Twenty-Four Hour Party People

May 15-26 2002

Having attended the Cannes Film Festival as a film distributor on the lookout for films with the promise of commercial success, I was unable to see everything I wanted. However, I think seeing 40-odd films in 12 days is a good enough effort to provide some insight into current world cinema, some films of which will be released in Australia while many others will screen at the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals. Wherever I could, I focused mostly on seeing films that did not have a distribution deal in Australia and that are normally confined to the festival circuit.

In terms of the Official Competition section, a much better selection than last year’s eclectic bunch, Cannes 2002 offered a diverse range of films from different parts of the globe representing arguably the best in contemporary international cinema. While there were a few films in Official Competition that puzzled many as to why they were selected, this year offered the least debatable selection in comparison to recent years.

As in any festival of this nature, the selection of films ranged from the somewhat commercial Hollywood fare like About Schmidt (Payne, 2002) and Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002) to the technically groundbreaking such as Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2002) to the emotionally involving Sweet Sixteen (Loach, 2002) and The Pianist (Polanski, 2002) to the usual perplexing and confounding such as Demonlover (Assayas, 2002), Spider (Cronenberg, 2002) and Irreversible (Noé, 2002). However, the best film in official selection belonged to a genre that has not been represented in Cannes in 46 years: a powerful documentary by Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine (2002).

Michael Moore’s documentary is a scathing examination of America’s lax gun laws and easy access to firearms, and suggests that such circumstances have contributed to the country’s many senseless murders including the recent Columbine High School incident where 12 students and one teacher were shot dead by two students. In fact, this is the film’s main focus. From the outset, Bowling for Columbine shocks viewers with its opening scene where Moore opens a bank account in a local bank in Michigan and is rewarded by being given a gun. The film never lets up from this funny but frightening opening. Moore then gives us a brief but concise montage of America’s violent history in its domestic and international conflicts that culminates with the September 11 attacks in New York. He then narrows his focus on the easy access to guns in the United States and interviews several dangerous individuals including a suspect in the Oklahoma bombings who was not convicted but who, as Moore clearly presents, remains a danger to society with his extremist views on gun control and anti-establishment opinions. Perhaps the most chilling moment in the film is when Moore presents in a divided frame the footage from four security cameras during the Columbine schools massacre without any narration or music as the murderous young students roam with their guns.

Bowling for Columbine

Bowling for Columbine does not break new ground in terms of the documentary form but totally succeeds in being an emotionally involving and powerful reflection of modern society. Moore obviously believes the trend in gun ownership in the United States is perhaps irreversible but his film is a clear warning to other nations who are on the verge of becoming gun crazy like the United States especially post-September 11. The film does pose an interesting idea of how modern society is built on a culture of fear and how the modern consumerist world perpetuates this fear by offering goods and services that constantly feed it. This is perhaps the film’s crux. Moore presents a plethora of themes, ideas and opinions in an overall concise vision of modern society and, while his intentions are ambitious, he succeeds where few films, feature or documentary, in recent times have not.

The most surprising aspect of this year’s official selection was the absence of any new discoveries. Most of the films selected were by seasoned veterans such as Mike Leigh, Manoel De Oliveira, Olivier Assayas, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and Roman Polanski. There were also those directors whose previous films verged on being cinematic masterpieces but who now produced sub-standard work. Previous Palme D’Or winners, the Dardenne Brothers whose film Rosetta (1999) was a tour-de-force of technical bravura and subtle ingenuity with a heartbreaking central performance, produced a confounding new film, Le Fils (2002). This film centers on a carpenter who initially refuses to help a teenage apprentice but then is so fascinated by the young boy that he follows and virtually stalks him. The directors do not reveal the reason for the man’s fascination with the boy until a bit later in the film when we realize the young apprentice murdered the carpenter’s son a few years back. There is no doubting the innovative direction of the Dardenne Brothers as evident in both Rosetta and their new film (they do have a penchant of shooting the back of heads) but, unlike Rosetta, Le Fils is somewhat sterile and devoid of any emotional involvement or development. It merely teases and prods the viewer with tempting scenarios and ideas that never amount to much and you are left questioning the intentions of the directors in the first place.

Another director who promised so much with his debut film Seul Contre Tous (1998), Gaspar Noé delivers an equally disturbing but perplexing film, Irreversible, that raises the bar in terms of censorship and graphic depiction of violent acts on celluloid much more than Baise Moi (2000), which has been banned in Australia. In light of this, I cannot see Irreversible ever being commercially released in Australia or anywhere for that matter and, at most, is destined to remain within the festival circuit.

Another Festival favourite is director Michael Winterbottom whose directorial brilliance normally lies in his precise and detailed depiction of time and place. He virtually places the viewer in the scene as he did so well in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and The Claim (2000). Now, in his latest film, Twenty-Four Hour Party People (2002), he does it again. His evocation of the Manchester punk/dance scene of the early ’80s is wonderfully realized, especially in the film’s early scenes dealing with great legendary English bands such as The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, New Order and The Clash. The choice of having a roving reporter directly address the viewer is an inspired one that works for the film’s frenetic and compelling first half. However, Twenty-Four Hour Party People tends to drift a bit when dealing with the rise and fall of legendary Manchester dance club, Hacienda, which closed its doors in the early ’90s. Winterbottom apparently believes its decline meant the end of the vibrant Manchester music scene but at least this viewer was not convinced. Bands like New Order and The Sex Pistols have made a significant contribution to the development of punk and dance music around the world regardless of the Hacienda nightclub’s existence. This is the film’s main weakness and the reason why when it finally ends, the emotions that were built-up so much in the first half merely evaporate by the film’s end where the narrator’s raised voice becomes more grating as the film continues.

A couple of years ago Abbas Kiarostami wowed festival audiences with his enigmatic but strangely compelling The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Since then he has ventured, albeit unsuccessfully, into documentary with ABC Africa (2001) dealing with the tragic AIDS-stricken children of Africa. This year in Cannes he presented his new film Ten (2002) which features a series of scenes about a woman dealing with various people in her life as she drives them around their local town. If you are able to sit through elongated scenes within a motor vehicle and tedious moments of dialogue, then you may witness some poignant moments but I was not. While the shooting style is similar to the far superior A Taste of Cherry (1997) in that most of the film takes place within the confines of a car, Ten is not nearly as emotionally involving as the earlier film.

Ken Loach returns to form with Sweet Sixteen (2002), a compelling tale of a teenage boy’s futile attempts to provide financial and emotional assistance to his mother by turning to a life of crime. Liam (Martin Compston) is about to turn 16 and his mother, Jean (Michelle Coulter), is to be released from prison shortly. To help fund a better life for both of them, Liam gets caught up in a life of crime where the rewards are great but the consequences severe. When Jean is finally released from prison she initially appreciates Liam’s assistance but then returns to her scum boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), who Liam detests and which leads to devastating results. There is no doubting Loach’s skill at depicting the lower classes of Scottish life. He has done it so well for so many years with My Name Is Joe (1999) being a highlight. Again the language is as coarse as ever in Sweet Sixteen with every second word being a cruel expletive and characters cursing each other repeatedly throughout the film. The effect is quite numbing to the viewer’s senses but nevertheless has a powerful effect in depicting the tortured lives of the film’s characters. Many viewers will find Sweet Sixteen hard to sit through especially its tragic climax but it remains overall an unforgettable experience. As always in a Ken Loach film, the performances are exceptional with the debut of young Martin Compston playing Liam being a revelation.

The Festival’s choice to open with Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending (2002) was obviously influenced by the fact that Woody Allen would attend Cannes for the first time as this film is tepid popcorn fare. While it has a few genuine comic moments, it is yet another instalment into Allen’s recent foray into lightweight fare without the dramatic substance of his best work such as Manhattan (1979) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is a once great director who is now confined to shooting commercials but gets a chance at a feature film when his ex-wife, Ellie Waxman (Tea Leoni), suggests to her studio boss boyfriend, Hal (Treat Williams), that her ex-husband would be the best person to direct the film. With the coercion of his agent and ditzy girlfriend, Allen accepts the offer but just when shooting is about to begin, Allen goes blind due to psychological stress. However, he still continues to shoot the film with the help of his agent and an Asian interpreter whose assistance is unbeknownst to anyone else. Allen milks every scene for its comic worth but the result is rather flat and predictable. While Hollywood Ending is not as disappointing as Small Time Crooks (2000), it is neither a highlight of Allen’s oeuvre or a worthy addition.

On the heels of his stirring epic, Chunhyang (2000), Im Kwon Taek tackles the biographical story of a 19th century Korean painter, Ohwon (Choi Min-Sik), whose penchant for women and alcohol as artistic inspiration make him a predecessor to Jackson Pollock. Tracing the painter’s life from an early age, Im Kwon Taek tells an absorbing tale of an artist ahead of his time. This leisurely-paced film may test the patience of some Western audiences but those that stick it out will find it richly rewarding with Kwon Taek’s innovative direction, Min-Sik’s astounding portrayal of a tortured artist and the impressive cinematography by Jung Il Sung.

Long Way Home

Interestingly the out-and-out masterpiece in Cannes was not from the Official Competition section but rather the Un Certain Regard selection. Peter Sollett’s debut feature, Long Way Home (2002), is a remarkable achievement given the fact that no script was ever given to the cast, just mere broad instructions about scene and character developments, and the cast features all newcomers to the silver screen. Shot in glorious rich tones by cinematographer, Tim Orr, who also shot the equally visually sumptuous George Washington (Greene, 2000), Long Way Home is set in New York City’s Lower East Side and gives a heartbreaking account of teenage love in all its fragile complexities. When word gets out that teenage Victor is sleeping with an overweight young girl in the neighbourhood, Victor quickly acts to quash the rumour by chasing the neighbourhood’s best looking and most sought after girl, Judy. At first Judy merely brushes him off but then is clearly enamoured by Victor’s charms. Victor also has to contend with his family circumstances, which include his over-protective grandmother, envious younger brother and annoying sister, all in a cramped tenement apartment. Most of the film is shot in confined spaces and areas such as apartments, local swimming pools and backyards where walls and fences confine the characters within their set world. However, Long Way Home‘s ending reinforces Victor’s emotional victory as he strides off into the warm sunlit street with a confident manner let loose of all emotional and physical restrictions that only true love can bring. With a loose hand-held camera, free-wheeling editing incorporating many jump-cuts and shot all on location, Sollett directs with a visual energy and breaks new ground in his technique of working with actors. While the film is reminiscent of Our Song (McKay, 2000) in its depiction of working class New York teenagers, Long Way Home is much less docudrama and more cinematic and a total joy.

Another impressive film screening in Un Certain Regard was Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie, 2002). Based on the bestseller of the same name, this gorgeously shot film is reminiscent of Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1961) in its exploration of two young men in love with a beautiful Chinese seamstress (Zhou Xun). Set in a Maoist re-education camp where young men and women are taught Chinese propaganda which they must then spread to nearby villagers, Ma (Lui Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun) are best friends who have a penchant for European literature, which is not allowed on the camps. When the boys discover a fellow student possess European literature, they seize the books and begin reading Balzac to the seamstress and end up falling in love with her. This simple, poignant tale becomes more emotionally involving as the film goes on with its touching, unforgettable final image. It is also one of the best photographed films in recent memory depicting a mountainous landscape with rich, vibrant tones underlying the film’s emotional texture.

A documentary about the life of Hollywood producer, Robert Evans, who produced some of the best films of the ’60s and ’70s such as Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) and Bonnie & Clyde (Penn, 1967), screened Out of Competition but Evans was there in person to present the film. Recovering from a recent stroke, Evans had to he assisted onto the stage to present his film where he spoke fondly of his time as a film producer in arguably Hollywood’s modern Golden Age. The Kid Stays In The Picture (Burstein, Morgen, 2002) is a rather diluted account of Evan’s scathing autobiographical book of the same name and presents Evans himself as a once great producer whose egotistical nature led to his downfall. It also chronicles the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the beginning of Corporate Hollywood. The film’s main problem is its lack of interviews with any actors or producers who worked with Evans during that time. The film merely charts Evans rise and fall through a series of stylized shooting of stock photographs and locations. What should have been a compelling expose, The Kid Stays In The Picture (2002) is merely a presentation of a life and time when Hollywood churned out some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces. Nothing that has not been done before and better in television documentaries.

Screening in Director’s Fortnight was the eagerly anticipated new feature by Catherine Breillat, Sex Is Comedy (2002). While Breillat rose to prominence a few years ago with the controversial Romance (1999), her next feature A Ma Soeur (2001) showcased her unique directorial style and her development as a director dealing with tough dramatic themes. In her new film, Sex Is Comedy, she lightens up a great deal. The film is essentially a one-act play where Anne Parillaud plays a director who attempts to direct a difficult sex scene and has to deal with the insecurities and volatile nature of her actors. While the film features many comic moments, especially when the male actor proudly struts around with a prosthetic erection, there are also moments of dramatic tension as Parillaud struggles to direct the perfect sex scene she so desires especially when the two actors detest each other. While Sex Is Comedy offers some insight into the tedious aspect of filmmaking, it is neither as compelling nor revelatory as Breillat’s previous films and this lack of controversy will limit the film’s box office potential.

Morvern Callar

Another director whose latest film was also eagerly anticipated at Cannes 2002 was Lynne Ramsay, whose previous film was the powerful debut, Ratcatcher (1999). Like Ratcatcher, Ramsay’s new film Morvern Callar (2002), is strikingly shot in glorious rich tones but is also as depressing and morbid as her debut film. Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) discovers the dead body of her boyfriend who has committed suicide but left behind an unpublished novel. Rather than calling the authorities, Morvern merely leaves the body in the apartment and treks on a road journey with her best friend and attempts to get the novel published under her own name. Samantha Morton is terrific in playing the role of this wary young woman who suddenly finds fame and fortune but the film’s downbeat tone may frustrate some viewers. However, this impressive follow-up for Ramsay confirms her stature as an upcoming director of enormous talent whose next feature is highly anticipated by this viewer at least.

Following up on her successful debut, High Art (1998), Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002) tells the story of a young doctor, Sam (Christian Bale), whose rock producer mother, Jane Bentley (Frances McDormand), offers him and his fiancée, Alex (Kate Beckinsdale), her large house in Los Angeles while she stays at her beach house. However, when the young couple arrive they discover that Jane has separated from her boyfriend, given him the beach house and is living at the house. While Jane leads a hedonistic lifestyle, Sam and Alex are both fairly straight-laced people. However, things change. While Sam suddenly gets attracted to a fellow doctor, Alex becomes enmeshed into the pot-smoking, hedonistic lifestyle of Sam’s mother and her music friends. This all leads to several confrontations between mother and son, boyfriend and lover. While the premise sounds fairly standard fare, Choldenko manages to make it quite enjoyable in a breezy, non-offensive manner. Strictly targeted at the mainstream arthouse audience, Laurel Canyon is lightweight but should pull in reasonable sized audiences given the star power and rock music soundtrack. However, the film’s unresolved sudden ending may annoy some viewers but I found it surprisingly and refreshingly ambiguous within a conventional narrative film.

While Cannes featured some impressive films, there were a few disappointments that I will now briefly mention. Olivier Assayas is a confounding director whose best work may still be ahead of him but if Demonlover is any indication, then this may be some time away. Working unsuccessfully as a corporate espionage cum thriller within the Manga violent and pornographic animation web sites, this film shows Assayas seemingly out of ideas. The film is excruciatingly lame and unnecessarily complex and enigmatic. David Cronenberg’s Spider is equally as confounding with Ralph Fiennes mumbling his way without any dialogue as a mentally ill patient just released onto the streets of London. The film takes us on a journey from the perspective of his messed-up head and the memories of his mother’s murder which continues to haunt him. As we discover what really happened to his mother, we suddenly do not care as much as we should and this is the film’s major fault. Atom Egoyan is another director whose previous work has raised high expectation on any follow-up film. After watching Ararat (2002), I am beginning to doubt whether Egoyan could ever reach the heights of The Sweet Hereafter (1998). Films within films rarely work as a narrative device and when you throw in the little known history of the Armenian genocide of the early part of the century into the mix, it makes it even more difficult to sustain any sort of compelling narrative. While Egoyan’s efforts are admirable in bringing to light a part of history doubted to exist by many in the first place, Ararat is so ambitious and lofty, dealing with grandiose themes that none of them really take off.

Feeling the exhaustion of watching 40 films in nine days and attending an equal number of late-night parties held by international sales agents, I could not wait to get away from the sunshine of southern France and return to Melbourne’s comforting cold winter. Averaging four hours sleep a night can take its toll on the unseasoned traveller and it certainly did on me with my own health being compromised for intermittent periods of self-indulgence in films, food and wine. Bring on Cannes 2003!