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Cannes 2003 - Part Two:The good, bad and ugly
CANNES reflected the times, sometimes overtly. Though the Artistic Director of the Cannes International Film Festival, which concluded recently, said that it would be "indecent" for the annual event to even attempt to tailor its editorial line according to world events, great artists seldom live or thrive in insular time warps. So, their creative energies are usually directed towards presenting comments on what is happening all around us. Here are some examples.
Gus Van Sant's "Elephant", which bagged the top Golden Palm and also a prize for direction, is shot like a documentary: the camera follows a set of school students in the course of a single day as they go about discussing football or class work or sex to finally capture destructiveness. A fictional take-off on the American Columbine High School massacre, "Elephant" may have a profound theme, but to make a movie about young violence without providing insight or enlightenment would appear to be pointless, even irresponsible.
Van Sant's work leaves a feeling of exasperation in some other ways too. To mention just one, after watching ''Elephant'', there is confusion: what is real and what is not.
However, France's Francois Ozon in his English "Swimming Pool" translates this confusion into a great plot. His ability to mix fact and fiction produces an almost classic film, propelled by contrasting and able performances from Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier.
Rampling is Sarah, a celebrated English writer of thrillers, who is so cold and distant that she finds it difficult even to acknowledge normal fan admiration. When she hits a writer's block, her boyfriend-publisher suggests that she use his French country home to recharge herself. The trick begins to work, and Sarah is back to her keyboard when the publisher's young daughter, Julie (Sagnier), decides to interrupt the serenity with her nudity and noisy late night sex with older men that she picks up in the village. The younger woman's unabashed romps arouse Sarah's curiosity, unleashing sexual dreams in her.
Though "Swimming Pool's" ambiguities towards the end may leave some frustrated, the film has been crafted with sophisticated precision. It has a compelling story to tell, and Ozon says it with a touch of intelligence, and in a way that the unreal superbly merges with the real.
There was another French feature made by Quebec-based Denys Arcand, "The Barbarian Invasions". This is a breezy, delightfully witty movie, which examines human relationships at the very end of a college professor's life. Yet, it is no weepy, bitter look at a cancer-ridden man whose thorny relationship with his estranged financier son forms the crux of the picture. The son returns to be by his father's bedside, and finds that the old man has still a lot of pluck that he displays when his old friends, including his ex-lover, turn up. The son cuts through Canada's red tape (there is a strong dig here at the country's health-care system) to provide comfort to his father, and this includes even a supply of heroin to ease his pain. "The Barbarian Invasions" — which won two awards for screenplay and best actress (Marie-Josee Croze, who acts as a junkie) — observes with rueful, impish intelligence political, generational and temperamental differences between the two men.
Turkey's "Distant" by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (honoured with a Grand Prize and one for Best Actor, shared between Muzaffer Ozdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak) also looks at ties between two men, cousins, in fact, but the treatment is painfully sombre. Shot in a minimalist style with long periods of the movie running with little or no conversation "Distant" lacks the punch to make watching it more enjoyable. Yusuf lands up at his photographer-cousin Mahmut's home in Istanbul with the fancy idea of finding a job on a ship and seeing the world. Essentially a story of Mahmut, his loneliness and frustration are brought out in two remarkable scenes: when he rushes to the airport to have a fleeting glance of his former wife, now married and ready to settle down in Canada, and when he finally realises that his cousin who had been living with him has left.
Solitude was the subject of an Italian work by Pupi Avati, "A Heart Elsewhere". A young man is sent to his native Bologna (Italy) in 1920 by his tailor-for-the-Pope father in the hope that the young man would find a bride and provide an heir. The son falls in love with a blind woman, who takes the guy on a merry ride merely to get even with her ex-lover, who ditched her when she loses her sight in an accident. It is a kind of feel-good fare, where we know exactly how the script is going to unfold.
Also,Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" was a riveting piece of celluloid drama, where Sean Penn portrays a reformed convict pushed once again to blood and gore by the killing of his vivacious 19-year-old daughter. The film examines the relationship between three childhood friends — a policeman, a subdued man with a patchy career and the ex-convict — and underlines how time can create a rift deep enough to cause irreparable misunderstanding and grievous loss. Shot in a typical Hollywood style, "Mystic River" should have won at least one prize, that for Penn, who was magnificent.
On the flip side, there were some entries which had no business to have been at Cannes.Writer-producer-director-editor-cameraman-star Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" runs for an hour and forty minutes without anything happening on the screen. There were a couple of French movies that received loud boos as well. Bernard Bonello's overwrought "Tiresia" (about an attractive transsexual) and Bertrand Blier's "Les Cotelettes" (where two old men fall in love with a North African cleaning woman). Both were annoying, and Cannes could have well edited these out of its programme.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 22 2003)
(Part One of this story appeared in The Hindu dated June 15 2003: Less electrifying...)