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White Elephant Sale

In the end, Dogville’s bark was worse than its bite. That ostentatious opus, the latest from contemporary cinema’s indefatigable enfant terrible, Lars Von Trier, went home empty-handed at the close of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, its tempestuous writer-director as absent from the closing-night awards ceremony as the growling, yelping canine heard, but never seen, during the course of Dogville itself. Yet, here was the film that had been so widely tipped to garner the coveted Palme d’Or and, maybe, a Best Actress prize for Nicole Kidman’s brave performance. Here was the movie that had divided audiences as radically as any in the Cannes lineup; that had violently shuddered a sleepy festival out of its complacency at an 8:30 a.m. press screening on the sixth day of competition; that had arrived on the Croisette with a documentary about its own making in tow, seemingly daring any film to beat it, to approximate its audacious vision.

Perhaps that was Dogville’s ultimate undoing, the jury’s way of reminding “Lars” — arguably the most self-absorbed filmmaker at Cannes, even vis-à-vis Vincent Gallo — that he is no less mortal than one of his films’ self-sacrificing protagonists. Or perhaps it was an open acknowledgment of the sheer exasperation many viewers (including this one) felt after experiencing his three-hour parable about the loss of an American small town’s innocence — the certainty that there was greatness in there, but also much excess. (The movie is a lot to digest in one viewing, but possibly less than meets the eye, like some overheated calzone that deflates the moment you stick your fork into it.) This was Cannes after all, where critical lines are drawn in the sand in the 10 to 15 minutes following a film’s premiere and rarely retreated from, where the pressure to instantaneously proclaim a film either masterpiece or disasterpiece (when most are, in fact, neither) is immense. And there could be no question that Von Trier, a consistent Cannes presence for two decades now, had been seduced by that hothouse atmosphere, by the desire to provoke first and ask questions later.

Shot (like Dancer in the Dark) in widescreen digital video, inside a cavernous Copenhagen sound stage, Dogville tells the story of a beautiful fugitive named Grace (Kidman), who finds solace in the titular Rocky Mountain town while fleeing from angry mobsters. The movie is about how Grace is first embraced, then exploited by the citizens of Dogville — how she becomes a scapegoat for their own moral shortcomings, a receptacle for their deep-set bitterness toward their neighbors. And taking place as it does, on a chalk-outlined set, with just a few select props roughed in for effect, Dogville becomes a Brechtian hybrid of Our Town and High Noon, a potent unraveling of the myth of small-town America and its benevolent, red-white-and-blue values. But Dogville is also an unraveling of cinema, of all the aesthetic comforts by which, Von Trier would argue, most movies deceive us. (A distinctly Bressonian notion, albeit one that Bresson was able to convey in half the running time and with far less self-aggrandizement.) It is, in its way, the end of cinema as we know it — something Von Trier has been hinting at ever since fathering the infamous Dogme movement back in the mid-1990s. No matter that, even in what some considered the weakest Cannes lineup in history, there were reasons not to give up on movies just yet.

One of those reasons was a marvelous film called Uzak, the third by Turkish writer-director-. cinematographer-editor Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Set mostly in an Istanbul apartment, where a jaded photographer (Muzaffer Ozdemir) plays host to his country-mouse cousin (Mehmet Emin Toprak, who died in an auto accident shortly after learning of Uzak’s Cannes acceptance), the film is a slow and meditative rumination on a wonderful idea — the way you can come to feel distant from your own life, as though you were watching it (like a cinema spectator) from outside your body, unsure of whether you had made of it what you were supposed to (or, in fact, anything purposeful at all).

At the other end of the spectrum, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, with its Hollywood production values and vivacious star turns (by the likes of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon), ran counter to the stark minimalism of most of its Cannes competitors and, by the time it screened, on the festival’s second-to-last morning, was that much more welcome a reprieve. Offering its own story of murder and deceit set against a superficially idyllic, tight-knit community (in this case, the middle-class Irish-Catholics of suburban Boston), this is Eastwood’s stirring, operatic Dogville — more baroque than Brechtian — and one of the septuagenarian icon’s strongest films.

And then there was Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, a cross-country road movie in which the cult actor-director (who also produced, shot and edited) appears in every scene, doing very little other than driving a cargo van down a two-lane blacktop stretching from New Hampshire to California, before receiving a lengthy on-screen blowjob from Chloë Sevigny — the movie’s literal and figurative climax. No movie was more of a lightning rod for audience discontent or more fashionable to heckle. At the screening I attended, satiric applause erupted following a long scene in which Gallo gets out of his van, removes a sweater from his suitcase, puts on the sweater and then gets back in the van — that having been this movie’s equivalent of a high-speed car chase. Bounding down the steps of the Palais des Festivals afterward, a fuming Roger Ebert proclaimed to a French television crew that The Brown Bunny was the worst film ever screened at Cannes. (Which, when you think about it, is about as showboating a gesture as giving yourself an onscreen blowjob.) But that’s harsher treatment than Gallo or the movie deserves. Of course The Brown Bunny is narcissistic in a big, Warholian way. But somewhere in there — in Gallo’s wolfish jowl and trancelike gaze, in his triumphant fetishization of 1970s fashion and filmmaking — is a disquieting study of loss, not just of the girlfriend (Sevigny) Gallo’s character pines for, but of a stonewashed, pre-digital landscape (the movie is all roadside diners and fleabag motels) that, for Gallo, represents some private, vanishing American freedom.

Still, better The Brown Bunny any day than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a thinly veiled fictionalization of the Columbine High School shootings that was the most reprehensible, blood-boiling movie I saw in Cannes. Borrowing the title (and a few formal devices) from Alan Clarke’s superb 1989 telefilm (itself inspired by the Troubles in Northern Ireland), Elephant transposes the minimalist style of Van Sant’s previous Gerry on to the fluorescent-lit hallways and freshly waxed floors of the Portland, Oregon, high school where Van Sant (who also takes screenplay credit) shot the largely improvised film. The result is a repugnant act of pedantry, purporting to hold the audience’s nose up to the ugly spectacle of adolescent alienation and the root causes of school violence, only to end up reinforcing every bogus stereotype propagated in Columbine’s histrionic media aftermath. Of course, the two brooding kids in dark trench coats — the ones who play violent video games (when they’re not playing solemn renditions of “Fur Elise” on the piano) — end up the ones who blow their teachers and classmates to smithereens, just as the three girls who fit our cliché of image-obsessed, anorexic cheerleaders turn out to be exactly that. Because for Van Sant, who can’t see the forest for the trees (and doesn’t much seem to want to), Columbine is the rule and not the exception; it’s every last high school in Anytown, USA.

Having stampeded over the Cannes jury to claim both the Palme d’Or and the Best Director prizes, Elephant seems like something that will be in our living rooms for a long time to come, though the movie is as ersatz in what it has to say about American violence as anything people objected to in Dogville. Yet it’s the notoriously travelphobic Von Trier (and not Van Sant) who has thus far been vilified in the American press for his naive observations of “our” culture, for daring to make a movie about the USA without ever setting foot on “our” soil. Understandable perhaps, given that so many journalists came to Cannes seeking signs of anti-Americanism to validate our own freedom-fries Francophobia: Dogville was the big, easy target that Elephant should have been. Evidently Van Sant, riding on Michael Moore’s coattails, is allowed to say things about America that a Dane cannot.