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Cannes 2002: Spring of myriad hues

THIS Spring, Cannes was happy. In a world where terror and gloom prevailed — thanks to the likes of Osama-bin-Laden and short-sighted political leaders in West Asia, Pakistan and India — movie men took it upon themselves to cheer the thousands of people who had gathered at the French Riviera to watch the 55th edition of the Cannes International Film Festival (May 2002).

Perhaps, no celluloid work could have reflected these dark times better and yet lifted us up to an exhilarating high than Elia Suleiman's "Divine Intervention". A series of vignettes that often looks like a wonderful cinema scrapbook, this work is so witty and fascinating that the pain of two Palestinian lovers, separated by Israeli soldiers (who are either dumb or bullies), fades away into virtual oblivion. The irony of Israeli thinking and cruelty is highlighted in one great shot: when the couple meet at a parking lot and caress each other's hand in a silent gesture of repressed love and affection. It is precisely here that the viewer experiences a euphoric sense of triumph in the face of such adversity.

Suleiman's message is clear: enough is enough. Six million Jews died. That was undoubtedly a terrible tragedy. But let us not carry on with the crusade, killing and punishing those who have had nothing to do with that genocide, who were not even born then.

Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" attempts to convey something beyond this: even in Hell, there is a bit of Heaven. When the movie began to unreel, I said, Oh, no, not another story on the Nazi holocaust. For the most part, it is precisely that. A brilliant Jewish pianist in Warsaw is confined to a ghetto, tortured and humiliated. He is on the verge of starvation and death when a German officer finds him hiding in an abandoned building. But this Nazi does not shoot him: he gives him food and clothes, and helps him live, helps his notes to continue mesmerising fans and foes.

The jury, headed by David Lynch, was shaken, I would think, by "The Pianist's" power of love. It gave the film the top Golden Palm Award. Polanski himself must have been a very happy man: a quarter century ago, his "The Tenant" got a drubbing at Cannes, and the helmer never came back to the south of France till this Festival. And what a great return it was.

Aki Kaurismaki's too. I have usually found this Finnish helmer rather gloomy: his 1996 "Drifting Clouds" is a classic example of this. But this year's "The Man without a Past" came as a dash of honey. He creates a person, who loses his memory after being beaten up by thugs, but he finds a society that cares despite its own hunger and poverty. After a struggle he finds work, and a woman to kiss. Love blossoms in this constantly funny movie, whose uplifting tunes, vintage Hollywood spirit and heightened colours told me that cinema could be enormously happy even while narrating a dark tale of deprivation, mugging and amnesia. The jury's Grand Prize for this was something that I agreed with readily.

Belgium's father-son mystery ("The Son") by the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc (remember their 1999 Golden Palm winner, "Rosetta") explores a calamity with remarkable warmth and understanding. Olivier is a solitary individual, whose source of anguish is a 16-year-old boy who had killed the man's infant son. That was five years ago, and the teenager had been at a juvenile detention centre. When he arrives at the carpentry workshop, Olivier is aware of who the boy is, and agrees to teach him after an initial reluctance. And in the final moments of the movie, we see a confrontation of sorts between the two after Olivier tells him who he really is. But the directors in what some may term a banal climax show the teacher pardoning the guilty teenager. Is there a lesson for all of us in this? I would suppose so, and "The Son" shot with a handheld camera — and often kept very close to the characters — does appear somewhat jerky and visually dissatisfying. But that is a small price to pay for a wonderful moral.

Ethics was not always an issue: some were just plain fun movies. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" was sheer fairy tale romanticism, eccentric charm and suppressed anger. Entirely unpredictable and marked by audacious strokes of directorial bravado, this work was predominantly whimsical. Barry has seven sisters, and when it seems that they will never let him be, Lena (Emily Watson) arrives with a twinkle in her eye and a song in her heart to lift him up and away from sibling squabble.

Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" — which opened the Festival — was a delightful satire on the industry. Although, it is at times as unbelievable as an Indian film, Allen's effortless way of turning the mirror on himself and the Hollywood that he has been part of for decades makes marvellous viewing, especially the comedy that comes with it in such abundant doses through one-line punches. We all need to laugh now, and what better way to do this than by watching typical Allen. The story is straight: Allen is an ageing director, who thinks that he is going blind, and in the midst of what seems like a last opportunity at movie making, he is frightened that he will be unable to finish the project. When the picture is completed, the American Press rips him apart, not French critics, though! And with one more chance, this time to shoot a film in Paris, in his pocket, Allen bumps into sunshine and laughter. His wife who returns to him after a fling with a rich playboy completes Allen's bliss.

Mike Leigh unites a family, too — in his "All Or Nothing". Despite the fact that his movies have become clichιd in a way — same kind of stories, same working class environment and same actors — there is still something nice about watching Leigh. This time his hero is a cab driver, whose working-in-a-supermarket wife hates him. To complicate matters, their daughter is fat and ugly, and their son, an uncouth waster. But when the boy falls ill with a heart attack, the family understands the importance of each other's affection and use. The wife decides to take another look at her husband, and Leigh appears to be telling us that life exists and goes on in all its chaos and complexity. Some may find this ending rather simplistic, but the note of positiveness that Leigh tries to strike is what appealed to me.

The Festival had its share of novelty, which went beyond the bright and the positive.
Abbas Kiarostami's "Ten" was brilliant in the way it was visualised. Can you believe that the entire film was shot inside a car! For the first 15 minutes, we only see a small boy in the passenger seat talking to his driver-mother, who is explaining to him why she split with her husband. Later, as the drama unfolds, we see several others who share the moving car with the woman. Each has a problem, and as one by one get resolved or discussed, the woman comes to term with her own dilemma and predicament. A peace descends on her in a work that despite its limited field is extraordinarily gripping. I did not find a single boring moment.

Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Arc" secured a place in cinematic history. Taking the experimentation of Hitchcock's "Rope" and Robert Altman's "The Player" to the extreme, Sokurov has filmed his entire historical epic in a single extended 87-minute stead cam shot. The auteur said: "After 100 years of montage in film, I am really sick and tired of editing.... " An interesting approach, undoubtedly.

For another kind of novelty, "Cry Woman", the Chinese entry by Liu Bingjian, centres on a woman who becomes a professional mourner in the countryside. The sheer rarity of the theme was the highlight of this movie, topped with some excellent acting by newcomer Liao Qin, a real life Opera performer.

Cannes had other entries that may not have been so overtly positive or new. Yet, they had certainly intended to be so. Ken Loach's (remember his "Bread and Roses") "Sweet Sixteen" focuses on the plight of a teenage boy, desperately keen to reform his mother living with a drug dealer. The boy's narrow options form part of a sad reality, and Loach's simple, direct style, intimate grasp of the characters and faultless handling of key conflicts and confrontations give this work a quiet emotional pull, laced — though with rich humour. The Glasgow accent is impossible to understand, and Loach was kind enough to give us English subtitles.

In disappointing contrast, India's "Devdas" (by Sanjay Leela Bhansali) was a trite attempt at capturing Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's oft-shot Bengali literary novel. Bhansali jazzes up his sets with colour and gloss, neglecting in the bargain effective characterisations and authenticity. Bhansali's camera is in love with beautiful Aishwarya Rai (as Paro), and is reluctant to spend time with Madhuri Dixit (Chandramukhi) or Shahrukh Khan (Devdas). And at nearly three hours long, "Devdas" compares poorly with earlier versions, especially the one with Bimal Roy. Sadly, "Devdas" was like a blot on the Cannes canvas this Spring.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 16n 2002)

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