Times Change

in 57th Cannes Film Festival

by David Robinson

Once upon a time, dear children, when most of those now writing about movies were still in high school., there was a regulation, strictly observed, that festivals should not show films that were in any way critical of participant nations. The 1979 Berlin Festival was even closed down when the Soviet bloc protested against the screening of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter.

Times change. At Cannes 2004 no festival regulations defended the United States – or at least its current administration – against attack from every side. The vanguard of the assault was, of course, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the first documentary to win the Palme d’or since Le Monde du Silence in 1956; and winner too of the FIPRESCI award for the main competition. Those who attempted to quibble over its aesthetic qualities, or compare it with Bowling for Columbine, were missing the point. Its unchallenged supremacy is that it exists – that it takes film to a new level as political weapon, as a force for propaganda, enlightenment and attack not even excelled by the agit-prop heroics of the early Soviet cinema.

Of course Moore’s argument is one-sided – that is the nature of warfare – but he assembles his evidence with deadly effect. His targets condemn themselves with their own words and faces. – Bush on the golf course in the early days of his presidency; gazing stupefied into a kindergarten book on receiving the news of 9/11; preening himself for the tv cameras before announcing the launch of his Iraq adventure; or the senators nonplussed when Moore asks them politely if they would send their own sons into the war.

Moore’s hard documentary evidence is still more devastating in its revelation of lies, deceptions and corruption at the very top. Immediately after 9/11 all flights were grounded – excepting for a special plane, authorised by the White House, to evacuate privileged friends from the Saudi oil elite, including 25 members of the Bin Laden family. Bush’s military records, as obligingly released by the White House, had names and phrases blacked out: Moore has found a virgin version, revealing how deep-rooted is the politico-commercial cronyism of the regime. He analyses with deadly conviction how Bush’s vaunted “War on Terrorism” is itself a terror-tactic, an instrument for the time-honoured technique of subjugation by fear – McCarthy tricked the American public in similar style half a century ago.

The film is, as it should be, primarily aimed at the American public. Moore wastes no time on the bit players like Blair and Berlusconi. In the second half of the film he shifts his appeal from minds to hearts, as he asks directly how cynical and corrupt is an administration that will knowingly sacrifice thousands of young men to a lie and a failed opportunist adventure?

The 57th Cannes Festival laid an unusual emphasis upon documentary. Patricio Guzman’s exemplary eulogy to Salavador Allende incidentally offered a historical indictment of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. Ambassador of those times coolly recalls Richard Nixon’s hatred of the Chilean “son-of-a-bitch” and the sustained and finally successful efforts of the CIA to effect the fall of the Allende era, and make way for seventeen years of tyranny. Malign U.S. intervention was also to result in the death – and in American terms unplanned apotheosis – of Ernesto Che Guevara, an early and formative episode of whose life is the theme of Walter Salles’ warm and likeable Diarios de Motocicleta. In 1952, the 24-year-old Guevara, in company with a fellow-medico, Alberto Granado (still living, flourishing, and present for the festival screening), set out on a tour of South America which was to be crucial to both men’s political and social formation.

A Franco-American co-production, Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino shifted the attack to economics and culture. Poorly constructed but compelling, it demonstrated how the global expansion of the Californian wine industry is swallowing up European vineyards and (according to the Old World view) industrialising and thereby corrupting this particular and ancient aspect of world culture. The cultural attack was extended and sharpened in Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria … New York. Often naïve and clumsy in its soap-opera anecdote about the encounter of an Egyptian theatre director and the American son he has never met (the illegitimate offspring of a liaison with a former college sweetheart) it still offers some a sharp commentary on the contrast between New and Old World cultures and the resistance and disdain of ordinary America faced with alien civilizations. The film’s distinct assets included a versatile and promising performance by the young dancer Ahmed Yehia, and an engagingly unsubtle theme song, “New York – why do you spurn tenderness”.

There was further attack from within, in Niels Mueller The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Derivative (not least from Taxi Driver), apparently based on a real incident, and with a self-consciously show-piece performance by Sean Penn, the film related the growing mental turmoil of an honest man driven to madness by the pervading corruption of an earlier U.S. regime. Meanwhile, on the lighter side, Terry Zwigoff’s black and joyously politically incorrect comedy Bad Santa (shown out of competition) subverted a national institution, the American Christmas commerce.

There is a world outside America. The festival’s opening film was Pedro Almodovar’s gay soap opera La Mala Educacion dealt with child abuse by Catholic clergy, though these concerns seemed somewhat secondary to the florid tale and mise-en-scene. The film was however a tribute to the versatility of Gael Garcia Bernal, turning surprisingly from Almodovar’s flaunting trans-sexual to the modest, subtly developed Che Guevara of Walter Salles’ film. Child abuse of a different kind featured again in Ousmane Sembene Moolaadé (Un Certain Regard), a vigorous drama about a group of magnificent village women battling the tradition of female circumcision.

Several directors mpressed by their sheer style. Zhang Yimou House of the Flying Daggers (out of competiton) carries the martial arts film to new heights of invention and choreographic marvels; while succeeding in sustaining a story of high romantic intensity. The script award to Agnes Jaoui’s Comme une Image seemed inadequate recognition of a first film of such global accomplishment, in its portrayal of a group of ordinarily unfulfilled characters in the entourage of its unlikely young heroine (Marilou Berry) – plain, overweight and resentfulof everyone. Paolo Sorrentino’s Le Conseguenze d’amore was a stylistic exercise both in performance and mise-en-scène in its story of a reclusive man whose deep secret is a doomed invovlvement with the Mafia. Apichatpong Weerasethakul Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady), winter of the Jury prize, is strange and magical in its metamorphosis of the love affair of a young soldier and a country boy into a mythical tale of ghostly wild beasts in the unfathomable forest. Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Daremo Shiranai (Nobody Knows) is frustratingly inconsequential in its account of four of siblings abandoned by their single mother, and left it the courageous but finally defeated care of the 12-year-old senior brother. The Best Actor award to the extraordinary 14-year-old protagonist, Yashiga Yuuya, was not surprising.

Other major films on show were disappointing, or at least debatable. Emir Kusturica’s Zivot je Cudo (Life is a Miracle) seemed to follow his old formulas, while failing to come to grips with the reality of 90s Bosnia. Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy was a gratuitously nasty and fatally illogical revenge melodrama. Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 with all its mystifications, was a distinct disappointment after the 2000 In the Mood for Love.

The section “Un Certain Regard” was this year exceptional for its debut features. Nimrod Antal’s Kontroll, a dazzlingly original and stylish horror-comic fantasy of life among the ticket controllers of the Budapest underground railway, incidentally affords a sharp, cross-section glimpse of contemporary Hungarian socio-moral attitudes. A first film from Scotland, Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie tempers sentiment with a more caustic flavour in its story of a single mother’s attempts to create a fictitious father figure for her deaf-mute son. From Australia, Cate Shortland’s Somersault features an outstanding performance by Abbie Cornish as a teenage girl, tormented by sexual curiosity and experiencing an often brutal initiation. Guka Omarova’s Schizo chronicles the perilous existence of a young boy in Kazakhstan in the early 1990s. A second film by the Uruguayan duo of Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, following their 2001 collaboration on 25 Watts, Whisky is a minimalist comedy, whose poker-faced characters recall the best of Kaurismaki. The story follows the adventures that ensue when a depressed Jewish sock-manufacturer has his fore-woman masquerade as his wife, to impress his more successful brother. One of the few debut features in competition, Hans Weingartner De Fetten Jahre sind vorbei was generally liked for its treatment of three young people trying to retrieve the revolutionary idealism of the sixties and seventies.