Cannes is a Riviera theme park, too big and pretty to be true. And this year, like EuroDisney or Jurassic Park, the Cannes Film Festival lodged its logo in visitors’ minds by stamping it on billboards, T-shirts, ties, and plastic suspenders. It hounded everyone’s subconscious like a relentless, seductive salesman; there was no avoiding it.
Perhaps by coincidence, the poster also set the tone for the roster of films inside the Cannes Palais. The image, for the 46th edition of Cannes, was from a film made in 1946, the year the festival began. The movie is Notorious, and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are trying to kiss. The poster captures a moment as awkward as it is glamorous, for the actors’ noses get in the way of their passion. But since he image recalls the oversize romance of Hollywood’s dream era, anyone looking at the photo can believe that love will find a way.
Faraway, So Close!
Love in the modern world, with its collapsing empires and threatened values, is a more complicated business than Hollywood admitted in 1946. But is no less crucial a priority. At the beginning of Wim Wenders’ Faraway, So Close!, Mikhail Gorbachev makes a guest appearance, and the former leader of the former Soviet Union reads a quote from Feodor Tyuchev: “Some say a country can only be forged with blood and steel. We shall try to forge it with love. Then let’s see which lasts longer.”
That sentiment is poignant enough, given the rending civil wars that have festered since Gorbachev helped dismantle Communism in Eastern Europe. It is more touching in the light of the major films shown in the excellent vintage of Cannes ’93. Gone was the blood of superviolent films, the steel of minimalist art films. Instead, filmmakers tried to connect, emotionally, with audiences. Directors like Jane Campion and Chen Kaige, who had flirted with extremes in their earlier work, came home to the center of movie narrative. The old spirit of Hollywood, which lingers now on late shows and in revival houses, took hold of a new generation. Let’s tell a story, they seemed to say, the way they used to, so well.
Few sank or soared into outrage—no Wild at Heart, no Man Bites Dog. Peter Greenaway did bother some folks with his latest pageant of beautiful tableaux and ugly attitudes; The Baby of Macon is another Jacobean melodrama, this time a morality play about a child, believed to be miraculous, whom the faithful first adore, then exploit and finally pick apart for relics. But the viewers who exited early from the film were expressing not outrage but annoyance and ennui at a gifted picturemaker whose fashion had faded. These viewers, unfortunately, concentrated on the tone—a lurid spectacle, viewed with Olympian dispassion—and missed the message, delivered by a naked gargoyle swinging above the carnage. “Remind yourself that walking on this earth was a pleasure,” he goonily intones. “Remember when sleeping with your partner was contentment. Remind yourself of the ecstasy of living.”
Baby of Macon
Remember when world cinema was dominated by the Americans and the French? Now they are missing in action. Three years running (’89, ’90, ’91), Cannes juries awarded the Palme d’Or to off-Hollywood films. This year was depressingly different for American filmmakers; they saw three of the laurels go to a sibling cinema so often pronounced dead. The jury, headed by Louis Malle, honored a pair of dark-humored, working-class dramas from England: Naked, for director Mike Leigh and leading man David Thewlis, and Raining Stones, for director Ken Loach. But for the first time in memory, the jury did not give a prize to an American feature film.
Some might think this is a catastrophe; Gilles Jacob might be one of them. Jacob, who selects the movies in the competition and the sidebar event Un Certain Regard, puts a high priority on luring Hollywood stars and brand-name directors to his festival. This year Jacob slated four Hollywood pictures: Falling Down, Mad Dog and Glory, Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, and Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. The Soderbergh is based on author A.E. Hotchner’s memoir of his boyhood in the Depression Era. And what a wonderful boy he was, to judge from the adaptation. Young Aaron (played with unaffected charisma by Jesse Bradford) is cute, clever, tops in school, an ace at marbles, the only responsible member of his family, and virtually the sole support of every frail soul dwelling in the St. Louis hotel where Aaron lives. The film is shot in those misty, muzzy tones that romanticize and debase the pain of the past into the easy glow of nostalgia. There are real feelings here, and decent performances, but King of the Hill gave on the feeling of spending a bit too long at a Midwestern rummage sale.
Soderbergh’s film and John McNaughton’s Mad Dog and Glory represented a familiar Cannes trend of inviting ordinary films by accomplished directors: auteurism by numbers. Ferrara’s remake of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers might seem another such example; the movie has languished for months on Warner Bros.’ shelf. But this one is something special. This time the extraterrestrial demon seeds land in an Army base, and the chief pod buster is a teenage girl (the appealing young English actress Gabrielle Anwar, who was Al Pacino’s dancing partner in Scent of a Woman). So Body Snatchers nicely plays on two compelling stripes of paranoia: liberals’ fear of the military and adolescents’ suspicion of adults. It also puts Meg Tilly’s otherworldly beauty to good use as a wicked stepmother from outer space. Brisk and forceful, Body Snatchers has the craft of a superior B movie from the days when Hollywood held the copyright on competence.
Ma Saison Preferée
The status of the French film industry, judging from the items presented at its home-country festival, was even more parlous than Hollywood’s. The best French-language film at Cannes was shot in Haiti and made in the Dominican Republic: Raoul Peck’s moving, masterly The Man on the Shore, which told of a 9-year-old girl’s family bravely fighting the systematic brutality of the Duvalier régime in the 1960s. And the best film made in France was set in Vietnam and spoken in Vietnamese: Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya, which relates its tale—the slow flowering of a lovely Saigon serving-girl—in a style whose narrative delicacy and gorgeous design was clearly inspired by Yasujiro Ozu. The “real” French films at Cannes (Ma Saison Preferée with Catherine Deneuve, Toxic Affair with Isabelle Adjani, Mazeppa with a lot of horses) seemed modest indeed compared to Peck’s and Tran’s heartfelt fables.
Children finding a sense of belonging in turbulent cultures: this was the dominant theme at Cannes this year. Those Americans who came to the festival hoping to escape from the imminent onslaught of kids in Hollywood movies found an even higher percentage on the Palais screens. Cannes was a foundling home, where one found girls from Haiti and Vietnam, boys coming of age in St. Louis and Beijing (The Blue Kite), kids studying ancient popular arts in China (Farewell My Concubine) and Taiwan (The Puppetmaster), an evil child falling from a helicopter (Body Snatchers), a delightful child bouncing out of trouble into an angel’s arms (Faraway, So Close!).
In Wenders’ Wings of Desire, the whole world whispered secrets to the angels of cinema. Then the German director tried his hand at the $25 million epic Until the End of the World—part detective adventure story, part Phileas Fogg road movie—and met disaster. Never one to back off from a challenge, Wenders has blended his two previous pictures. Faraway, So Close! is a sequel to Wings, but with a thriller plot. At the end of Wings, the angel Daniel (Bruno Ganz) had fallen in love and become mortal, leaving his partner Cassiel (Otto Sander) alone to contemplate and guard the universe. Since Berlin removed its dividing wall in the interim, can Cassiel stay separated from humanity for long? No more than Wenders can resist the siren song of the movie muse.
Faraway, So Close!
If Faraway, So Close! is a bit messy in the 165-minute version Wenders showed at Cannes, it still has scenes of surpassing splendor and a heart of gold. For Wenders, any movie is a circus and a confessional, a film critique and a block party. Here he has gathered old friends (the four principals of Wings of Desire) for an exercise as buoyant as the bungee cords used by the film’s acrobat troupe. In the same fashion, Faraway, So Close! defies its own gravity. By the end, when its antagonists are reconciled into a happy family, the movie has made Cassiel a mortal, and Wenders has found heaven on earth.
The jury stirred some controversy in awarding Faraway, So Close! the Special Jury Prize. But there was little dispute over the Palme d’Or given to The Piano, Jane Campion’s handsome, and for the most part irresistible, Victorian Era romance. The Piano sets at cross purposes a fascinating quartet: the mute Ada (Holly Hunter), her 7-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), Ada’s mail-order husband Stewart (Sam Neill), and his distant neighbor George (Harvey Keitel). Flora—who for years has been Ada’s only confidante and communicator, in a sense her lover—is jealous at first of Stewart, who has marital rights to Ada that he dare not force on her, and then of George, who successfully barters for Ada’s heart. In tis starkest terms, The Piano is a story about the possession of a woman. Who has the most persuasive claim—her husband, her lover, or her daughter? And can Ada ever become enough her own woman to renounce the possession she holds dearest, her piano, even at the point of death?
Campion, for whom The Piano functions as her calling card to world-class status after the cult hit Sweetie and her miniseries Angel at My Table, has placed her volatile characters in an elemental setting: the wilds of New Zealand in the 1850s. The wind and light play tricks in this strange land; they blow passions into a man’s head and make civilization look like savagery. While an Englishman paints his face with Maori inscriptions, the aboriginal servants sign “God Save the Queen.” Campion managers her story and symbols beautifully, and evokes harrowing performances from her four leads. What a shame, then, that she allows some plot inanities to creep into her tale (such as a message that Ada inscribes for the illiterate George) and that she loses her resolve at the climax—or rather, at the seven or eight climaxes with which The Piano ends. The film finally unravels, but not until it has left its pattern in our haunted hearts.
The Piano was not the only Pacific film to leave its mark on the festival. Indeed, Cannes ’93 may well be remembered as the year Asian cinema conquered the world. Many of the finest films involved some form of co-production among Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, an old and imposing presence at Cannes, presented The Puppetmaster, a lapidary tribute to Li Tien Lu, who has played in many of Hou’s films and has been a master of the folk art of puppeteering for more than 60 years. At the more rambunctious end of Taiwan’s demographic spectrum was Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God, a revenge melodrama as splashy and agitated as American-style graffiti spray-painted on a Japanese motorcycle. In this story of a teenager who drops out of the academic grind for the fast life of downtown Taipei, and becomes obsessed with tracking a vandal and his girlfriend, art takes a backseat to anger. For movies that blend passion and precision, one had to look to the mainland—the to new films of Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang.
Farewell My Concubine is Chen’s bold bid for an international smash. Since his earlier exhibits at Cannes (Kingdom of the Children and Life on a String) were stately, cerebral affairs, certain old admirers received this film with some cynicism; claims of “sellout” soiled the Croisette. (Curiously, Campion, whose film surrenders improbably to the stereotype of a Hollywood happy ending, was not charged with the same crime.) The rest of the festivalgoers, though, were happy to see a promising director fulfill his promise with such assured passion. Concubine is a knockout, more than worthy to share the Palme d’Or with The Piano.
Based on Lillian Lee’s popular novel and produced by Hsu Feng, the star of King Hu’s martial arts masterpiece A Touch of Zen (’75), Concubine tells a showbiz story familiar in every movie culture, from France (Children of Paradise) to Hollywood (The Sunshine Boys) and around the world. In Beijing in 1977, two old troupers are reunited; these veteran stars of the Peking Opera will perform their greatest hit, “Farewell My Concubine,” one last time. The two men—kingly Duan Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi) and lovely Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung)—have known each other since they were boys at the Peking Opera school, but have not spoken since the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. “Ah, so it’s the fault of the Gang of Four,” says the stage manager. Xiaolou shrugs and replies, “Isn’t everything?”
Farewell My Concubine
This brazen little joke at the expense of Madame Mao lets you know that Chen is dancing on a high wire. The goal at the end of the tightrope is an honest portrait, in the lushest tones, of 53 years in the life of his country, from the Warlord Era through the first decades of the Chinese Communist Revolution. The abyss stretching below his quick feet is condemnation from the bureaucrats who decide which films will be shown in China and which will be banned. According to reports, Chen kept his balance. Unlike some recent films by Tian and Zhang Yimou, Farewell My Concubine has received the censors’ dispensation.
They must have been blinkered by the nonstop entertainment value of the film—it runs, at top speed, for 170 minutes, splashing history and drama vividly on the widescreen canvas—for Concubine is also a fearless denunciation of those in any regime who would stifle life and art, the two being inseparable in Chen’s mind. He is much more forgiving of the sadistic schoolmaster in 1920, who literally whips Xiaolou and Dieyi into shape, than he is of the children of Mao in the Fifties and Sixties who put the two artists on public trial because one of them performed for a Japanese officer during the Occupation.
The movie’s story coils around Dieyi, the gay man who plays the concubine role; he is as devoted to his art as Charles Ludlum, and as highly strung as Judy Garland. Whether from jealousy or because he believes that Xiaolou must have no diversionary pleasures offstage, Dieyi opposes his friend’s marriage to the prostitute Juxian (Gong Li). Because she too is a possessive minx, the triangle must end in a betrayal spurred by the state. The dictatorship of the proletariat will put a humiliating end to the aristocracy of the artist. He will be exiled from the audience he once served and thrilled.
Farewell My Concubine
Gong’s lustre has already illuminated American shores in the films she has made with Zhang Yimou; it is not diminished in Concubine, though she is playing the bad-girl role, the marplot. The news for those U.S. moviegoers who go to Chinatown only for the dim sum is that Leslie Cheung has arrived. Born in Hong Kong, educated in England, for many years residing in Vancouver, Cheung is both the dreamboat of Hong Kong singers and a stalwart of the island’s vital movie industry (John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow I an II, Ching Siutung’s Chinese Ghost Story I and II). Here he is a ravishingly seductive actor, whether in costume as the concubine or in street clothes arguing for the primacy of art over politics, beauty over reality.
Like Chen and Zhang, Tian was enrolled in the first class of the Beijing Film Academy when it opened in 1978 after having been shuttered during the Cultural Revolution. If Tian is not so famous as his Fifth Generation classmates, he is no less gifted than they, and much more a political firebrand. Of his rigorous films he once said, “I’m making them for audiences of the next century”, to which a Film Bureau poobah replied that he could wait till the next century to pick up his salary. In 1989 he was the only member of the film community to sign a petition calling for the release of political prisoners. Little wonder, then, that The Blue Kite’s script (by Xiao Mao) was rejected by Chinese officials; that production was sabotaged by threatening letters sent anonymously to Party Central; and that, after looking at the rough cut, the censors kept Tian from editing his film in Japan, as he had contracted to do. Ultimately, The Blue Kite was completed, without the director present, using the script and his production notes as a guide. Tian has said his fondest hope is someday to see his film.
Those who had that privilege at Cannes will not soon forget it. Its harrowing production history aside, The Blue Kite is a powerful film, weaving its chronicle of the Chen family into the blood-red fabric of the Chinese flag in the first decades of Maoism. The movie is narrated by Teitou, who is not yet born when the story begins with his parents’ marriage in 1953, and is 12 when it ends, in the worst days of the Cultural Revolution. At their marriage ceremony, the bridal pair bow to a wall photo of Mao and sing his kind of wedding hymn: “We are peaceful and never invade others.” The Chairman’s China didn’t need to invade other countries, The Blue Kite makes clear, because it was so preoccupied with invading and polluting the minds of its own people.
The Blue Kite
And suffering from each human and evil indignity the State can impose are some members of Teitou’s family. His mother is sent away for three months “to assist in agricultural production” after being unfairly denounced by a neighbor. His uncle’s girlfriend, a junior officer in the army, is sent away for “counterrevolutionary crimes” when she refuses to “dance” (have sex) with a politician. Teitou’s father dies when he is crushed by a tree he was cutting in a labor camp. Job and his family had no harder a time.
This movie is a career-defying denunciation of the Party in power; in other Socialist countries, movies are considered daring when they criticize the previous régime. Still, The Blue Kite could easily be either a conventional exposé or a Chinese soap opera: One Mao’s Family. But The Blue Kite is a tale told with tenderness, as though from mother to child. The film, while never sappy, is streaked with endearments: a groom lifting his bride in a giddy moment on their wedding night, Teitou’s mother (the radiant actress Lu Liping) singing to him and making an origami toy, the gentle banter at the dinner table. Despite the agonies inflicted on them, the Chen clan never lose their love or their hope; it floats above them like the blue kite that is Teitou’s most precious possession. “Mom, what makes you happy?” the boy asks at the end, and she says, “Being with you.”
Privileged moments like this alight on many of the best films at Cannes; they gave hope to festival veterans who had begun to believe after many an indifferent film year, that movies have had it. Now hope stirred the Riviera air, though tempered with a flinty realism that was best expressed by Peter Falk in Faraway, So Close!. Reprising his Wings of Desire role as an angel who has comfortably accommodated himself to human life, Falk offers the moral of Wenders’ movie, which could also be the motto of Cannes or any other film festival: “Take what you like. Forget the rest. Count your blessings. Shut up.”