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.