The Cannes Film Festival 1994
The strapless celebutante, doused in an atomic shower of paparazzi flash, scales a palatial stairway with her impossible heels and perfect smile. At the summit, she joins her seventh husband, a vaunted master of European cinema sporting an ill-fitting tuxedo. He is fondly recalling an afternoon extolling the virtues of a since-denounced Communist film bureaucrat to an enraptured Van Nuys-based creator of erotic thrillers, himself bankrupted by the two watery cappuccinos just purchased from a surly waiter who undoubtedly will have better seats than any of them for tonight’s film. All four have great tans.
An, hypocrisy, cash and glamour; this is the reputation and, to some extent, the reality of the Cannes Film Festival.
Until the late 1930s, Cannes was an unremarkable beach town on the road between Nice and St. Tropez. But when Benito Mussolini decided to convert the then-unrivalled film exposition of Venice into a fascist propaganda organ, horrified French and American film elites decided to establish a rival event on the Cote d’Azur. Interrupted occasionally since then by wars and riots, the Festival International du Film this year celebrated its 47th anniversary, safely in power as “The Queen of Festivals,” a position she fiercely defends from her infamous castle—a huge and bafflingly ugly faux-Mayan complex of cinemas and reception rooms aptly named the “Palais des Festivals.”
Perhaps the most confusing aspect of Cannes is the existence of several sections, most of which are administratively separate, that take place at the same time and compete against each other for films.
In the Official Competition, 20 to 25 major new films never before screened outside their countries of origin compete for prizes in eight categories. Films are screened once for about 2,000 accredited press, then twice for lucky or well-connected ticket holders in the immense Grand Theatre Lumiere with its huge screen and orgasmic sound quality. The second Lumiere screening is black tie only, a rule rigidly enforced to many a Californian’s chagrin.
It is here you find the heavy-hitters of world art cinema, which this year included Krzysztof Kieslowski, Zhang Yimou and Alan Parker. It can be a daunting experience, even for a festival veteran like Canada’s Atom Egoyan, in Cannes with his latest film, Exotica. “I felt a sense of excitement when the film was on screen; the sound was just incredible,” Egoyan recounts. “But there is a huge amount of pressure; you don’t want to fail in front of very important people while representing your country.” And failure can be ugly, with hundreds of chairs specially designed to thwonk as people leave during quiet scenes. Even great masters have been roasted: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Jane Campion’s Sweetie were both literally booed off the screen in years past.
Competition prizes are awarded by a jury of international film luminaries at a closing-night ceremony notorious for its bad taste. This year, Jeanne Moreau, acting as a deranged den mother to seven young French actresses/beauties/prize-givers, saw the Golden Palm (Best Film) again go to an American film, the fourth time in five years. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, an edgy, entertaining visual poem about violence and loyalty, is an obvious festival hit and a deserving winner. The consensus among a broad range of critics, however, was that the film is too long at 149 minutes; we will see if this award holds back the Miramax scissors.
Tarantino’s hip film noir edged out the more classical art epics, Nikita Mikhailkov’s Burnt by the Sun and Zhang Yimou’s To Live!, which shared the Grand Jury Prize. Acting honors went to Ge You, Chinese star of To Live! and Virna Lisi, Catherine de Medici in the bloated, disappointing French epic, La Reine Margot. Italian director Nanni Moretti scored Best Director for his charming three-part autobiography, Dear Diary.
Scandalously absent from the awards was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, the final chapter of his “Three Colours” trilogy. Easily the best film in Competition, it explores complex themes of friendship and duty and features astonishing performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Irene Jacob. Other oversights were Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime Through the Olive Trees and Edward Yang’s smart take on urban malaise, Taipei-style, A Confucian Confusion.
What Festival director Gilles Jacob considers unsuitable for Official Competition goes to Un Certain Regard, which translates rather loosely as “A Definite Perspective”—something clearly not on offer in this grab bag of world cinema. Films are placed in Un Certain Regard for a variety of reasons—too old, too small, too challenging, etc.—although its reputation as a dumping ground is fast disappearing. More and more, it is being filled by first films and seems to be a breeding ground for the Competition.
Suture directors David Seigel and Scott McGehee were thrilled with their Un Certain Regard placement. Says Seigel: “The intense spotlight of the Competition would not have been good for either Suture or us. Here we had a very successful public screening with 200–300 people turned away and the festival has taken very good care of us.” McGehee says, “it was our weirdest Q&A ever; we had done so many and had become used to a pattern around issues like co-directing, influences, black/white … but here we got questions like: ‘You changed the race of the main character, why not change his gender too?’ I think we were dealing with some very frustrated filmmakers.”
Created out of the 1968 student riots to be a subversive parallel program to the Official Competition. the Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) has definitely mellowed with age. While it still carries a reputation for discovering edgy and more difficult films, it is increasingly interested in crowd-pleasing ones. Ergo the easily digestible Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee’s family-and-food saga which opened the section, and Aki Kaurismaki’s charming but shallow look at ’60s Finland, Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana. But, while the Fortnight included a number of heavily-hyped English-language films—like the Strictly Ballroom pseudo-sequel Muriel’s Wedding and Hal Hartley’s newest, Amateur—the real gems came in quieter packages. From India, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen reenacts the life of Phoolan Devi, a living folk hero/villain who responds to serial rape by becoming a brutal armed gang leader in the Indian countryside. Its violence, both emotional and physical, make it a difficult but ultimately rewarding portrait of a complex woman. From China, Back to Back, Face to Face by Huang Jianxin is a funny and intelligent satire set in a government office. Like his earlier Stand Up, Don’t Grovel!, Huang deploys comedy to probe delicate matters, political and personal, in modem, urban China.
Atom Egoyan, whose Speaking Parts and The Adjuster were shown in the Fortnight in 1989 and 1991, sees the Fortnight “protecting the filmmaker more as an institution because it has its own loyal audience. It’s a great place for demanding and vulnerable films and can be a great place to launch first features. There’s just not the same chance of people booing here. In Competition, you can really bomb.”
Normally, the Fortnight is very possessive about its filmmakers, as part of an often vicious rivalry with the Competition programmers. Egoyan, however, says: “Pierre Henri Deleau [the Fortnight Director] is a loyal, astute and generous individual; when he understood the film had a chance to be in Competition, he was very supportive.” Although, Egoyan admits, “if I had gone into Un Certain Regard, that would have hurt him, even if it is becoming a strong section.”
A smaller and more eccentric section of the Festival, the Semaine de la Critique Française (Critics’ Week) always yields a few treasures and a few overly formal clunkers. One happy discovery was Frouke Fokkema’s Spring Doesn’t Exist Anymore, a nasty tale of disintegrating love. But by far the most popular offering here was Kevin Smith’s raunchy expose of convenience store shenanigans, Clerks. The film won both the Critics’ Week’s Best Film award and the Prix de la Jeunesse, even though its thick New Jersey accents and extremely idiomatic humor must have lost something in translation. No one was more surprised than director Kevin Smith: “We figured the movie would translate fine in the U.S. and maybe Canada, but nowhere else. But the audience here proved everyone wrong, including us.” About the Critics’ Week section, Smith says, “it’s an unlikely place for the film, but we got a great reaction. This is supposedly the smallest sidebar, but it’s been great for us and has given us really wide exposure.” As for Cannes, “it’s pretty much a fucking circus. We hardly saw any movies; we just couldn’t get in!”
That, excluding retrospectives, exhausts the programmed sections of the festival at about 70 films, quite modest by international festival standards. But that number balloons if the market is included. Film sellers from around the world buy out cinemas throughout the town of Cannes—about 20 of them—to show movies to prospective buyers. Other festival passholders can go, but only with the invitation of the company screening the film. Critics are rarely allowed to attend these screenings, but may do so anyway because the market holds the possibility of the “next big thing.” This year’s crapshoot yielded at least one great film: New Zealand’s Once Were Warriors. A first film. it is a brutal, powerful saga of a Maori woman with a subtle political edge; a major omission from the official sections of the festival. Other “finds” were mostly in non-traditional Cannes Festival genres, like Danny Boyle’s intense Scottish thriller, Shallow Grave. Debate also raged around Charles Burnett’s police drama, The Glass Shield, and Jim McBride’s fine art mystery, Uncovered (formerly The Flemish Board).
Much was made of the fact that the Hollywood studios stayed away from Cannes this year. So what? Most studio films aren’t appropriate to be shown in a festival context and the stars come anyway, usually for promotional reasons. In fact, the lack of a Hollywood media glut this year meant that smaller films got some breathing room. A Cannes in which party talk concerns the new Kiarostami and Kieslowski, rather than the cost of Joel Silver’s new suit, can only be a step in the right direction.