Beggar’s banquet. – Cannes Review 2001

Beggar’s banquet. – Cannes Review 2001 – movie review

Mary Corliss

Early in Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, there is a fantastical and poignant image. An airplane flies over the tents of a Red Cross station in the Afghani desert, and the sky is suddenly filled with parachutes, each carrying a primitive artificial leg. Below, on the sand, dozens of legless men — their limbs lost to the land mines that are the residue of years of war in Afghanistan — hobble on crutches, desperately racing to retrieve one of the coveted prostheses.

People will do anything for what they think they need, and this applies even when the goal is much more trivial than a synthetic limb. All propriety vanished as journalists at the 54th Cannes Film Festival surged to get seats at the sole press screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love. Curses in many different languages were shouted in the crush before the lights went down; it was as if the U.N. General Assembly had turned into a soccer-match brawl.

Such is the ravenous appetite for good films possessed by those who love them. The past two festivals served up such delicacies as Almodovar’s All About My Mother, and Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Cannes 2001 offered little of comparable quality, but there was plenty to go around for famished cinephiles.

Cannes had an unusually high number of quality films in what might be called the “realities” category — films that, like Kandahar, attempted a form of reportage from the world’s trouble spots. Makmalbaf’s compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, for example, submitted a documentary, A.B.C. Africa, based on a series of visits to Kampala, Uganda, where the twin plagues of AIDS and famine have created 1,500,000 orphans. In one sequence the camera reveals a nurse fashioning a cardboard box into a dead child’s makeshift coffin to be strapped to a bicycle. Outside on the village streets, survivors in their “I Love NY” and Eric Clapton T-shirts smile for Kiarostami and his crew; they are clearly bewitched by these visitors and their digital cameras. The film has many touching vignettes, but one has the feeling that the director, instead of confronting the enormity of the issue, settled for taking pictures of beautiful children smiling under impossible burdens.

Where some directors retreat from dreadful issues, others embrace them. Such was the stance of Danis Tanovic in his stark, dark, and funny drama No Man’s Land, the first official entry from Bosnia, and the winner of the Cannes jury’s Best Screenplay award. The film takes place mostly in a trench along the Serbian-Bosnian border, where two soldiers, one from each side, first try to kill each other, then rely on each other to stay alive. Meanwhile, members of the U.N. peacekeeping force offer their blundering help. This is a brilliant, bitter depiction of the futility of war in a fratricidal land where, as one soldier ruefully notes, the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that “a pessimist thinks things couldn’t be worse; an optimist knows they can’t be.” For another soldier, the good news is that he is alive. The bad news is that he is lying on a land mine. If he moves, he’ll be blown to bits.

Tanovic’s achievement is to keep his cool with a fatally explosive situation, Nanni Moretti’s triumph in The Son’s Room (La Stanza del figlio), which took the Palme d’Or, is to bring gravity and tact to a more intimate atrocity: the sudden death of one’s child. Moretti plays a psychiatrist with a loving wife and two attractive kids. The family seems, and is, ideal — almost too perfect for an imperfect world. When the teenage son is killed in a dividing accident, the three survivors must face not only the human loss, but the end of a domestic idyll that they had come to take for granted. Moretti, best known for his autobiographical film, Caro Diario, occasionally succumbs to the lures of melodrama and sentimentality, but he manages to make almost every difficult moment wrenching and true.

Death by misadventure is a frequent element in Joel and Ethan Corn’s dark comedies. There are a few murders — the last one committed by the state of California — in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a noirish tale of a dyspeptic barber (the splendidly blank Billy Bob Thornton) who falls into a web of intrigue and, like almost everyone else in this small town, suffers for the crime of being born and being there. The barber and his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (James Gandolfini) are the walking dead long before fate deals them a losing hand. They are small people with smudged souls, but how handsomely they are posed in the blacks, whites, and pearly grays of Roger Deakins’ cinematography — and how elegantly the Corns plot their shabby characters’ discomfort. The film deservedly earned the jury’s Best Director prize, which it shared with David Lynch’s equally fetching noir exercise Mulholland Drive.

At Cannes this year, the opposite of death was not life but sex. Many films played out the tensions between and within their characters in scenes of graphic sensuality. While nothing quite matched Baise-moi in bleakness or brutality, several filmmakers stepped boldly up to the brink of transgression. Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste), a tale of amour that couldn’t be more fou, included a few snippets of hardcore action (the main character, played by Isabelle Huppert, frequents a sex shop) and a suggestion of genital self-mutilation. Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer (Le Pornographe), in which a retired porn director (Jean-Pierre Leaud) takes on an assignment to get out of debt and comes face to face with middle-aged obsolescence, contained hardcore scenes, though they were necessary to show the director’s inability to maintain an artistic vision in an increasingly debased medium.

Two American pictures employed sex or copious nudity to make their metaphorical points. Todd Solondz’s Storytelling comprises two segments on the writer-director’s favorite theme: how the weak endure being tortures by the strong. The longer segment, in which a wannabe indie filmmaker shoots a documentary about a high-school student (Mark Webber)and his parents, makes predictable points about media exploitation of family frailties. The shorter episode is a rough gem about a distinguished novelist/creative writing professor (Robert Wisdom) who exercises his dominance by engaging his students in demeaning sex. But one undergrad (Selma Blair)takes the abuse more or less in stride — afterward, she asks her professor, “Do you want to hear my short story now?”

Human Nature, amateurishly directed by Michel Gondry, is a strained, manic parable of a wild child (Rhys Ifans) who is “socialized” by a repressed scientist (Tim Robbing) and then liberated by the latter’s erstwhile fiancee (Patricia Arquette). As in writer Charlie Kaufman’s previous script, Being John Malkovich, the ripe imagination goes rotten long before the end; here, indeed, it never gets to bear fruit. And without getting clinical, let’s just say that Ifans and Arquette are not the first two actors you might want to see au naturel.

The Chinese take a more delicate tack. Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu tells of a one-night stand between two men — an older businessman and a young student — that grows into a testy friendship. They have various ups and downs against the backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolt, then split up and meet again ten years later, negotiating a tentative truce. The volatile situation is handled with subtlety and craft — and boldness, considering Kwan shot the film clandestinely in Beijing when the Mainland authorities declined to approve the project. Outside the official festival in the market, Yonfan’s Peony Pavilion, a period tale of the love between two women in a Noble House in Suzhou, is a feast of beautiful music, design, and, not least, femininity. The leading actresses, Rie Miyazawa and Joey Wong, play a couple who are forbidden by their own propriety to act out the love they feel with every breath. What other directors need to depict through explicit sex Yonfan shows with longing glances and an erotic wistfulness, as sweet and pungent as opium smoke.

Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette are two French masters who have often spiced their unique and challenging films with charismatic actresses, lovingly directed and photographed. Nearly a half-century after they first rubbed shoulders in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, they both had films in the Cannes competition: Godard’s In Praise of Love (Eloge de l’amour) and Rivette’s Va savoir.

The Godard is in two parts, the first set in the present (shot in luminous black-and-white), the second two years earlier (in garish digital color). In the first, a producer talks of making a film about the four stages of a love affair: the meeting, the physical passion, the separation, and the reunion. For some people, there may be a fifth phase — the forgetting — but not for Godard. He remembers it all: every piquant quote from every book he’s read, every frame of celluloid he’s seen, and every bit of rancor he nurses about certain movie people (this time, especially, Steven Spielberg). But as he offers snapshots of his own resentments, Godard never loses track of the big picture. In one scene, two old men discuss the turn of two centuries. One says that, a hundred years from now, we may find our time as ridiculous as we now find the year 1900. Yes, his friend says, “But perhaps also as charming.” Godard, here as in Breathless, is an archaeologist of the ridiculous and the charming, for today and forever.

In the second portion, an old couple, veterans of the French Resistance, are wooed by American producers to sell the rights to their life story — their memories — to a film company. Godard is, of course, on the old folks’ side; he is 70 now, and for decades he has been a member of the cinema resistance — at times, it seems, the only member. He can now rail against tendencies he once championed, like the thoughtful exploitation of beautiful women; “Today in films,” one of the old folks says, “girls must undress and roll all over their lovers.” Yet the film, in its rigor and vigor, attests to Godard’s undiminished affection for the cinema. He ends this elegy-eulogy with a quote from one of the letters of Saint Augustine: “The measure of love is to love without measure.”

Rivette’s Va savoir (Who Knows) is a love letter to the theater: it is set in the milieu of a theater company performing a play in Paris, and frequently refers to the works of Carlo Goldoni (comedies of manners) and Luigi Pirandello (dramas that question identity and reality). More precisely, the film is a hymn to the theatricality implicit in most love affairs: their deceptive art and sweet fraudulence. Six characters engage in a game of love; they play hide-and-seek with comely strangers, rekindle old passions, flirt with emotional danger and, as if in a minuet, end up with their original partners. At two-and-a-half hours, Va savoir is like a leisurely dinner filled with good conversation, a soupcon of intrigue, and a tableful of attractive companions. The cast is led by Jeanne Balibar, whose sinewy, intelligent features ideally express Rivette’s capricious theme: the drama of erotic possibility.

Yet for all the breadth of flesh, all the depth of sexual penetration, the most sensuous image in a Cannes film this year was one that revealed very little, and said so much: the eye and mouth of a woman as seen through the hole in a curtain that separates her from the medical man who is examining her. We are back in Kandahar, and the woman who has come to the man’s hovel is not allowed to speak to him, or even, officially, listen — a child must repeat his diagnostic questions. The doctor, a black American (played with grave power by Hassan Tantai), has no medical degree, but he is there to help a people eviscerated by famine. “They don’t need a doctor here,” he says bitterly. “They need a baker.” Even he is enslaved by the Taliban’s religious decrees: he can’t grow a full beard, so he must paste one on or risk death.

Kandahar takes the form of a chase movie. Nafas (Niloufar Pazira), an educated Afghan woman, working in Canada, has three days to get into the ravaged country, trek nearly 300 miles across the arid plains, and rescue her sister. She travels incognito with a displaced family, teams up with a desperately cunning boy (Sadou Teymouri), and exhausts every wile to save her sister’s life. David Lean might have turned this admirable figure into a desert heroine, a Florence of Afghanistan. But Makhmalbaf knows that for now, in a land run by Taliban fanatics, there is no savior, no hope for a triumphant ending. An honest filmmaker can only document the suffering. And that he does, with the urgency of a journalist back from the front and the skill of a poet of the cinema.

But the most lasting image of this beautiful film is the spirit behind the burka’s shroud. As the “doctor” gets partial glimpses of his patient’s face, the camera reveals the shackled strength of Afghan women: the eyes that see so much through the pinpricks of the burka, the mouth that dares not speak of the most heinous injustice. Makhmalbaf has done her, and all oppressed women, a great service. He has shown us the horrors she sees; he has cried out so that the world may listen.

Mary Corliss is an assistant curator in the Department of Film and Video at the Museum of Modern Art.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group