It began in controversy and ended in closure or, as the French say, cloture. Arguments at the Cannes Film Festival are usually about which film deserved to win or whether the blindingly bright days in this Riviera Eden are just a smidge too cool. This time the world impinged on the art.
The ruckus began just before the festival, when the American Jewish Congress called for a near-boycott on grounds of French anti-Semitism. That charge was answered on opening day when Woody Allen, France's favorite U.S. auteur, showed up to say he loved the French and commended them for voting the straight anti-anti-Semitic ticket in the recent election. Then Cannes presented its first-ever Palestinian film in competition: Elia Suleiman's monstrously witty Divine Intervention, in which a balloon with Yasser Arafat's face on it floats across an Israeli military checkpoint, and a Palestinian Ninja babe beats the enemy with maneuvers worthy of Hong Kong martial madame Michelle Yeoh (a member of this year's Jury). At the closing ceremony, Suleiman won a Jury prize: third place.
Other awards went to Cannes familiars in good form: a Grand Prix (second place) to Aki Kaurismaki's The Man Without a Past a tale of an amnesiac among the unemployed and one of the deadpan Finn's finest films, but more sweet than startling. The film's leading lady, Kati Outinen, took Best Actress. Olivier Gourmet was named Best Actor for his role in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes' The Son, a touching drama about a troubled teenager and the carpenter whose son he killed. But after all the politico-ethnic tsimmes and tsouris, the Jury (headed by U.S. director David Lynch) gave its top award, the Palme d'Or, to Roman Polanski's Holocaust saga The Pianist, an epic adaptation of the 1946 memoir by Jewish musician and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Cannes this year was good for the Jews, and not bad for world cinema.
It is always dangerous to find political significance in movies. Films are not news bulletins; they are dreams, acts of love, art and commerce. Still, the coupling of a Palestinian picture and an Israeli one (Amos Gitai's Kedma), programmed by the festival as "a gesture of peace," couldn't help but make op-ed columnists out of movie critics. Cannes is the most glamorous international home not just of the art film but of the political film fervently, fashionably left-wing.
Take Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine; a U.S. distributor did take it, for a healthy $3 million. Moore's docu-comedy, which earned the Jury's only unanimous award (a 55th Anniversary prize), is a rambunctious, disturbing, often hilarious autopsy of the American gun culture; it includes creepy interviews with James Nichols, brother of the Oklahoma City bombing conspirator, and Charlton Heston, who used to be Moses and is now president of the National Rifle Association. Columbine has loads of entertainment value, but one wonders if that's why it received a possibly unprecedented 13-min. standing ovation from the tuxedoed Cannes crowd. Or could it be that the movie seemed to ... hate America? (Actually, it doesn't; Moore is as baffled as the rest of us by the obscenely high U.S. murder rate.)
Iran may still be on the U.S. short list of states that support terrorism, but it also supports the most vital national art cinema of the past decade. Last year every Iranian film seemed to be about Afghanistan and its flood of emigrants into the Islamic Republic. This year another threatening neighbor, Iraq, is the focus of anxiety. Dariush Mehrjui's Bemani tells of a young Iraqi woman who befriends an Iranian soldier and is beheaded by her outraged father. But the film doesn't blame only the Iraqis. Two Iranian fathers beat their daughters, one because she didn't tell him she was taking pre-med courses, the other because she chatted with a shepherd. Both women set themselves on fire in protest and despair.
Sometimes all the oppressed can do is laugh. In the initially slapstick, then tragic Iranian film Songs of My Mother's Homeland, Kurds pour across the Iran border from Iraq. It's chaos for all concerned except a peddler whose business is booming. "They bring disease but they also bring money," he says. "God bless Saddam!" The Tajikistan Angel on the Right Shoulder opens on a deserted highway; a man stands there with a sheep. He flags down a taxi; he and his sheep get in. This man, a Muslim, complains to the driver that "the Russians think anyone with dark skin is a bandit." Turns out he's not a bandit; he's a heroin dealer. But then, in this dark, delicious comedy everyone is a crook: the ex-con hero, his "dying" mother and the village mayor who acts as if he's Vito Corleone. Creative chicanery: that's capitalism, Third World-style.
If films weren't overtly political, they were insistently social. Some of the strongest works examined the working-class, the out-of-work, the criminally forlorn. The Brazilian City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, is a ferocious fresco of Rio slum kids who grow up to be vicious gangsters, if they don't die first. The movie's style is as hyper as the coked-up kids, but City of God manages to hold dozens of horrifying stories in some kind of coherence with its unflinching powers of observation. Another cautionary teen tale, Sweet Sixteen, directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty (winner of Cannes' Scenario prize), is distinguished by its clear-eyed sympathy for a bright kid who thinks he can win his mum's love only by dealing drugs. The Scottish star, non-actor Martin Compston, 17, is marvelous a screen natural.
A few works offered blessed escape. Escape into musical rapture: the Bollywood drama Devdas, one of the most visually ravishing films ever made. Escape into brilliant technique: Alexander Sukorov's Russian Ark, which takes a tour of St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, and three centuries of Russian history, in one amazing 87-min. Steadicam shot. Escape into movies: Catherine Breillat's beguilingly erotic Sex Is Comedy, about a director preparing her two leads for a bedroom scene. It's a funny, delicate walk on the wild and wise side.
But the top winner, in this fraught year, had to be a film about victims and survivors. For The Pianist's Szpilman (well played by Adrien Brody) and the half-million other Jews sardined into the Ghetto, the issue of individual survival was as capricious as the number of shells left in a Nazi's pistol. Great atrocities follow intimate ones; soon they had to ask whether European Jewry itself could survive. Polanski's view is unsentimental and acute; it focuses on the behavior of besieged people in ever more extreme circumstances. Some reports say that by war's end only 20 Jews were still alive in Warsaw. If The Pianist was not a risky choice for the Jury, it was an honorable one, in the tradition of such previous Palme d'Or winners as The Tin Drum, The Mission, Pelle the Conqueror and Farewell My Concubine films that impose a personal story on a grand, wrenching national canvas. After the award ceremony, the critics massed in righteous annoyance that a film as conventional (though artfully, powerfully made) as Polanski's could win the Palme d'Or, when their favorites were slighted. This kerfuffle was silly but sweet: Cannes was finally back to normal.