The French wanted the 50th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival to be a most glittering and radiant event - a festival to outshine all festivals.
So fireworks filled the skies over yachts in the harbor, and festival organizers arranged for the presence of the King of Entertainment - Michael Jackson himself - to accompany the midnight premiere of his new 40-minute music video "Ghosts."Even the jury for this year's film competition seemed to outglisten any previous festival. Presided over by French actress Isabelle Adjani, the panel included such notables as China's most famous actress Gong Li ("Raise the Red Lantern"), America's recent Academy Award-winner Mira Sorvino ("Mighty Aphrodite"), acclaimed writer Michael Ondaatje ("The English Patient"), novelist Paul Auster ("Smoke"), Italian actor/director Nanni Moretti ("Caro Diario") and British director Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies"), among others.
So it was all arranged.
The crowds came by the thousands, swelling the tiny streets of this French Riviera beach town to capacity. Even the weather complied so that, except for a rainy afternoon or two, the stars shown above just as filmdom's stars sparkled among the throngs of fans below. Glitterati such as Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and John Travolta could be glimpsed ascending the red-carpeted steps into the festival film palace.
What no one had counted on, however, were the shockingly disappointing films.
Beginning with the festival opener, "The Fifth Element," France's own attempt at a world-class blockbuster, reactions of viewers and critics alike were less than lukewarm. Still, despite the general consensus that it's a silly movie with a few ho-hum special effects, since its premiere at Cannes, "The Fifth Element" has been opening to massive crowds all around the world.
The competition was filled with relatively big names - Marco Bellochio, Wim Wenders, Ang Lee, Francesco Rosi, Atom Egoyan, Youssef Chahine, Shohei Imamura, etc. And to offset the names of lesser-known directors among the 21 films in competition, it would appear that the planners tried to include filmmakers who at least sounded big - thus giving slots in the main competition to such first-time directors as actors Johnny Depp and Gary Oldman, and even a berth for Nick Cassavetes, whose late father John has come to symbolize the now highly revered "independent" film movement.
But disappointments continued all around. Bellochio's "Prince of Homburg" turned out not to be the kind of "sleeper" that proves more significant than expected, but a literal "dozer" in that Heinrich Von Kleist's acclaimed literary work never quite comes to life on the screen.
Wim Wenders' "End of Violence," concerning a producer of violent films (Bill Pullman) who is not only abandoned by his wife (Andie MacDowell) but is kidnapped by two hit men, introduces a number of intellectually stimulating ideas but fails to do much with them. Unlike his earlier festival favorites, "Paris, Texas" and "Wings of Desire," Wenders' "End of Violence" vacillates uneasily between farce and pretentiousness.
Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility") seems to be aiming less at world-class art than Hollywood entertainment as he brings Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver together in a family melodrama called "The Ice Storm," in which "normal" families in the spouse-swapping '70s suburbs are pulled together by an accidental death.
Francesco Rosi's "The Truce," with John Turturro, is based on Primo Levi's personal recollections of the Holocaust, which unfortunately results in just a series of already-familiar incidents with no new insights, thus leaving us relatively uninvolved and unmoved.
Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" from Canada focuses on the aftermath of a school-bus accident in which most of the children of a small community were killed. Though well done, its relentless bleakness becomes almost unbearably heavy and the ending is ambiguous.
Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's "Destiny," a costume epic set in the 12th century, has a startlingly '50s feel to it, with characters breaking into song and dance at odd moments.
Imamura's "Unaqi" ("The Eye") isn't bad, but the seriousness of a film about a man who has killed his wife dissolves into slapstick in the closing scenes, leaving the audience puzzled about the tone.
It was in director Abbas Kiarostami's favor that the Iranian government held up his "Taste of Cherry" until the very last moment, causing it to be dropped from the competition then squeezed back in just before the festival ended. I predicted that it would be a winner since I'd seen similar things happen at Cannes in the past, both with "Yol" from Turkey and "Man of Marble" from Poland. Cannes loves films that are either smuggled in or somehow manage at the final moment to eke past political barriers.
And true to form, Adjani and her jury did award the Palme d'Or (The Golden Palm) to the Iranian film - a low-key meditation on a man trying to find someone to help him commit suicide - which split top honors with Japan's "The Eel."
And were the prizes just? Given the choices, maybe so. Since masterpieces were conspicuously absent this year and since none of the contenders even remotely resembled a clear-cut winner, perhaps "A Taste of Cherry" and "The Eel" were as good as any.
But two observations did seem obvious:
- Unlike the Academy Award voters who never have contact as a group, the Cannes jury does meet, discuss and deliberate its choices, which usually allows awards to be spread around, deliberately avoiding the kind of "sweep" we can get at the Oscars with just one film such as "The English Patient."
That was clearly the case this year with Japan and Iran sharing the Palm d'Or, the United States winning best screenplay for Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," "Happy Together" winning Best Director for China, Canada's "Sweet Hereafter" awarded a "Grand Prize" and the appealing road comedy from France garnering a special "Jury Prize," and so on. (And if Chahine's Egyptian epic was not found worthy of a major prize itself, the jury still found an award for him, as producer of "the best ensemble of work" over the years!)
- The other observation is that, despite an apparent attempt to award something to almost everything, this year's jury chose to ignore films featuring excessive violence (except for individual acting awards).
Not only was Wenders' "End of Violence" not acknowledged, but so too were America's stylish and not unlikable film noir "L.A. Confidential" as well as Great Britain's war picture "Welcome to Sarajevo."
Most conspicuously absent from the award list were France's own "Assassins," which, though brilliantly acted, was a devastating look at an aging hit man training a younger man to take over his job (with that boy in turn training a 14-year-old), and Germany's "Funny Games," in which the title refers to two boys invading a summer cottage and torturing and finally murdering a vacationing family.
The presence of violence was keenly felt throughout the festival as a whole, but its absence from the awards seemed to indicate a message that, finally, enough is certainly more than enough.
And how were the films by new young directors received?
Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth," terribly titled and brutal and depressing in its depiction of a dysfunctional family caught up in drugs, alcohol and physical abuse, was by far the best of all - and won the best actress award for Kathy Burke.
Nick Cassavetes' badly misnamed "She's So Lovely" won the best actor award for Sean Penn, though the film, based on a screenplay written by Cassavetes' late father, would, in my estimation, have been best left unfilmed. It does more to diminish both Cassavetes' careers than enhance them.
As for Johnny Depp's "The Brave," an embarrassing film with hardly an honest moment, it was the least-liked film in competition, and despite the presence of Marlon Brando in a cameo role, the audience literally booed and whistled at the film's end.
Among the three secondary series of films at the Cannes Festival were some little gems that were much better than anything in the main competition. One obvious masterpiece was Great Britain's "Mrs. Brown," the story of the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Scottish horseman, superbly acted by Dame Judi Dench and a not-as-yet-known-as-he-will-be actor named Billy Connolly. Without violence or much action, this beautiful piece is one that will linger in the memory for a long long time.
Swedish actress-turned-director Liv Ullman's third film, "Private Confessions," is based on a script by Ingmar Bergman, detailing the continuation of the heartbreaking story of his parents, which was first explored in "Best Intentions" with the same two leading actors. This is human drama at its best, and those Scandinavians really know how to do it.
Finally, among the mostly shoddy movies dominating Cannes' huge film market (with such titles as "Rockabilly Vampire" and "Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills"), I happened to find an excellent new film adaptation of George Eliot's classic "The Mill on the Floss," featuring Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves"). A quality film through and through, it serves as a reminder of just how terrific good literature on film can be.
Will we ever see these films on the big screen and in mainsteam theaters? Maybe not - but watch for them on video or in art houses like Salt Lake City's Tower Theater or Brigham Young University's international cinema series.