Wounds That Heal 

Art and history at the 54th Cannes film festival

Wednesday, May 23 2001

“We’re all tricksters,” said the old man, “and we‘re all here to survive.” Perched on a podium, flanked by actors and producers, shielded by bodyguards (a reminder of a pie-throwing incident years earlier), the 70-year-old Jean-Luc Godard had just provided the 54th Cannes film festival with one of its truest descriptions. He was holding court at a press conference for his new film, Eloge de l’Amour, which, as it turned out, would provide the festival one of its few genuine grace notes. Godard had come before the international press at Cannes in the very best of circumstances: The film had been enthusiastically received, and, perhaps in return, he seemed in an expansive mood. As he periodically re-lit a cigar and dampened a smile, he again proved himself an exemplary entertainer, a philosophizing cutup who punctuates his deadpan timing and gusts of poeticism with the occasional shocking utterance -- at one point, in the midst of a parenthesis on Tolstoy, Godard referenced Anna Karina, the name of his former wife and New Wave muse, rather than that of Anna Karenina. Deliberate or not, it was great theater.

For nearly 45 minutes, Godard wittily and cryptically eased from topic to topic, from life to art and “something you call e-mail -- I‘m not clear what it’s about.” (He is evidently as committed to his William Castle--style hijinks as to his old typewriter: There was only one official press screening, which provoked a near riot, and he gave only two interviews.) Some in the press were similarly unclear as to what Godard‘s film was “about,” but the critical consensus was that Eloge de l’Amour marked not just a return to form but a return to emotion. Shot in luxuriant black-and-white 35mm film and deeply saturated color digital, Eloge de l‘Amour, as with many of Godard’s later works, is a meditation on history and memory, shaped equally by the heart and the mind. In some respects, it is a wayward love story about a young man working on a “project” (a reviled word here) titled Eloge de l‘Amour and a young woman whose grandparents are in the midst of selling their stories as war partisans to Hollywood. The name Steven Spielberg comes up in those negotiations, an invocation that has less to do with the man himself than with what he represents -- history as entertainment; the dividends and losses of selective amnesia.

Eloge de l’Amour is a fierce reminder that while film must engage history, it can never supplant it, a lesson lost on Spielberg and those who don‘t understand how the image of water pouring into a gas chamber is a matter not of artistic license but of moral cowardice. As usual with Godard, the film is also far more: historiography, slapstick, passion play, opera, and images that have the very cadence of music itself. In Eloge de l’Amour, love and history are inseparable, which is why the film is reminiscent of the early Godard in its lightness of touch and, in its reach and its melancholy, very much the work of a man taking measure of his own story‘s end. This, then, is the film of an artist who stays open to the possibility of beauty -- and this is one of the most beautiful of Godard’s films -- as well as the work of a man for whom art must always be a moral act. The anger remains, but here Godard adroitly plays his outrage for comedy and not just tragedy (or pedagogy). His insistence that the only way to live in the present is to live with the past may be unrelenting, but there is a gentleness to his insistence now, a sense of compassion for the amnesiac, the forgetful, that pierces the heart. That the director of Schindler‘s List had some hand in inspiring one of the greatest of Godard’s films is deliriously ironic, but it‘s an irony that, at least at the press conference, Godard refused to engage. He had taken history back from Hollywood, and that seemed enough.

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Even as Godard rescued history, much of the rest of the cinema world seemed content to ignore it altogether. For many filmmakers, movies, not life, were the inspiration. From Joel Coen’s The Man Who Wasn‘t There, a jejune riff on film noir starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber who slips into a shadow world amid allusions to Fritz Lang and Hitchcock, to Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa’s H Story, a revisiting of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, to Austrian director Jessica Hausner‘s talented take on Fassbinder, Lovely Rita, the overwhelming theme of this year’s Cannes was pastiche. Hal Hartley made one bad horror movie, a crypto-Godard folly called No Such Thing, while Todd Solondz made another horror movie, this one a crypto-Solondz called Storytelling, another funny-mean excursion into cynicism but without the writing and acting that made Happiness tolerable. Far more unsettling was David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive, a beautifully acted, shivery nightmare about Los Angeles and the movies that revisits many of the same themes he explored in Lost Highway to lesser effect. Originally made for television -- where it was, happily, rejected -- the film is among the director’s finest, as honest in its cruelty as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, yet shot through with tenderness. Like Shohei Imamura, whose delightfully ribald Warm Water Under a Red Bridge recalls a number of the Japanese director‘s recent films, Lynch may be cannibalizing himself, but at least there’s flesh on his bones.

For all its thematic familiarity, one of the few indisputably original films of the festival was Michael Haneke‘s The Piano Teacher, arguably the most despised competition entry, which nonetheless secured a handful of awards, including Best Actress for star Isabelle Huppert. The story of a sexually repressed Viennese piano teacher with outre appetites (sniffing used tissue in porn parlors, for one), the film takes shape around her seduction by one of her students, a man who may be as interested in fucking with her head as in fucking her body. Both Huppert’s terrifying performance and the filmmaking are cold and controlled; she and Haneke refuse to solicit our compassion for this woman, a gutsy move for which they were rewarded with some of the more obtuse comments at the festival. (“That guy‘s sick! He needs therapy!” bellowed one American critic after the premiere.) Yet despite some narrative burrs (bafflingly, everyone speaks French, and the lovers’ descent into sadism comes too fast), what the Austrian filmmaker really needs for this tough, powerful work is an American distributor.

Far more to many critics‘ taste was the Palme d’Or winner, The Son‘s Room, a wan Italian melodrama about a middle-class family whose son dies in a diving accident. The film, which was directed and written by the usually more capable Nanni Moretti (who also stars), was assured of victory not only because the film is about male suffering but because of its predictability: Time, it seems, does heal all wounds, especially when accompanied by mood music and innumerable close-ups of the frantically emoting star. Still, it was a pleasure to hear rumors that the jury was having a difficult time finding another competition film as good as Francis Ford Coppola’s breathtaking Apocalypse Now Redux, which both improves on and weakens the original. I‘ll have more to say about the film later in the year when it opens; for now, suffice it to say that Coppola’s epic was a gift to festivalgoers, a hallucination of bad politics and brilliant direction that rendered many of the other entries so much grain and nonsense, including the postage-stamp-size No Man‘s Land, an audience-friendly feature about the Bosnian war that was, invariably, picked up for U.S. distribution.

Nothing pointed up the box-office calculation of No Man’s Land better than Claude Lanzmann‘s Sobibor, 14 Octobre 1943, 16 Heures, a 95-minute epilogue to Shoah. Composed primarily of an interview Lanzmann conducted in 1979 with a Holocaust survivor named Yehuda Lerner, which the filmmaker originally slated for the longer work, the documentary tells the story of an uprising at the Polish extermination camp Sobibor -- the only successful Jewish-prisoner uprising of the war. The film is meticulously constructed, and harrowing. Lanzmann intersperses the talking-head interview with images of contemporary Poland and models of the camp itself, pushing along Lerner’s story with offscreen questions remarkable for their journalistic acuity and lack of sentimentalism. Lanzmann isn‘t interested in extracting pity or regret from his viewers; as with Godard, an unlikely ally in many respects, history is present, undeniable and bereft of palliatives. In his press conference, Godard actually mentioned Lanzmann as a director with whom he does not always agree. Somehow, there’s something deeply satisfying about the idea of these two curmudgeons of cinema going at it with hammer and tongs, camera and editing table -- duking it out over dialectics, making art and history at once.

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