Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Moore from Cannes

I'm still finding commentary about Cannes that I feel like sharing. The latest bit comes from LA Weekly, though I was referred to it by Alter-Net.

In his article, LA Weekly critic John Powers says the Golden Palm-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 "was clearly not the best movie at the 57th Cannes Film Festival."

That distinction, writes Powers, belonged to 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 has 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 LA, 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 US, 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."

I'm jumbling Powers' article up to suit my needs. There's a few more gems that I want to preserve. Powers talked about the presence of Americans at the festival, which are welcomed, even though American films didn't do that well, with the exception of Fahrenheit.

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.

Powers continues:

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 (LA) 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 US 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.

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.

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