Cannes coming back around

A mid the orgy of self-congratulation that ended this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is necessary to remember a simple point: awarding the Palme d’Or to the much-hyped Fahrenheit 9/11 is not going to affect the course of world history. The festival success of Michael Moore’s spirited but uneven attack upon George W Bush will do less to undermine an already bankrupt president than to bolster an increasingly egomaniacal film-maker who grows more pompous and less entertaining by the day.
For the record, Moore has not been “censored” by Disney, whose desire to distance itself from his documentary has merely made Fahrenheit 9/11 the subject of an enthusiastic bidding war. On the contrary, Moore is probably the least censored man on the planet, as was clear during the Cannes fortnight: it was impossible to turn on a television or open a newspaper without encountering another tirade about how he was being silenced for making such a powerful film.
In fact, Fahrenheit 9/11 is an unsatisfying mix of sparky satire and boggy polemic, rehashing swathes of Moore’s disappointing book Dude, Where’s My Country?, sidestepping any international perspective (how come Tony Blair gets off so lightly on Iraq?), and resorting to the emotional cheap shots that threatened to undermine Moore’s far more accomplished Bowling for Columbine. Anyone can make “Dubbya” look stupid-the trick is to be entertaining in the process, and this is where Moore’s film comes unstuck, particularly in the second hour.
Compare this with Errol Morris’s Fog of War, which focused on the far more complex target of Robert McNamara, the erstwhile US defence secretary, and you realise just how fumbled and unfocused Fahrenheit 9/11 is. It’s not a bad film; it is just nowhere near as good as it should be, given Bush’s atrocious track record. For Moore, it’s a win-win situation: if Bush loses the forthcoming election, the director will claim credit for his downfall; if Bush wins, Moore can blame Disney. So much for the revolution.
The real surprise at Cannes this year was The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a biopic of the troubled comedian which turned out to be a breezy treat. Although pre-screening publicity had focused on an assortment of angered wives and children with axes to grind, the relationship at the heart of the film is between Sellers (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush) and the director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow), the man behind the Pink Panther films whose success both rewarded and appalled the star. Getting the love-hate balance between these two men just right, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely demonstrate an intelligent empathy for the complexity of Sellers’s situation. Meanwhile, the director, Stephen Hopkins, has fun recreating scenes from movies such as Dr Strangelove and Being There. Who ever thought that this former horror hack, whose credits include Predator 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, had such a classy, accomplished film in him?
Other reasons to be cheerful at Cannes included Maggie Cheung’s moving performance as a reformed drug addict in Olivier Assayas’s Clean, for which she rightly won the festival’s Best Actress award. Despite a smattering of booing at the screening that I attended, Clean turned out to be a far more engaging work than Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, another film graced by Cheung’s unearthly presence; it proved an oddly hollow experience. Unquestionably the best-looking film of the festival (the cinematographer Christopher Doyle proving his genius once more), 2046 will need some radical restructuring if it is to win the hearts of those who embraced Wong’s earlier masterpiece In the Mood for Love.
Meanwhile, although 14-year-old Yagira Yuuya scooped Best Actor for his role in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Nobody Knows, the real male star of the festival was clearly Gael García Bernal, stunning in drag in Pedro Almodóvar’s acclaimed opener Bad Education, and utterly convincing as the young Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s surprisingly apolitical Motorcycle Diaries. Eschewing tub-thumping polemic for heartfelt personal sympathy, Salles’s film overflows with genuine kindness, something of an exception in a festival often beset by soap-box posturing.
Which leads me to Clunker of the Festival, an award that I have no hesitation in presenting to Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique. With an endless array of dreary intellectuals spouting crackerjack philosophy, this limp anti-war diatribe plumbed new depths of artsy pretension, concluding ultimately that war is bad, men and women are different, and that this business with Israel is all a bit complicated. Despite the pacifist message, Notre Musique left me really wanting to punch someone.
Towards the end of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, the frequent condemnation of the festivities as “the worst Cannes ever” became a loudly intoned mantra–one that was gleefully chanted by critics for mass-circulation dailies as well as hard-core auteurists from specialized film journals. It was of course impossible to discern if the entries rejected by festival director Gilles Jacob and his deputy Thierry Frémaux–new films by, among others, Jacques Rivette and Bruno Dumont–were in fact significantly better (or for that matter worse) than some of the clinkers on display at the Palais. The journalists, frustrated by the largely uninspiring movies and the long queues– were clearly out for blood. And who could blame them? The films in competition at the world’s most prestigious film festival included second-rate work by well-regarded filmmakers such as François Ozon, Raul Ruiz, and Alexander Sokurov, outright turkeys by Pupi Avati and Bertrand Blier, and conversation pieces by provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Gus Van Sant that divided critics into warring camps. While a demonstration in the streets of Cannes protesting the French government’s new pension schemes proved livelier than many of the films, it was also difficult to deny that the squabbling over the more acclaimed films’ dubious merits was as much bound up with politics as with esthetic standards.
To give discredit where it’s due, a ludicrous “culture war” was stirred up by Variety critic Todd McCarthy’s assertion that two of the festival’s most controversial films, von Trier’s Dogville and Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, were either ‘anti-American’ or ‘amoral.’ Both films were far from master-pieces, but the glib judgments issued by McCarthy and his American cohorts only muddied the waters and blurred distinctions between these directors’ occasionally confused political perspectives and their films’ artistic ambitions.
Similarly, Roger Ebert’s self-assured denunciation of Vincent Gallo’s much- maligned The Brown Bunny as the worst film ever in competition in Cannes (it was far from the worst entry in this year’s Cannes–an award that surely most go to Blier’s strenuously unfunny sex farce, Les Côtelettes) only encouraged the French dailies Le Monde and Libéation to label Gallo’s painfully earnest tribute to Seventies road movies a near-masterpiece.

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