There is general consensus that the 2004 Cannes Film Festival represented a return to form after last year’s rather miserable outing (although it certainly hadn’t been the fiasco of mythic proportions exaggerated reports suggested). Indeed, there were less embarrassments on display – you could even catch one good film per day, though only a couple of them in competition – but that was the logical outcome of a more mainstream, less “risky” programming policy. In his first year as sole artistic director, Thierry Frémaux had decided to move away even further from Cannes’ politique d’auteurs anciennes than in the previous year’s half-hearted attempt. (In a fabulous irony, it was one of the few exceptions that almost vindicated the new stance: Emir Kusturica’s Life is a Miracle  mainly proved that you can achieve monotony via relentless hysteria.)
While this opening-up certainly made for a more lively program, it couldn’t cover up the seeming randomness of the festival’s selection principles, most egregiously visible in a disappointing Hollywood line-up that even Berlin would think twice about before accepting, with Ethan and Joel Coen’s poor Ladykillers remake (2004) and even Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon, 2004) in competition (while, as not quite unsubstantiated rumours had it, the new works of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mike Leigh, Im Kwon-taek and Jia Zhangke had been rejected). Inexplicably occupying a bulk of out-of-competition-slots were films that would open in a minute in France (and already had in most other places), including Wolfgang Petersen’s lacklustre epic Troy (2004), jury president Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), not to mention the Dawn of the Dead remake (Zach Snyder, 2004). In recent years, Cannes has been thriving on presenting an incomprehensibly selected mix of artistic experimentation and market lip-service, but with the scales now decidedly tipped in favour of the latter, the distinction of what might even be considered art was blurred more than ever (which also may have to do with many “critics” no longer caring to make one, except maybe by walking out of challenging fare – Kent Jones aptly described the press reaction to Tropical Malady [Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004] as “the symphony of flapping seats”). And that was already before the prizes were announced.
Tarantino’s jury, in what was obviously a chaotic folly of compromise, opted for an arbitrary shower of prizes, some of them beyond puzzling (best director for Tony Gatlif?). Indeed the first announcement on award night pretty much summed it all up: Irma P. Hall shared the Jury Prize for her acting in Ladykillers – maybe really the best thing about this heartless movie, but certainly not enough to make it interesting – with Tropical Malady, unquestionably aesthetically the most daring and advanced film competing for the Palme d’or. Still, the mystifying nature of most decisions was easily overlooked, it seems, once the Palme d’or had been announced, since it went to the film that almost everybody could agree upon, though hardly for its artistic merits. When Michael Moore’s sloppy anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the biggest hype of the festival, triumphed, the new Cannes policy of anything goes had come full circle.
A slight improvement over Moore’s previous documentaries – he’s giving himself less onscreen time for grandstanding, though his off-screen commentary ensures that you won’t have to pass on being amused despite some devastating material on display – Fahrenheit 9/11 is another haphazardly organised television special that ends up in cinemas because there is no room for it in a homogenised US media landscape. At least that is what Moore’s film leads you to believe. (And even if his excerpts from the blatantly one-sided war news coverage by the big US television stations should not be representative – as a European I can hardly tell – they’re shocking enough as it is.) This also points to one of the general problems with Moore’s films: despite their obvious patriotism it is hard to tell whether their success abroad isn’t just the result of feeding on anti-American clichés. Indeed the many inconsistencies of Moore’s scattershot polemic show similarities to Bush’s own dubious methods – which is probably what Jean-Luc Godard was getting at when he announced at his press conference (admittedly not having seen Fahrenheit) that Moore was actually helping Bush.
Such objections mattered little, as Fahrenheit 9/11 was the film of the moment, coming right on the heels of Abu Ghraib, not to mention the headlines reporting the US bombing of an Iraqi wedding two days before the prizes were announced. And of course Moore, master of publicity, had played up the US distribution angle just in time, and was seemingly omnipresent at the festival (the media courted accordingly). As if that hadn’t been enough, the Cannes programmers upped the hype ante, by purposefully scheduling the press screenings of the festival’s most awaited film (and pre-certified controversy) in the two smallest venues at the same time. Such stunts aside, one couldn’t help feeling a certain sympathy for Moore’s agit-prop intervention. Even if he’s making a show of it, he is at least taking an overdue mainstream stand. When I conceded this while insisting on the film’s many glaring deficits to a respected US colleague right after the screening, he responded with “You’re probably right, but at this point I’m willing to accept anything that helps to drive Bush out of office.”
Whether Fahrenheit 9/11 will be able to do so remains to be seen: Moore’s usual, desultory line of argument is unlikely to convert any Republicans, but its obvious aim is to agitate “unpolitical” persons, especially amongst the disenfranchised. In that spirit Moore even manages to show some of them and their sad fates without the usual condescension. That is welcome, but it certainly doesn’t make Fahrenheit 9/11 into a work of art. Which is what the jury claimed, actually adding that this wasn’t a political decision. Patently ridiculous, of course, but then again, so have been many Cannes decisions during the years, though this may be the first that the main prize is bestowed on a film with a self-set expiration date about five months after its world premiere. That FIPRESCI also gave its award to Moore’s film is a lot more distressing.
In another first, the unanimous pre-festival favourite, Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004), arrived late. At the last minute official schedules had to be readjusted, and the mood for love died pretty quickly – many remarked that no other director would have gotten away with it. Little surprise, then, that the reactions were rather mixed. Wong’s visually intoxicating, loosely connected assemblage of ravishing moments of romantic longing suggests that in the four years of the film’s production he became completely lost in his own œuvre. The lush colour-coding and the central character are from In the Mood For Love (2000): Tony Leung has now become a melancholy cynic and writer of futuristic martial arts and porn, in between he has doomed trysts with a number of beauties, most notably Zhang Ziyi (much better here than in Zhang Yimou’s out-of-competition martial arts picture-postcard House of Flying Daggers ), while Gong Li plays the role Maggie Cheung had in the earlier feature – Maggie herself providing a “special guest appearance”, though nobody seemed quite sure afterwards if she was actually in the film. (In the meantime people lucky enough to see 2046 twice have believably assured me that she is shortly seen twice in a doorway in the opening reel.) This all gives a sense of the beyond-Lynchian auto-vertigo Wong tries to convey in 2046. It is as if his entire body of work had been refracted after a few cups too many of the wine of forgetfulness from his Ashes of Time (1994), resulting in an exquisite, almost fetishistic and labyrinthine portrayal of eternal loss. Many observers at Cannes thought that 2046 was still unfinished – like Fahrenheit 9/11, incidentally, which Moore said he “might update in light of recent developments” before its general release. But whereas in Moore’s film I often had the feeling he was just randomly throwing items onscreen that could have been presented more profitably in a coherent manner (it is the core of his unabashedly populist aesthetic, always going for the emotion, not the intellect), in 2046 the kaleidoscopic approach makes thematic sense. Wong’s admittedly solipsistic meta-masterpiece would have been a logical choice to top-honour the welcome expanded Asian competition presence, while continuing the time-honoured Cannes tradition of awarding the Palme for a filmmaker’s career rather than the specific film. (The autoerotic relationship of 2046 to Wong’s earlier works would have added a meta-twist to the scenario.)
Rather, Tarantino’s professed favourite, Park Chan-wook’s dark Korean revenge thriller Old Boy (2004), ended up with the Grand Prix. Its flashiness is fun (its obvious comic strip source is made known in often unusual ways), but ultimately there is little to justify the increasingly baroque, if not to say ludicrous, plot turns – by the end the relentless stylistic amping-up barely manages to conceal the lack of real substance. More successful was Paolo Sorrentino’s equally inconsequential Italian competition entry, The Consequences of Love (2004), with its tongue-in-cheek mix of De Palma-showboating and Pittigrilli sarcasm – probably it also helped that it was shorter. The acting awards went to Maggie Cheung for her subdued performance in Olivier Assayas’ impressive melodrama Clean (2004, a minor work by the director’s standards, but still one of the four or five best films competing) and 14 year old Japanese Yuuya Yagira for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s drama about neglected children, Nobody Knows (2004), a remarkable attempt at desentimentalising a dubious true story premise that would have been even more effective if the effort had included the elimination of a gratuitously repeated sparse guitar riff on the soundtrack. Subtler in conveying a different kind of despair was another Asian entry, Hong Sang-soo’s elliptical Woman is the Future of Man (2004).
Apichatpong Weerasethakul received the Prix du jury, a minor prize, but the Thai director must surely be one of the few contemporary filmmakers trying to affect major change in the language of cinema. In many ways his Tropical Malady feels like a companion piece to its predecessor Blissfully Yours (2002), this time delicately charting a gay love story before the viewer is transported – once again midway and more or less without announcement – into the jungle. Whereas the second half of Blissfully Yours was all languor, sex and afternoon heat, this time it is night, myth and vision: a rich soundtrack provides a sensual, almost hallucinatory you-are-there experience, while miraculously trees begin to glow in the dark, one protagonist stalks a shimmering green tiger-ghost, monkeys give advice (in subtitles) and the fable gradually reveals itself as a dark mirror of the first hour’s happy romance (and as one of the mythic stories regularly being told to the lovers). Playful and enigmatic like all of Weerasethakul’s films, Tropical Malady is busy proposing a quizzical strategy of constantly questioning modes of narration underneath its beguiling, sometimes transcendentally tranquilised surface, off-handedly, yet self-consciously blending fantasy and faux-documentary elements, primitivism and postmodern reflexivity; another mysterious object on Weerasethakul’s way towards a new, strange, progressive cinema.
The only other comparable attempts came from Argentina: Lisandro Alonso’s terrific Los muertos (2004) applies the careful, unhurried borderline docu-fiction approach of his debut La libertad (2001) to the tale of an ex-convict returning home, blending mythical allusion with mesmerising attention to daily ritual. Having just premiered at the Buenos Aires Film Festival (probably the best festival for a critic to attend, its pronounced cinephile direction was something already sorely missed only two weeks later on the Riviera), Los muertos was relegated to the Quinzaine des realisateurs sidebar, along with the fascinating Sundance avant-favourite Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003). Also screening in this section was a heartfelt tribute to Manila’s disenfranchised, Mario O’Hara’s Woman of Breakwater (2003), which was occasionally hampered by a few Felliniesque touches too many, but its fireworks scene – the moment when you realise that history will bulldoze over these people while they’re standing in awe and watching it happen – moved me more than anything in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Back in competition, the second feature of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, The Holy Girl (2004), represented another outstanding attempt at cinematic modernisation, conceiving a narrative through gradual accumulation of detail rather than a straightforward proposal. At its centre is the relationship between a religious-obsessed teenager and a doctor with paedophilic urges, but its black comedy unfolds (almost imperceptibly) as a by-product of its labyrinthine unveilings of family relations, obscurely intertwined character motivations and a casually conceived, yet thick and pertinent, network of metaphors (many of the film’s defiantly off-kilter framed scenes take place at a medical conference for eye, ear and throat specialists, allowing for a lot of playful parallels to the communication hiccups between characters, among them an unexpected rendition of O sole mio on a Theremin). Less striking than her debut La ciénaga (2001), Martel’s second feature was nevertheless one of the few that earned its place in competition.
Something that, for mysterious reasons, was denied to Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene, whose Moolaadè (2004) was the (more or less uncontested) winner of the second-tier Un certain regard section. At once a community portrayal (with emphasis on social structures) and an uplifting anti-circumcision tract, the film displays the sincerity, clarity of expression and refined style that is characteristic of many late works by great filmmakers. Opposing the naturalist dogma that looms over much of current African festival cinema, with his near-Brechtian, yet improbably self-evident mise en scène, the 81-year-old director also embraces what is usually portrayed as the globalising enemy by his younger colleagues. Radio and television, harbingers of westernisation, function as means of self-education in Moolaadè, helping to bring down an inhumane tradition in its rousing finale. The moving last cut replaces the image of the 150-year old ostrich egg on top of the small town’s mosque with that of a television antenna.
Sembene, Godard and Raymond Depardon (the latter two also showing new works out of competition) formed the troika of old masters whose films, all presented early in the festival, threatened to overshadow the Palme contenders. (The situation wasn’t exactly mitigated by the fact that the best genre film by far in Cannes didn’t make the cut, either: Breaking News (2004), a no-frills action thriller by Johnnie To, whose sense of proportion and superior use of space outclassed all the supposed mainstream entertainments served up as roughly half the amount of competition mincemeat.) Godard’s Notre musique (2004), another essay about the relationship between images, war and history, is probably his most concise film in years, though not devoid of trademark cryptic and comic grace notes, moving from a characteristic opening montage of “hell” through the roughly hour-long “purgatory” centrepiece (in which, among other things, Godard himself gives a master class on cinema in Sarajevo, chiding – or admiring? – Hawks’ inability to distinguish between men and women) before arriving in a “paradise” guarded by US marines.
More upfront and clear, but no less complex, was Depardon’s 10ème chambre – Instants d’audiences (2004), a logical extension of his earlier justice documentary, Delits flagrants (1994), in which he presented short one-on-one interviews conducted by a deputy prosecutor in Paris’ Palace of Justice with petty criminals “caught in the act” (as the English title puts it). The deputy prosecutor can let the accused go free or order him before a court dealing with misdemeanours. This latter course is the setting for 10ème chambre, the judge presiding being none other than Madame Michèle Bernard-Raquin, who was one of the deputy prosecutors in Delits flagrants (and helped Depardon in getting the necessary special permission to shoot, which partially explains the time span between the films). Using four fixed camera setups, showing judge, delinquent and attorneys for defence and prosecution (and enabling him to do perfectly timed reaction shots), Depardon presents the very different interactions between the law’s representatives and the accused with his usual uncanny ability to capture gestures and glances that reveal the innermost workings of the individuals on display. 10ème chambre starts off deceptively funny – it also works as riveting entertainment – then quickly transforms into an inquiry on the nature of justice, (social) performance, humanity and other big issues that paradoxically come into focus thanks to the camera’s patiently observing what at first glance seem to be everyday matters. Readjusting the skewed perspective of Cannes with its hard-won, unbiased, patient and curious humanism, 10ème chambre was probably the greatest film of the festival.