Cannes Film Fest 2004: Year 57–New Beginning (Mediocre Festival)

At first glance, the competition line-up of this year’s Festival de Cannes seemed to reflect a random blend of different genres (features and documentaries), modes (narratives and animations), and geographical regions (though Asian films dominated).

One thing was clear: Artistic director Thierry Fremaux was trying something new, after the harsh criticism of last year (the worst Cannes ever, some said). I disagreed then with that assessment, and in hindsight, find more merits than other critics in last year’s festival.

While the much-ridiculed “The Brown Bunny” (from indie director Vincent Gallo) might have been one of the worst films to be ever shown in Cannes, I admired the Turkish film “Uzak” (“Distance”), Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions”, and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River”. I also found merits in Gus Van Sant’s treatise on violence in American high schools, “Elephant”, and Lars von Trier’s Brechtian deconstruction of small-town America, “Dogville”, two films that sharply divided critics. A colleague reminded me that last year no less than five Cannes premieres were nominated for an Oscar, including the charming French animation “Triplets of Belleville”.

Which brings me to the question of what defines a good or an interesting film festival A few really strong and controversial movies, even if most of the others were weak (like last year’s edition) Or a festival like this year’s, in which the overall level of filmmaking was above average but there were no standouts. Though there were many good and decent films, there was not a single movie in competition that was truly great or artistically innovative.

Before the festival began, critics were speculating about the artistic tastes of jury president Quentin Tarantino, and how he would be inclined to favor Asian films. This proved only semi-true, when the Palme d’Or went to Michael Moore’s incendiary documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”, and the second prestigious award to the ultra-violent South Korean entry, “Old Boy”.

Several trends could be spotted in this year’s edition, trends that may go beyond the competition and perhaps even beyond Cannes; after all, the success of a festival depends on which movies are ready to be shown, and which ones are submitted.

Prominence of Asian films

About one third of the competition came from Asia, though Hou Hsio Hsien, a regular at Cannes, was not among the featured directors. There were movies from South Korea, “Old Boy” by Park Chan-wook; Japan, “Nobody Knows” from Hirokazu Kore-eda; and Thailand, “Tropical Malady”, by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Decline of Veteran Auteurs

It’s hard to tell which directors Thierry had in mind when he promised before the festival that critics would not be seeing the “same old boring auteurs.” Of the 19 films in competition, only a few were made by Cannes regulars, such as Wong Kar Wai’s romantic noir, “2046”. Whether by choice or not, two films from Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, “Five” and “10 on Ten”, were shown out of competition, and so was Zhang Yimou’s visually astonishing martial-arts film, “The House of Flying Daggers” (far superior to his previous actioner, “Hero”, which had not been released in the U.S. yet). Pedro Almodovar opted for the opening night out of competition slot, “Bad Education,” an artistic highlight of the festival.

Rumors circulated that the new film, “Vera Drake,” from Mike Leigh (a regular at Cannes and Palme d’Or winner for “Secrets & Lies”) was rejected by the programmers.

Emergence of New Generation of Filmmakers

I have not calculated the average age of the filmmakers in Cannes this year, which is not as futile exercise as it sounds, but my impression is that it’s around 40. This contrasts sharply with years that were dominated by “senior citizen” filmmakers, such as Manuel de Oliveira, Japanese Shohei Imamura, and veterans of the French New Wave, Godard and Rivette.

One of my favorite films in competition was Argentinean Lucretia Martel’s impressive sophomore, “The Holy Child” (“La Ninia Santa”), a follow- up to her Cannes-premiered “La Cienega”. A mysterious meditation on religious education and salvation from the perspective of a young precautious girl surrounded by morally ambiguous adults, “The Holy Child” is a probing coming-of-age story, set almost entirely within a hotel, where the girl’s mother works and a medical conference takes place.

In “The Consequences of Love”, Italian Paolo Sorrentino fulfilled the promised he had shown in his debut film, “One Man Up”, with a quiet, melancholy film about a married man who isolates himself from family and friends in a hotel, after a turbulent career in crime. Like “The Holy Child”, you never could guess where the tale was going or how it would end.

Reinvention Genre Films as Personal Art Works

Good genre films, cherished by American critics but underestimated by their European counterparts, such as Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” and Eastwood’s “Mystic River”, invariably leave Cannes empty-ended as far as awards are concerned. However, if this year serves as any indication, there was not only the return of the genre film, but films that were more integrated in mainstream cinema and popular culture. At least half a dozen pictures would qualify as genre items, without the stigma often attached to that concept. “Old Boy” falls into this category, as does, albeit in a very different way, the French boulevard comedy of manners, “Look at Me” (“Comme un image”), by actress-director Agnes Jaoui, who won the screenplay award.

Weakest Films in Competition:

No festival is worthy of its name if it does not show at least one ill-received or truly weak film. My choice for this year is Stephen Hopkins biopicture, “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” an HBO Films production that will probably end up on the small screen where it belongs rather than in your local multiplex. This year, there were no big scandals, no major boos (though Old Boy and Tropical Malady generated large and loud walk-outs at their press screenings). Honorable mentions to other bad films goes to the Coen brothers’ “The Ladykillers” and the German entry, “Edukators”.

Politicization of Cannes

It may not be a coincidence that two of the films in competition were documentaries with an anti-American slant: The controversial docu Fahrenheit 9/11 (see review) and Jonathan Nossiter’s “Mondovino”, an intelligent if overly long cross-cultural look at the world of wine whose best segments deal with the issue of globalization and American domination.

Two of the festival’s highlights were not included in competition but in the sidebar Certain Regard. The 81-year-old director from Senegal offered a sharp political critique with “Moolaade” (“Protection”), a stirring film about the horrors of female genital mutilation. It tells the story of a woman who refused to have her daughter mutilated and takes four girls under her protection, incurring the anger of the men, who in the name of religion use the ritual as a means of oppression. It’s the kind of engaged political cinema still practiced in Third Word countries but seldom seen in the Western world.

As always, Jean-Luc Godard’s new work, “Our Music” (“Notre Musique”), defies easy categorization. It belongs to his personal essay-films, but not as strong or lyrical as his previous Cannes entry, “In Praise of Love”. One of the shortest yet densest films in Cannes, “Our Music” offered an overtly political but mellow and less contentious (by Godard’s standards) look at the timely issue of violence and the impossibility of images and words to capture and understand the problem. The essay is divided into three parts (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory). In one of the film’s most provocative scenes, a beautiful Israeli woman who committed suicide gains entry into paradise, which is guarded by American Marines. It may be appropriate to end this essay with Godard’s reaction to a question whether he believes “small digital cameras will save cinema.” He doesn’t answer, instead shows an opaque expression on his face obscured by shadow. Go figure.

Ranking of the Competition Films*

“Clean,” Olivier Assays, Canada-France-UK B-

“Comme une image,” Agnes Jaoui, France B+ (“Look at Me”)

“Le consequenze del l’amore,” Paolo Sorrentino Italy B+ (“The Consequences of Love”)

“The Edukators,” Hans Weingartner, Germany C

“Exiles,” Tony Gatlif, France B

“Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore, US A-

“Innocence,” Mamori Oshii, Japan C

“The Ladykillers,” Joel and Ethan Coen, US C

“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” Stephen Hopkins, US-UK C

“Life Is a Miracle,” Emir Kusturica, France C+

“Mondovino,” Jonathan Nossiter, US B-

“The Motorcycle Diaries,” Walter Salles, US-UK B

“La Nina Santa,” Lucrecia Martel, Argentina A- (“The Holy Child”)

“Nobody Knows,” Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan B+

“Old Boy,” Park Chan-wook, South Korea B

“Tropical Malady,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul Thailand B

“Shrek 2,” Andrew Adamson and others, US B

“2046,” Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong B+

“Woman Is the Future of Man,” Hon Sang-soo, South Korea B

*Each of these films deserves American distribution. I’ll review them individually when they open theatrically or play in other festivals.