Under the Sun of Satan

Think you’ll never experience the Cannes Film Festival? Well, I’m here to tell you that, armed with the right local library, a nearby rental store abounding in rare titles, and a region-free DVD player, you can attain an even fuller immersion in the movies at Cannes than the folks on the Croisette. You just have to settle, if that’s the right word, for an earlier vintage.

Three years ago, I launched a springtime tradition of revisiting a past Cannes, gathering every film I could find from each section of the festival and watching them in the order of their initial unveiling. The sheer, Herzogian pleasures of monomaniacal zeal also allow for a gratifying completism: you can survey a film festival much more comprehensively in retrospect than you ever can in real time. Each viewing confirms some reactions I had when I first saw some of the films but alters others. Even better, I discover a huge sampling of titles, eclectic in genre and nationality, that previously eluded me and barely registered in published reportage.

This May, I embarked upon a 30th-anniversary return to Cannes 1987, which bears two chief claims to fame. One concerns its contentious culmination, with Maurice Pialat harvesting a surprise Palme d’Or for his austere, quietly received Georges Bernanos adaptation Under the Sun of Satan, eliciting boos at the prize ceremony, which Pialat proudly reciprocated. Its other principal legacy is Roger Ebert’s 1987 book Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, reissued last year in paperback, a pre-Internet diary of how Cannes feels to a perennial, all-access pilgrim, complete with his pencil drawings and journal entries about screenings, interviews, promenades, computer crises, and favorite titles from the Cannes market, including Blood-Sucking Monkeys of Forest Lawn.

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

Sadly, that particular jewel has vanished so completely that Amazon, YouTube, Interlibrary Loan, and Chicago’s formidable Odd Obsession Movies and Facets Videothèque can’t even find it. Through these channels, though, I mined 42 other features from that year’s program—noting that some of the best-received movies circulate today only in dusty VHS or out-of-print, limited-run DVDs. Ironically, one such obscurity was, by Ebert’s account, the first buzzy hit of Cannes ’87: the Canadian neo-noir Un zoo la nuit, which opened the Directors’ Fortnight. Ostentatiously styled as a Michael Mann–meets–Atom Egoyan mix of night shots, neon palettes, sexual crimes, egghead melancholy, and one elephant assassination, this debut film for Léolo director Jean-Claude Lauzon later set a still-standing record by winning 13 Genie Awards, Canada’s Oscar equivalent. Even in its homeland, though, the movie never made the leap to disc. Its eccentric tones and narrative twists make it worth hunting down, as do the more playful, Miranda July–ish enticements of Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, another auspicious Canadian debut that also presages in style and story the New Queer Cinema soon to follow in the U.S. and U.K.

Speaking of pairs, the early days of Cannes 1987 showcased two exceptional West African films, exemplifying different tilts in that region’s on-screen storytelling. Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen, the rare Malian film to secure U.S. distribution, brings resplendent production values to its mythopoeic narrative and won a Jury Prize. The gender politics are far from progressive, but the gutsy synthesizing of ancient lore and cutting-edge photography is quite sophisticated. Some viewers might fret that Yeelen reinforces a Western view of Africa as a continent of timeless archetypes and aestheticized surfaces, but Cissé’s colors, props, and singular tableaux cut deeper than that, bending conventional film grammar, and invigorating the eye and the mind alike. Audiences seeking a less shimmery African narrative, one more engaged with modern realities, might prefer Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Burkinabe drama Yam Daabo, slotted into Critics’ Week. Like Cissé, Ouedraogo would contend for the Palme at a later Cannes. Already he evinces a knack for subtle but potent ironies, starting and ending his knotty plot of embattled loves and family rivalries with two visits from a UN truck to the same rural village, providing not enough rice to too many people. The main story, then, is both an engrossing melodrama rendered in unpretentious images and a secondary concern amid a basic quest for individual and regional survival.

Yeelen and Yam Daabo both hold up beautifully, as does Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave, a self-directed concert documentary that still feels as sonically and visually adventurous as ever, even on videotape. Multimedia performance art has a built-in you-had-to-be-there element that Anderson’s movie utterly defies, through inventive and dynamic editing and her own durable wit. Narrating from the stage her past lives as a cow, a bird, and a passel of 100 rabbis, Anderson deadpans, “This is my first life as a woman, which explains quite a few things.”

belly of an architect

The Belly of an Architect

Other entrants in the festival have not retained their initial dazzle. Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, starring an emotionally and physically splenetic Brian Dennehy, feels stiff and grandiose, simultaneously under- and over-directed. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Italian-language Dark Eyes scored Marcello Mastroianni an acting award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, but it too has been AWOL on U.S. home formats for over a decade. Despite some zesty scenes and an elegant black, white, and tan color scheme, this ocean-sailing, Europe-spanning, dreamgirl-chasing picaresque offers little that isn’t familiar from other expatriate epics. Adapted from several Chekhov stories, including the famous “Lady with Lapdog,” it has too little of their expressive economy, tonal specificity, or lingering power.

The biggest headlines in the early days of this festival trailed Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance, suppressed by Polish authorities for six years after filming. Its three-part story, about a medical student who becomes a Communist apparatchik, an underground resistor, and an apolitical equivocator in three versions of the same life-trajectory, is handsomely shot and politically trenchant. This kaleidoscopic triple allegory set the stage for more restless and grand national allegories to follow during the fortnight. Sadly, the timeliest of all these cultural self-studies is Louis Malle’s …And the Pursuit of Happiness, a documentary about U.S. immigrants trying to assimilate but also preserve their identities and their hard-won adoptive homes. They scrape together wages, fight xenophobia, get forced over walls and slip tirelessly back through them; a genial conversation between a serial deportee and a border guard produces the same casual astonishment as the colloquy between a striking miner and a Wall Street policeman in Harlan County USA (1976). You can time-travel back three decades and still not escape Trump’s swamp, but Malle’s compassionate movie, alert throughout to injustice, also optimistically suggests that many of these lives will turn out okay, against redoubtable odds.

Nick Davis is a professor of film, literature, and gender studies at Northwestern University. He also writes film reviews at www.NicksFlickPicks.com.