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Copyright 2004




Cannes 2003 - Part One: Less electrifying ....

CANNES was less exciting this summer (May 2003). It had nothing to do with the weather, which was bright and wonderfully warm. Not even a trace of rain, an annual ritual one has got used to, though the showers do not last beyond a couple of days during the film festival every May.

Cannes' toned-down exhilaration was because cinema was less electrifying than it had been in many years. Not entirely the fault of Cannes' selection team. Some of the French Riviera's eternal favourites were not there this time. Jane Campion had not finished her "In the Cut". So had not Emir Kusturica ("Hungry Heart"), Quentin Tarantino ("Kill Bill"), Theo Angelopoulos ("The Weeping Field"), Robert Altman ("The Company"), Wong Kar-wai ("2046") and the Coen Brothers ("Intolerable Cruelty").

Yet another director one has seen at Cannes earlier, Bernardo Bertolucci, decided not even to submit his erotic drama about 1968 Paris. The Swedish giant, Ingmar Bergman, refused to send his latest "Saraband" (a sequel to "Scenes from a Marriage") to the festival.

All these will probably make it to Venice in autumn, but to say that Cannes was as flat as stale beer, as some choose to describe this year's festival, will be sheer exaggeration, even unfair. There were some magic moments in the cinema that Cannes chose to present in its official line-up: true, even here some were found wanting in technique or style, but they made up by presenting a gripping narrative or a powerfully disturbing message.

Twenty-three-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf came to Cannes from Iran this time with "At Five in the Afternoon", her third foray into this haute-couture of movies. Her 1998 "The Apple" was followed by the 2000 "Blackboards", which clinched a Special Jury Prize. So did "At Five in the Afternoon", set in the ruins of Kabul, where the story of a young Afghan woman forms the core of suffering and sorrow of a race taken for a ride by not just the Taliban, but others as well.

But in the midst of this terrible gloom, the woman exudes an amazing spirit of optimism: when her teacher asks her and fellow students what they would like to be, our protagonist answers "President of the Republic"!

Played by Agheleh Rezaie, a 23-year-old schoolteacher with three children who lost her husband in the war, Noqreh embodies a keen sense of progressive modernism which reflects not only in her aspirations but also in her rebellious sense of dressing. It is interesting to see the way she changes her drab, flat shoes for a pair of fancy high-heeled stuff the moment she is out of her old cart-driver father's sight.

Makhmalbaf lays bare other medieval tendencies, some of them positively repulsive, like, for instance, the practice of men turning their faces towards a wall the moment they see a woman without a burkha. Although a loosely structured film, its stunning visual imagery and scathing comments of a nation pushed into an ugly corner lift the work to a not-to-be-ignored height.

Danish auteur Lars Von Trier's "Dogville" also looks at woman. He has been doing that. But, unlike Makhmalbaf who uses her heroine not just as a focus of negative pessimism, Von Trier's women Bess in "Breaking the Waves", Selma in "Dancer in the Dark" and Grace in "Dogville" suffer physical and mental abuse to the point of deathly distraction. The enormity of their distress leaves one depressed, unlike in the case of Noqreh, whose humour and confidence see her through some of the darkest personal upheavals. "At Five in the Afternoon" is elevating at a point.

On the other hand, "Dogville" is a tale of cruelty and revenge, sad and dark: Grace, enacted by Nicole Kidman, arrives in a small American town, Dogville, sometime in the 1930s. She is pursued by gangsters, and the townsfolk agree to hide her. In return, she offers to help out, but after a series of twists and turns, Grace finds herself a virtual slave. While the men rape her at will after sunset, the women flog her during the day.

At three hours long, "Dogville" divided into nine chapters and a prologue has enough meat to sustain the attention of even a very critical viewer. What is more, Von Trier's picturisation is extremely novel: he uses minimum of props to conjure up a small town on a vast space where white lines signify the outline of buildings and homes.

This sense of theatricality does not take us away from the emotions or ideas of "Dogville"; rather, it serves to underline them in a mutely dramatic manner.

There was one serious reservation I had about this film. I did not like the way it ended, more so because of the times we live in. What are they? Well, violent and retributive, at many levels, and Cannes tried to show us that.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 15 2003)

(This story continues in Cannes 2003 - Part Two,on June 22 2003)

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