Before the Revolution


CANNES, FRANCE—Every film festival produces its quintessential film. For Cannes 2006, it was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. Maximalist cine-globalism, Babel was shot in four languages on three continents by a Mexican director with an international cast, including Hollywood top dog Brad Pitt.

The movie is a monument to unintended consequences. A hunting rifle left by a Japanese tourist in Morocco wreaks havoc around the world. As Babel‘s multi-part, densely edited “simultaneous” narrative recalls D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, so González Iñárritu’s enthusiastically received third feature conjures many of the festival’s big themes, including terrorism, illegal immigration, and gringos in the desert. There’s even a critique of American entitlement; in threatening to kill off most of his characters over the course of a long and brooding 160 minutes, González Iñárritu cannot be said to fear attacking his audience. Call it art with a fuckin’ A, man.

Cannes’s 2006 competition may not have been the strongest in recent years but it was certainly the most relevant. Over a third of the 20 films vying for the Palme d’Or took war or civil disturbance as their subject; both the most conventional entry, Rachid Bouchareb’s effective World War II combat flick Days of Glory, and the most experimental one, Pedro Costa’s challenging exercise in Straubian neorealism Colossal Youth, concerned the situation of colonial peoples displaced in Europe.

Would a Coppola Palme d’Or establish Cannes’s first dynasty? Featured on the cover of half the mags at the local kiosks, touted as a certain winner by Coppola family retainers, accorded maximum praise by rival journals Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif, boasting a drop-dead hip cast (Rip Torn as a swaggering Louis XIV, Asia Argento impersonating Madame DuBarry, and Coppola cousin Jason Schwartzman playing the diffident Louis XV, with Steve Coogan and Marianne Faithfull in other roles),
Marie Antoinette was the most anticipated movie of the festival’s second week—and consequently, the biggest disappointment.

Kirsten Dunst thoroughly inhabits the piece of Austrian “apple strudel” imported to marry the French dauphin as an American teenager. For much of the time, Coppola “documents” Dunst’s clueless boredom as, her marriage unconsummated, she takes some solace in jewels, clothes, and sweets. (The sugary mise-en-scéne is more Fragonard than Watteau.) When the hapless dauphin ascends to the throne, Marie A. becomes queen of the all-night rave; with motherhood, she creates her own domain, the carefree proprietress of a miniature play farm.

For its first hour, Marie Antoinette is a graceful, charming, purposefully hermetic movie, with a number of witty performances and a pop score to match. (The opening chords are supplied by Gang of Four.) Shot in as well as at Versailles, the movie’s sanitized view of 18th-century hygiene is as tasteful as its deferential Francophilia. (It was aid to the American Revolution that bankrupted the country.) Then, as the French Revolution approaches, Coppola’s attempt to redeem her heroine’s shallowness reveals her own.

Cake is not enough. The queen’s gravitas arrives like a bolt from the blue, signaled by her reading Rousseau to her ladies-in-waiting; the movie crashes definitively to earth at the moment Dunst’s Marie, when informed of her legendary one-liner, turns all, like, serious: “I would never say that.”

Never say never: Among other things, Cannes is a bourse for investing in critical reputations. (A journalist may calculate his or her own by the type of pass awarded and the not unrelated quality of one’s party invitations.)

The sense of Sofia Coppola as a child of privilege will not be dispelled. But to judge from the intensely favorable reaction to the mildly likable Volver, Pedro Almodóvar has moved from auteur to maestro; the generally warm response given Aki Kaurismäki’s extremely slight Lights in the Dusk suggests that the Finn man occupies a somewhat lower spot on the slope of cinema’s Mount Olympus. The serious, if selective, attention accorded Climates indicates that Nuri Bilge Ceylan—one of the very few filmmakers to have his strongest work to date in the competition—will be the first Turkish director to begin his ascent toward immortality.

González Iñárritu’s manipulative we-are-the-world tragedy gave his rep a major boost; Bruno Dumont’s declined with his less successfully brutalizing Flanders—a graphic look at clods at war and in love, if that’s the word for the movie’s instances of Hobbesian tendresse. In The Life of Jesus and Humanité, Dumont’s cinema of stupidity seemed kinda inneresting. Now it just seems stupid—or rather, moronic.

Richard Kelly’s cult status will only be enhanced by the widely reviled
Southland Tales
, especially since it seems the Cannes version of this film maudit will next be shown on DVD. Richard Linklater took a hit for his insipid
Fast Food Nation but recovered and then some with his animated
A Scanner Darkly
—not just the best Philip K. Dick adaptation since Total Recall but an adaptation that brings quite a bit to the original. This paranoid drug-opera will soon be coming to a theater near you, improving the summer movie season even more than it did Cannes’s American presence.

Given that last year’s surprise success was The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, it was not surprising to see new Romanian films in both the Directors’ Fortnight and Un Certain Regard sections. In other trends, Iran’s stock plummeted, and despite the presence of Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Ziyi on the jury, China’s declined: Cannes passed on Jia Zhangke’s latest and, the flawed Summer Palace aside, the Chinese movies in the official sections were mediocre. Spanish-language movies, however, are up—particularly the Mexican and Argentine varieties. It seems more than likely that a Spanish-speaking filmmaker will win the Palme d’Or. For the first time ever there are two Mexican directors in competition, González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro (whose touted Pan’s Labyrinth has yet to screen); meanwhile, Israel Adrián Caetano’s competing Buenos Aires 1977 was picked up midfest with appropriate fanfare by the renascent Weinstein brothers. Over in the Directors’ Fortnight, Argentine experimentalist Lisandro Alonso received a rapturous reception with his made-to-order Fantasma, in which the Indian antihero of his 2004 festival hit Los Muertos wanders around a Buenos Aires office building in search of a screening room playing . . . Los Muertos. (That the 31-year-old director already has disciples was demonstrated by the funky minimalism of Paz Encina’s first feature, Hamaca Paraguaya, which plays like Beckett without the jokes.)

And what of the festival itself, only one year shy of the solemn and crass ceremony sure to mark its 60th edition? Pre-revolutionary as Cannes’s customs may be, the festival remains almost millennial in its underlying credo. Cinema à la Cannes aspires to the universal and transcendent—the medium is something more than a business and beyond entertainment. For 12 carnivalesque days, movies aren’t just cake, they’re the bread of life and even sacramental wafer.