Time Regained 

The 53rd Cannes film festival

Wednesday, May 24 2000

The 53rd Festival International du Film, known to all save its host country more modestly as Cannes, ended not with a bang but a melancholic sigh. Wong Kar-wai’s ardently anticipated In the Mood for Love premiered the final morning of the festival and kept the promise inherent in its title by leaving much of the international press in a rapturous swoon. Bought sight unseen by USA Films, which had created a similar stir when it purchased last year‘s emphatically uncommercial Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta, Wong‘s film had been listed in the official catalog simply as UntitledSans Titre. The lack of a name, and USA Films’ surprising gambit, helped to fuel rumors that, after some two years in the making, the film was, just two days before its world debut, still being edited by its quixotic writer-director. The rumors, as it would turn out, were true, and when the luxuriantly photographed romance at last premiered, it did so with title cards that both announced that the sound was unfinished and, somewhat touchingly, invited our patience.

Patience is critical in Cannes, where for 12 days thousands of professionals, important and self-important, descend on hundreds of features from dozens of countries, neglecting the gleam of the Cote d‘Azur in hopes of more dazzling panoramas in the dark. The pace is daunting, the choices prodigious, the effect stunning -- patience is tried time and again, then strangled like a baby in a crib. Critics weep into their salade mixte, colleagues insult one another; one friend threatens never to speak to anyone who finds anything of merit in Lars von Trier’s punishing musical, Dancer in the Dark, which predictably wins the Palme d‘Or. (For two hours, the threat is kept like a vow.) Earlier on, between films, at a cafe located off the Croisette, the belt of walkways and streets that hugs the coast in Cannes, one critic warns another, a newcomer, about the gendarmes who guard the Palais, the concrete pyramid that serves as the festival’s headquarters. ”They have guns,“ she says conspiratorially, her eyes darting toward the water.

There is something about Cannes, vulgar and glamorous and perfumed with desire, that gives it the aspect of a conspiracy, a fever dream, a mass delusion, one shared by audiences and filmmakers alike. It has something to do with the length of the films (three-hour features are common) and something to do with saturation, stamina and gutting it out -- do I watch three today? Four? Five? This year, there were dreams (and nightmares) of varying duration from Wong Kar-wai, Lars von Trier, Nagisa Oshima, Ken Loach, Neil LaBute, Joel Coen, Taiwan‘s Edward Yang, France’s Arnaud Desplechin, Belgium‘s Chantal Akerman, Mexico’s Arturo Ripstein, Hungary‘s Bela Tarr, Israel’s Amos Gitai, Iran‘s Samira Makhmalbaf, Tunisia’s Moufida Tlatli and Korea‘s Im Kwon-taek -- reveries that, as the festival wore on, seemed increasingly inseparable from our own. (Elsewhere, in the accompanying film market, the likes of Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror master Dario, and producer Menahem Golan, hawking the Elian Gonzales story, were also dreaming, but I’m loath to know of what.)

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One dream: Wong Kar-wai‘s In the Mood for Love. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, the film is a romantic idyll in which all the sex, confessions and cafe conversations have been excised, leaving gestures and shards of feeling in their place. Nominally about two married people who discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other, the film is instead more about aquarium green and gold-vermilion, the moist tenderness at play in Tony Leung’s eyes and the way in which Maggie Cheung‘s fingers brush against a doorjamb. As always, love is ephemeral, the mood indigo. It is, as well, again about the brilliance of Wong’s longtime production designer, William Chang, and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, this time aided by newcomer Mark Li Ping Bing, who filled in for Doyle when the production ran on. The film is achingly, shockingly beautiful -- somehow, it ends at Angkor Wat -- more quiet and still than most of the director‘s more recent films, and, crucially, absent the lyrical voice-over that characterizes much of his work, giving shape, at times even substance, to his loosely woven narratives. The film is undeniable in its poignancy, though as much for its story as for the fact that the whole thing dissolves like a paper fan in rain, an evanescent masterwork.

Another dream: Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. In which an indigent single mother named Selma and played by Bjork, living in Washington state during the 1950s, endures a crucible of suffering worthy of the Virgin Mary, whom she somewhat resembles save for the Coke-bottle glasses and Icelandic pop-star vocalizations. At once ambitious and not ambitious enough, von Trier‘s musical reworks the triumph that was Breaking the Waves, with its themes of female suffering and sacrifice, except that this time transcendence comes by way of the movies (the heroine dreams herself into musical numbers) rather than God. The film is filled with fleeting pleasures -- in one scene, Catherine Deneuve, as the world’s most glamorous factory worker, traces circles into the palm of the nearly blind Selma in mimicry of the Busby Berkeley dance number unfolding before them. The dance sequences, each choreographed to Bjork‘s relentlessly indistinguishable music, with lyrics co-written by von Trier, are prosaic with a vengeance. The metallic clunk of machinery inspires one factory-floor hoedown, a crime scene provokes another, with the chugging wheels of a freight train and a prison-house march spurring still others. To watch Bjork here is to realize just how heavily von Trier leaned on Emily Watson to lend his cool technique the warmth of emotion.

Together the two films, which were both picked up for distribution in the United States, represented the single most curious theme that would emerge at this year’s festival: the tug of the past and of the future. Numerous films in and out of competition were either period pieces that re-create lost worlds or heady excursions into the brave new world of digital filmmaking, with some films, such as von Trier‘s, reflecting both impulses at once. Assuredly cinematic even in their failure were two of the more anticipated competition titles: Olivier Assayas’ immaculately mounted history of an industrialist surviving the modern age, Les Destinees Sentimentales, and Arnaud Desplechin‘s more formally ambitious Esther Kahn, about a London stage actress (played with fantastic ineptitude by Summer Phoenix). Other period films included James Ivory’s risible The Golden Bowl, rechristened The Golden Bowel for Uma Thurman‘s gaseous lead performance; Im Kwon-Taek’s Chunhyang, a gorgeous romance; Gohatto, Nagisa Oshima‘s story about the love that dare not speak its name among samurai; Amos Gitai’s intermittently powerful Kippur, about the 1973 war; E. Elias Merhige‘s Shadow of the Vampire, about the making of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu; and Moufida Tlatli‘s hypnotic The Season of Men, about a Tunisian family of women.

Among those who limned entirely different possibilities were Arturo Ripstein, who was so enraptured by his digital camera that he ended up making his best film in years, Such Is Life . . ., a retelling of Medea (and, somewhat shamelessly, incorporating a Panasonic billboard into one scene); Agnes Varda, who turned her digital eye toward those individuals who scrounge from our leftovers in Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse; and Denmark’s Kristian Levring, the director of the newest DOGMA film, The King Is Alive, about a busload of tourists who end up lost in an African desert and mount a production of King Lear to stave off boredom, then madness. Throughout the festival, the enthusiasm for the new digital technologies was nearly as persuasive as the evidence offered up onscreen. And still, despite Ripstein‘s sinewy cinematography, and the hundreds of cameras deployed by von Trier during the making of his award winner, the first digital film to capture the Palme, it was impossible to watch these marvels without a sense of mounting panic. What, one wonders, would Hungary’s Bela Tarr do with a Canon XL1? His undeniably cinematic tour de force, the bottomless black and searing white Wreckmeister Harmonies -- four years in the making, two and a half hours in the watching -- can only exist, at this moment in time, on celluloid. The blacks are too black, the grain too weighty, the aura too palpable. In Bela Tarr‘s filmmaking there is a dream of the movies, one that is as impossible to resist as the digital future is to avoid.

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