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.”