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Leslie Camhi | The Nation

Leslie Camhi

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Leslie Camhi

Leslie Camhi is a New York-based writer whose essays on art, film and books appear regularly in the New York Times, Village Voice and numerous other publications.

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Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth
Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still
reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's
victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first
round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually
invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the
offices of Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from
the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of
Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.

Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings)
contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this
resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this
time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë's
Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric
meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci
is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition
of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values
of our civilization."

In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first
conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of
Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current
organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for
competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the
outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as
well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two
simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and
Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of
cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese
auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing
sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh
or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.

The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's
The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work
of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who
returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon
childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the
memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody)
who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding.
What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from
an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then
shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary
transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.

At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's
voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto
uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own
choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions
you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped
acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on
Schindler's List and Aimée & Jaguar) why
big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of
Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.

Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant
fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening
out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an
actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn
from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a
chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in
German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines
in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film--the
actress's physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure--combine
with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the
ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an
elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using
these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman's film builds to an
emotionally devastating conclusion.

But that's Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a
rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including
surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and
powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to
judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year's critical favorite,
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past,
the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for
Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost
his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a
world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned
Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe's
hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with
lyricism, gentleness and beauty.

In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from
the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of
Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma,
Israeli director Amos Gitaï's alternately moving and unwieldy
existential drama about the first days of Israel's founding amid the
confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes
of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan's Ararat, an
overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey's 1915 extermination of its
Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that
government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and
Iran in Bahman Ghobadi's Songs from My Mother's Country, a letter
from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading
secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman's From the Other
Side
, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary
exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.

Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style
in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving
hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of
passengers--including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young
son--whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian
society. At the film's emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and
we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward
motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors,
Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women's
experience.

It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan
satirist Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (an adaptation of the
novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack
Nicholson's restrained performance as a retired insurance executive
suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier
vision of America emerged from Michael Moore's Bowling for
Columbine
, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes
in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At
times hilarious and biting, Moore's film ropes together the 1999 high
school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident
that occurred near Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one
6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence
endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of
the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh's brother James (a gun-toting
tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises
(a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but
as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and
his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign
policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the
liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore's
anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France
today.) And so we're left to wonder, is it something in our water or in
our DNA?

Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival's other selections showed
violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian
director Fernando Meirelles's fast-paced favela epic, City of
God
, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And
there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine
Intervention
, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in
the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like
himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton's melancholy and Jacques Tati's
precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father's death and
Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and
Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a
series of inane gags--a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a
Santa Claus stabbed by a knife--that poetically encapsulate the
absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary
Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just
before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist,
at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become
realities. During the festival's closing ceremony, in which winners
evoked a variety of political causes--from the plight of Belgian actors
to that of the people of Mexico--Suleiman (whose film took the Jury
Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He
thanked his French producer.

Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best
course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco
Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile is a psychological thriller about
a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes
with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for
canonization. ("Wouldn't it be useful for our son's future career to
have a saint for a grandmother?" his estranged wife asks him, with what
certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a
visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of '68, about the
state of contemporary Italian society.

And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon provided a lusty and
inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who
sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art.
Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh
and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing
series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of
chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull
in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and
screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers
seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The
66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American
Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love)
is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some
ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre
pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high
culture. "In art," he said in an interview, "there is no completion, but
only the interminable struggle toward it."

It was the first Cannes Film Festival of the new century, but it felt more like an end than a beginning, as the past returned, in film after film, with weight and insistency. This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Cahiers du Cinéma, and two of that venerable journal's founders, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, made fugitive appearances on the Croisette (the beachside thoroughfare where starlets promenade in the shadow of film history) with works in competition, their white hair and grizzled chins at odds with the general carnival atmosphere. Francis Ford Coppola brought a brilliant new version of Apocalypse Now, adding fifty-three minutes and the ghosts of the French occupation of Indochina to his dark and delirious vision of war's insanity, which shared Cannes's top prize, the Palme d'Or, in 1979. And a 92-year-old director, the Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira (who began his career in silent cinema), provided one of the festival's highlights with I'm Going Home, a film about an aging actor (Michel Piccoli), infused with lightness and simplicity.

The awards, announced May 20, confirmed this sense of a film culture unfurling under the banner of memory, as the jury (headed by Liv Ullmann) honored films about a father in mourning (Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room) and a woman (Isabelle Huppert) crushed by her own masochism and the suffocating mass of Austria's musical heritage (Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher). In this year of transition, as festival president Gilles Jacob handed over the reins of artistic direction to newcomer Thierry Frémaux, the world's great cinematic behemoth seemed haunted by the specter of previous generations.

Yet their vitality continued to surprise us. "If filmmaking doesn't kill you, it prolongs your life instead," the nonagenarian Oliveira affirmed in an interview. I'm Going Home opens with Gilbert Valence (Piccoli) on the Paris stage, playing the enfeebled but tyrannical king in Ionesco's Le Roi se Meurt, and surrounded by colleagues and admirers. Backstage, after the performance, his friend and agent George informs him that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. Unlike Nanni Moretti's film, which (despite its considerable accomplishments) strikes a few false, forced notes in its depiction of a family's sorrow, Oliveira handles Gilbert's grief with gentle humor and extreme discretion. The distinguished actor brings his orphaned grandson to live with him, but otherwise continues his daily routine, refusing to acknowledge (even to himself) the magnitude of his losses. Perhaps it's the result of Oliveira's long experience; in this graceful and uncompromising meditation on time and its vicissitudes, he gives the small consolations of life a place beside its great catastrophes.

The actor's life is also the focus of Who Knows, Jacques Rivette's metaphysical farce about an Italian theater troupe performing Pirandello's Come tu mi vuoi in Paris. Camille (Jeanne Balibar), the lead actress and lover of the troupe's director, is French and a former Parisian; as she returns to Paris, she's filled with longing and trepidation over the prospect of meeting Pierre, her ex-lover. Pierre now lives with Marianne, who in turn conceals her own secrets. A precious ring, a cake recipe and an unpublished Goldoni manuscript circulate among a sextet of characters, providing clues to each one's desire. Rivette's magical direction changes this watery plot into wine. The actors inhabit their roles with sparkling vitality; the film buzzes with life, with the strange coincidences, emotional truths, hesitations and intense passions that shape love, in all its complexity.

"It's very demoralizing for a director to see bad films," the notoriously reclusive Rivette admitted at his press conference. "You have the feeling that you've wasted your life on a crummy profession." At 73, he retains the lightning reflexes and fluid gestures of an acrobat, and his deftly magisterial and lovely film belongs to that rare genre of comedy whose effects are more profound than tragedy.

Cannes is perhaps the only place in the world where the fight to view Jean-Luc Godard's latest opus could provoke a minor riot. Security police were called out to handle the huge, unruly crowd of journalists assembled to see his Éloge de l'amour, screening just once for the press in a small room. Those who gained admission found themselves in the presence of a lyrical, melancholy and ultimately puzzling cinematic essay on the relation between film and history. Godard picks through the ruins of the twentieth century, citing its high culture (painting, music, philosophy) and its moral disasters (most notably Auschwitz) in this elusive and fragmentary work, which calls itself a love story but is really a semiautobiographical reflection on the director's nostalgia for, and belief in, a cinema of resistance. The film's few coherent plot points involve a disappointingly facile anti-Americanism, with Steven Spielberg set up as the fall guy (however deservedly) for Hollywood's need to transform history into entertainment, as his fictive company purchases rights to the life story of an elderly couple, French Jews who fought in the Resistance. (Roberto Benigni, the Italian director of Life Is Beautiful, might have served the cause as well. And do Godard's credentials, as either a longtime member of the artistic avant-garde or a citizen of Switzerland, give him any greater claim to this history?) Still, Godard's poignant use of sound and imagery--his lush, black-and-white visions of nighttime Paris and crayon-bright, handheld, digital seascapes--teases you into thinking.

In the festival's curious conjunction of artistic and market considerations, each person's place in the food chain is clearly demarcated, from the color of your press pass (among four levels, white passes claim the greatest privileges) to the amount of time old colleagues will afford you. Sometimes, as at the Godard screening, the promise of Old World cultural capital whips the crowd into a frenzy; at other times, historic occasions and films from marginal locations go relatively unremarked. Only a handful of journalists attended the screening of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the first film shot with an Inuit cast and crew, which won the Camera d'Or for best debut feature. Director Zacharias Kunuk's nearly three-hour saga is based upon an ancient Inuit legend about sexual conflicts and vengeance pursued across two generations of nomadic tribespeople on a remote Canadian Arctic island, where Kunuk was raised and still lives. In an extraordinarily beautiful landscape suffused with an unearthly light, women with elaborate facial tattoos and men sporting futuristic-looking sun goggles build igloos, hunt for seal meat, make love and participate in shamanistic rituals. Closely based upon both eyewitness accounts of the first European settlers (who arrived there in the early nineteenth century) and Inuit oral tradition, Atanarjuat shows a sophisticated culture, filled with art and humor, that has survived virtually unchanged for some four millennia.

And while Godard danced around history like a mournful clown, those viewers seeking a cinema of resistance might have turned instead to Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 16 heures, the latest chapter in Claude Lanzmann's piercing, thirty-year exploration of the memory of the Shoah. Sobibor screened out-of-competition, and its inclusion here (alongside an arresting documentary by Abbas Kiarostami on the ravages of AIDS among children in Uganda) marked a welcome expansion of the festival's traditional focus on fiction. The film returns to an episode mentioned in Shoah, Lanzmann's landmark 1985 epic, in which the inmates of the Sobibor death camp carried out the only successful revolt of Jewish prisoners against their German captors.

Sobibor begins with an archival photograph of SS officers saluting the corpses of Nazi officials murdered in the uprising. A strange sense of joy wells up with the knowledge that, for once, the executioners became victims. In 1979, while filming Shoah, Lanzmann interviewed Yehuda Lerner, who was deported from the Warsaw Ghetto at the age of 16 and whose unquenchable thirst for life led him to escape from eight death camps. Six weeks after arriving at Sobibor, Lerner took part in the rebellion organized by Alexander Pechersky, a fellow inmate and Soviet Jewish officer.

Lanzmann maintains both a journalist's surgical precision and an artist's sense of wonder as he questions Lerner, who traces his remarkably suspenseful tale in a vibrant Hebrew, infused with mythic grandeur. The clarity and beauty of his voice contrast sharply with the film's opening panorama of Warsaw--a city of dead monuments and anonymous architecture--and in one surreal sequence, with flocks of geese, whose unendurable cacophony was used by camp officials to cover up the screams of dying prisoners. Shoah rendered the annihilation of European Jewry astonishingly palpable; Sobibor is a hymn to the courage of people who were less than nothing, yet rose up to defend themselves. Lanzmann has titled his film with the place, day and time of the uprising, recalling the question posed by both Rabbi Hillel and Primo Levi, "If not now, when?" And it brings that decisive moment alive to us.

Watching the competition's twenty-three features over the course of twelve days, along with a good number of the twenty-two films included in the subsection called "Un Certain Regard" and the dozens more screening in two sidebar festivals, critics' week and directors' fortnight, alters one's experience of time considerably. A second, imaginary life begins to take shape. How many couples made love and separated, how many cups of coffee and cigarettes were consumed, how many characters died or were murdered onscreen each day? In rare instances, a film manages to impose its own sense of time and reality. Such was the case with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, a wildly idiosyncratic work by a home-grown American surrealist. Lynch deserved his own award but shared the directing prize with Joel Coen (whose highly stylized The Man Who Wasn't There also screened in competition) for his story of two actresses, a sensual, winding, noiresque exploration of both the literal topography and the psychic geography of Los Angeles.

Lynch's film, the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar and Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There? (all French co-productions) proved that there is hope for the future of auteurism, as long as you look beyond the confines of Europe. Filmed in Afghanistan and among refugee communities along the Iranian border, using a style that mixes documentary elements with an improbable visual poetry and humor drawn from the desolation of war and poverty, Kandahar is Makhmalbaf's attempt to give a face to Afghan women, who remain hidden behind the heavy veil of their burkas and the world's indifference.

If Kandahar is a model of social engagement, Tsai's film is a homage to the golden age of art-house cinema, incorporating footage from François Truffaut's classic, The 400 Blows (a 1959 Cannes sensation), into a contemporary Taipei story about the different time zones we inhabit when we look at films, travel to distant countries or mourn the loss of someone. Halfway around the world, Tsai works like an old-style European auteur, writing his scripts in Taipei cafes and working with a limited number of actors, whose roles have evolved over the course of five features focusing on urban anomie, family alienation and Taiwan's restless youth culture. "I'm really a sixties person," the 43-year-old director explained in an interview. "That's why I make these sixties-style films. Luckily, there are a few other sixties people around, who like to watch them."