Carlin plays Cardinal Glick, leader of a movement called Catholicism Wow!; Chris Rock is the 13th Apostle, Rufus ("Knew him?" he says of Christ. "Nigger owes me 12 bucks"); and God is played by no less a deity than . . . Alanis Morissette. But the film will be inflammatory only for those who will never have a chance to see it. Dogma is one of the most devout films produced in this country, at times pedantically so, which is why it's a good guess that what actually sealed its fate is a scene in a movie-company boardroom. A fallen angel played by Matt Damon enters and begins taking the executives bitterly to task for corrupting the minds of the young with enterprises such as Mooby World and cartoon characters such as the "Golden Calf," a creature whose conceptual resemblance to Mickey Mouse is undeniable. One by one, the angel accuses the men of sin, and one by one, he slaughters them. There's no word as to whether Michael Eisner has seen the film, but Harvey Weinstein was there to assure us in person that he himself loved it.

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