Fahrenheit 9/11 was clearly not the best movie at the 57th Cannes Film Festival. But it was undeniably the defining film of the historical moment. And so, in a festival that will be remembered for its good humor and modest pleasures, Michael Moore’s cauldron of Bush-scalding agitprop enjoyed a visibility as oversized as the director himself. Before it had been publicly screened, his movie had already become the world’s most famous documentary.
Of course, Cannes was ripe for the plucking. The days leading to the festival had been dominated by that other spectacle — the photos from Abu Ghraib — and by the time Moore collected his Palme d’Or last Saturday, one had grown accustomed to Europe’s reflexive disdain for the Bush administration. Le Monde ran a cover cartoon of Emperor Dubya in the Coliseum watching a naked Iraqi being menaced by a huge dog wearing an army helmet and combat boots. When Specialist Jeremy Sivits pleaded guilty to abusing prisoners, a newspaper headline offered the Spielbergian swipe “Sacrificing Private Sivits.” Not to be outdone by the French, the German magazine Stern ran a cover photo of Bush accompanied by the words “Moralisch bankrott” — a verdict you don’t need a translator to understand.
For all of Europe’s hostility to Bush, I encountered none of the anti-American bitterness I had before the Iraq war. These days, visiting Americans are treated with a kind of gentle, wry sympathy; indeed, the French almost feel sorry for us. It’s now understood that we, too, are victims of a dangerously idiotic president. It’s also assumed that Bush’s great nemesis is not John Kerry but Michael Moore, who is viewed as a heroic cross between Che Guevara and Mark Twain (though I’m still waiting for his Huckleberry Finn). As one emanation of our polarized Bush Culture — the leftist entrepreneur — he has become the modern international icon of the Working Class Hero. On the festival’s first Saturday, striking entertainment-industry workers marched along the Croisette chanting, “Michael Moore! Michael Moore!” The man himself emerged from his hotel to express his solidarity with their cause. They cheered, evidently unaware that Moore’s compassion for working people notoriously stops with those who work for him.
Moore is a master of feeding foreigners’ anti-American fantasies. At Cannes, I kept meeting people who actually think that Moore is treated like an outlaw in the U.S. — “Can you get his books?” one woman asked me, blissfully oblivious that Moore’s face has become inescapable here. Naturally, he played up Disney’s refusal to let Miramax distribute the film, and the Europeans — who think we don’t know about them — ate it up, actually believing that his movie might not get exhibited in the U.S. “Why doesn’t the film have a distributor?” they’d demand, and be shocked when my fellow critics told them the truth: The real stumbling block isn’t censorship but moola. Keenly aware that Fahrenheit 9/11 is going to make a fortune, Miramax and Moore were simply doing what any CEO president like George W. Bush would encourage them to do: holding out for the best
Having pilloried Bowling for Columbine for its cheap shots and tireless self-promotion, I found Fahrenheit 9/11 surprisingly disciplined in its purpose: to defeat Bush in this fall’s election. Although still too baggy, this is not your usual Michael Moore picture. Gone are the condescending interviews with ordinary people, gone the moments when the camera grows fixated on Moore’s flabulously shambolic persona. While the movie starts out with some uproarious stuff, including a shot of Paul Wolfowitz sticking his comb in his mouth before using it to slick back his hair, it grows unexpectedly somber, becoming a scathing portrait of Bush’s response to 9/11, from the War on Terror to the invasion of Iraq. Weaving together countless facts that you probably already know, Moore doesn’t pretend to offer a groundbreaking exposé (which is what conservative critics chide it for failing to be). Rather, he presents a compelling counternarrative of the Bush presidency, an antidote to all those Republican ads you see on TV. It actually could help swing the election.
Watching Fahrenheit 9/11, I kept thinking the Democrats ought to hire him to make their spots — it’s miles better than anything the Kerry team has come up with. Moore is as good as Karl Rove at finding the lethal clip that depicts an opponent in sharp, devastating relief. At one point, we see Bush at a fund-raiser, addressing a crowd he calls “the haves and the have-mores.” As the well-heeled audience chortles, Bush adds, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”
The Democrats should play that over and over, if only to freak out the Christian Right, who foolishly believe that Bush thinks he’s beholden to them.
In the decade since Pulp Fiction nabbed the Palme d’Or, the gap dividing Cannes from Hollywood has grown ever wider, with American studios reluctant to send their best movies only to see them shunned at awards time. (This year’s offerings included such masterworks as Troy, The Ladykillers and Irwin Winkler’s Cole Porter pic, De-Lovely, of which de-less said de-better.) Although nobody likes admitting it, this is a problem for festival organizers. Cannes is clearly the world’s greatest film festival, but it still needs Hollywood star power — and money — to maintain its pre-eminence on the international publicity map.
No doubt hoping to amp up the American presence, the organizers shrewdly invited Quentin Tarantino to head the jury. And boy, did he deliver. Every camera that wasn’t on Michael Moore was aimed at Tarantino, who sauntered through the festival like a gleeful demigod. Here he was telling the press that he loved all kinds of movies, all right? There he was at the screening of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, his distinctive profile glowing like a red crescent moon in the spotlight. After that, he was bombing into a midnight party for his old Hong Kong friend Wong Kar-Wai, to congratulate him on his film 2046. (Given that the jury pointedly denied the movie any awards, their embrace takes on the retrospective aura of Michael Corleone kissing Fredo in Havana.) At the awards ceremony, Tarantino sat onstage grinning as one of the presenters, loony, big-lipped actress Beatrice Dalle, virtually offered to fellate him on the spot.
Like God’s, Tarantino’s presence was felt in all corners. Park Chan-Wook’s enjoyably hyperbolic revenge picture Old Boy, which won the Grand Prix (the second highest award), was surely put in competition only because the programmers knew this action movie would be to Tarantino’s taste. Almost literally: In Old Boy’s most memorably cool scene, the great Korean star Choi Min-Sik eats an octopus — alive.
Under new artistic director Thierry Frémaux, Cannes has begun retooling itself for an era in which audiences no longer give a damn about auteur cinema. Over the years, the competition had come to resemble an elephant’s graveyard in which big names like Bertolucci churned out duds that stole the attention from more deserving young talent. This year, Frémaux decided to give fresh faces a shot, and while they didn’t produce any masterpieces, almost every day produced a real treat: Lucretia Martel’s La Niña Santa, a wickedly sharp Argentine film about teenage girls that plays like an Almodóvar melodrama reworked by Chekhov; Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s seductively hypnotic Tropical Malady, which starts out like a Thai version of a Sundance gay film, then abruptly turns into a magical tale about the erotic bond between a soldier and a tiger; Whisky, a deadpan Uruguayan comedy with humor as dry as an alkie’s tongue; and Woman Is the Future of Man, by the Korean director Hong Sang-Soo, which sketches a portrait of male-female relationships so perceptive and refined (its sense of regret is almost Flaubertian) that many viewers thought nothing was happening.
Still, as my Weekly colleague Scott Foundas was first to point out, the irony of the decision to knock most big-name auteurs from the competition was that, this year, some of them delivered. Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique is a marvel of lucidity and wit (it conceives of heaven as being guarded by U.S. Marines), and Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé was one of the festival’s two or three best films. Although it sounds like the world’s worst date movie — an African drama about genital mutilation — the 81-year-old Senegalese master portrays village life with novelistic richness, transforming a nightmarish topic into an affirmative tale of women triumphing over abuse. In fact, its conclusion is so upbeat that a friend suggested, only half-jokingly, that Moolaadé could be turned into a Broadway musical, perhaps starring Queen Latifah.
After Fahrenheit 9/11, the hottest ticket was Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. The canny British critic Derek Malcolm, who annually runs a book on the results, had initially made it the favorite for the Palme d’Or. All that changed when 2046 wasn’t ready for its first scheduled showing. Suddenly, the sacred Cannes programme had to be rearranged. Scandale! “Stanley Kubrick had his film ready for Cannes,” one Cannes insider told me. “Erich von Stroheim did not ask for more time. Does Wong Kar-Wai think he is greater than Kubrick and von Stroheim?” I doubt it. But he sure pissed people off.
It’s too bad, for 2046 is one of the most beautiful and entertaining works of Wong’s career, a dreamy, nostalgic sequel to In the Mood for Love. Now wearing a Clark Gable mustache, Tony Leung again plays Chow, whose unrequited love for Maggie Cheung in the last film has turned him into a cad, a ladykiller torn between his yearning to recapture the love he’s lost and a romantic sadism that’s all the more insidious because he smiles so sweetly. My favorite scenes at this year’s festival came in Leung’s erotic byplay — first delightful, then cruel — with the beautiful young Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger fame, who startled everyone with her passionate, heartbreaking performance. Although some critics accuse Wong’s movies of looking like fashion ads, this misses the point. His great brilliance is to create the slickest, most beautiful surfaces — gorgeous sets, exquisite photography, ravishing actors — and make this seemingly perfect world ache with all the painful melancholy its beauty contains but can’t properly express. For all his Western-seeming stylishness, Wong is profoundly Chinese.
While Zhang Ziyi was the film’s great revelation, 2046 also provided the sheer pleasure of watching Tony Leung, who moves with perfect grace, uses the camera to capture the most delicate effects and (take note, Sean Penn) understands that the most powerful gestures are often the quietest: He turns Chow’s tiniest smile into a lethal weapon. Not only does Leung have the chameleon genius of a great character actor — you should race online to get a DVD of his dazzling work in Infernal Affairs — he’s one of the world’s greatest movie stars, with all the casual glamour that implies.
Heading back to L.A., I bumped into Leung at the Nice airport, where he sat in a zippered tennis sweater, so completely unobtrusive that one barely noticed he was there. But once we began talking, he turned on his effortless charisma, flashing that sweet smile, fixing me with a gaze that made me feel I was the only person in the waiting room and, like Bill Clinton,
repeatedly touching my arm to give our connection human intimacy. No wonder he’s been involved with Hong Kong’s most beautiful actresses. Leung may be the most watchable movie star in the world today, and when I asked why he still hadn’t made any movies in the U.S., he smiled and said he hadn’t found anything he really wanted to do. You could tell he felt that he didn’t need it.
Each year before the awards ceremony, the media subject the jury to the kind of labyrinthine speculations one associates with scholars of the Illuminati. One hears rumors of conspiracies, death-dance bickering, decades-old scores finally being settled by a quietly malicious backroom vote. Would Tarantino really push through a Palme for Old Boy, which resembled a Tarantino movie but wasn’t nearly as good? (“That,” one producer grumbled, “would be a catastrophe for international cinema.”) Did he have it in him to honor Agnes Jaoui’s Woody Allen–ish Look at Me, an unrepentantly bourgeois comedy that was the competition’s most universally liked film (except by the repentant bourgeoisie)?
When the decisions were finally announced, such questions felt silly. For all his many gifts — I’ve celebrated them in these pages — Tarantino has wretched taste, and his jury’s selections proved a fatuous mishmash. It gave Special Jury Prizes to Irma P. Hall in The Ladykillers (remember her moaning about her piles?) and the Thai film Tropical Malady, a daily double that trivialized both winners by making the awards seem preposterously arbitrary. It gave the Best Director prize to quasi-talented Tony Gatlif for Exiles, a film even his handful of admirers didn’t like. It named Maggie Cheung Best Actress for Clean, though she wasn’t nearly as good as Zhang Ziyi, and gave Best Actor to Yuuya Yagira, a 14-year-old, anime-faced Japanese kid. Tarantino announced each of these choices with the braying cockiness that Europeans love in their American primitives.
Several days earlier, born contrarian Godard had remarked that Fahrenheit 9/11 could actually help Bush get re-elected. Watching the awards ceremony turn into an orgy of political self-congratulation, you got his point. The runner-up for Best Short Film, a faux-naive Belgian pipsqueak, cunningly upstaged the gracious Romanian winner, Catalin Mitulescu, by announcing that people should oppose Bush. Tim “Prada” Roth then came out and praised the Belgian for his “bravery” in making such a statement, although attacking Bush in Cannes was about as brave as booing Shaq in Minneapolis. If I were Karl Rove, I might consider running a campaign ad showing European show-biz types showing their smug disdain for the president.
Once Moore himself finally claimed the stage, the night had come to resemble some inside-out version of a Henry James novel, filled with wide-eyed Europeans and cynical Yanks. Although nearly the entire U.S. film press opposes Bush, you could feel its collective flesh crawl when Tarantino announced Fahrenheit 9/11’s victory and Moore began hugging Harvey Weinstein, boss of the company known as “The House That Quentin Built.” The unseemly conflict of interest in all this apparently eluded the European audience (and media), which cheered Moore wildly when he told them that Cannes’ decision “will ensure that the American people see the movie,” perpetuating the big lie that they otherwise might not. Seeing smart Europeans be so embarrassingly gullible — here was a moment of corruption being treated as the triumph of high principle — I suddenly felt as jaded as one of the Borgias.