Cannes Film Festival 2004

WHAT DOES IT take to shock Quentin Tarantino? As the gonzo director of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill presided over the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, many of us expected him to award the Palme d'Or to some kick-ass movie about cruel vengeance and wanton bloodshed.

Cannes Film Festival 2004

WHAT DOES IT take to shock Quentin Tarantino? As the gonzo director of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill presided over the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, many of us expected him to award the Palme d'Or to some kick-ass movie about cruel vengeance and wanton bloodshed. But we didn't expect that would be a documentary about President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. You can always count on Cannes for surprises. Where else would you see an awards ceremony where one director thanks four octopi that sacrificed their lives for his movie, and another dedicates his prize to those who sacrificed their lives in the Iraq war?

By all accounts, Tarantino's favourite film was Old Boy, an ultra-violent Korean thriller that shows a man devouring a live octopus in a sushi bar - and later extracting an enemy's teeth with a claw hammer. Old Boy won the second-place Grand Prix. But, shocking many serious cinephiles, Tarantino's jury awarded the Palme d'Or to a real-life tale of fear and loathing, Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 - in which we see a blank-eyed Bush reading My Pet Goat to schoolchildren for seven long minutes after being informed of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. Tarantino is known for being apolitical, and you'd think nothing would faze this hardened addict of gory martial arts movies. But he said that on seeing Moore's footage of a U.S. soldier abusing a hooded Iraqi prisoner, "I wrenched my face away from the screen."

This was a Cannes where glamour was (almost) upstaged by war. The stars who touched down at cinema's May rite on the Riviera included Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Uma Thurman, Mike Myers, Charlize Theron, Cameron Diaz, Alanis Morissette and Mick Jagger. But no one generated more excitement than Moore, who premiered his film to a thunderous response - with Jagger jumping up two rows behind him to join a standing ovation that lasted some 20 minutes.

Fahrenheit 9/11's potent brew of satire, pathos and moral outrage raised the temperature of a festival that was galvanized by politics both onscreen and off. There was a whiff of May '68 in the air as striking cultural workers surged through the streets, their red banners fluttering past billboards of Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks in front of the Carlton Intercontinental Hotel. Riot police jammed the side streets each evening as the black-tie horde climbed the red carpet. The movies, meanwhile, were livelier than usual. After last year's program, deemed the most dismal in living memory, the festival's new director, Thierry Frémaux, breathed new life into the event. After opening the event with Bad Education, Pedro Almodóvar's film noir about a transvestite and a pedophile priest, he brought Hollywood back to the fold with splashy premieres of Troy, Shrek 2 and De-lovely. And his eclectic program ranged from martial arts spectacle to guerrilla documentary, from Thai magic realism to portraits of a benign Che Guevera and a poisonous Peter Sellers.

CANNES, of course, is not just about movies. Sometimes it's not even about Cannes. It's about driving down the coast to attend a party at the ultra-luxurious Hotel du Cap, where a bevy of semi-synchronized swimmers cavort to the pulse of Mission Impossible in a pool carved out of the cliffs. It's about ending up at the hotel's lobby bar, celebrity ground zero, at 1 a.m. There's Joel Coen holding court in a tux. Kevin Bacon connecting with everyone. And Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal (who plays Che in The Motorcycle Diaries) in jeans and an army shirt, delivering an armful of mini champagne bottles to friends. The bar is thick with blonds, and in the blur of stars, supermodels and superhookers, it's hard to tell the fool's gold of Eurotrash from the real thing. Swathed in white satin, the supernaturally tall Daryl Hannah, a little tipsy, wobbles down the steps with a man on her arm, as if her thoroughbred frame is moving of its own Amazonian accord. I grab a cab with Toronto actor Don McKellar, who's just run into Julie Delpy. "She said, 'Remember me? I'm Julie Delpy,' " he reports, tickled to have been recognized by a star who felt the need to reintroduce herself. A Canadian moment.

MICHAEL MOORE, the least fashionable man in Cannes, sits down to lunch interviews wearing baggy shorts, leather sandals and a ball cap that reads "Made in Canada" - in fact, his first film, Roger & Me (1989), was discovered at Toronto's film festival, and his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine was financed out of Halifax. "I decided a long time ago I'd have more freedom if I wasn't taking American money," he says. "This is the first time Americans have been in the driver's seat." And with Disney blocking Miramax's U.S. distribution of his new movie, it seems his fears were well-founded.

Fahrenheit 9/11's satirical assault on George W. Bush arrives with perfect timing. Wisely, Moore stays off camera for most of the film, so as not to upstage his easy target. The film tries to cover a lot of ground: the Florida farce of Bush's election, a dizzying investigation of his links to Saudi oil tycoons, the bewildering fact that about 24 of Osama bin Laden's relatives were allowed to fly out of the U.S. after 9/11 when most air traffic was grounded, and the scapegoating of Saddam Hussein. Then inquiry gives way to pathos as Moore finds dissident voices among U.S. troops in Iraq, and a bereaved mother of a son killed in combat reads his protest letter from the grave. Much of the evidence in the film has already appeared in print, but images are more powerful than words, and their cumulative effect is devastating.

In another American documentary, Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War on Iraq, former CIA and Pentagon officials deliver an avalanche of excoriating testimony alleging that Bush conjured up fictitious intelligence to justify his invasion of Iraq. And, in an odd convergence of politics and showbiz, Paul Turner, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, showed up to promote the film's market premiere, along with his own book. The spectre of 9/11 also loomed in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn as salesman Sam Bycke, who tried to hijack a commercial jetliner and crash it into Nixon's White House in 1974. This morality tale of a fibbing president and a naive terrorist ("I don't believe someone should have to lie to make a living") evokes an eerie nostalgia for a less complicated age of deceit and paranoia. As Penn commented, "I never thought I'd find myself in Cannes feeling regrets about Richard Nixon."

For truly escapist fare in Cannes, you had to turn to the powerhouse of Asian cinema. Combat becomes pure eye candy in House of Flying Daggers, a breathtaking martial arts cirque. It's poised to be the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it stars that movie's young sensation, Zhang Ziyi, as a blind guerrilla warrior who masquerades as a showgirl. Directed by China's Zhang Yimou, the action is a symphony of swords, arrows and splintering bamboo - with a whiplash battle in a bamboo forest that makes the one in Crouching Tiger look like a game of pick-up sticks.

The festival's other drop-dead gorgeous picture was 2046, Wong Kar Wai's long-awaited sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000). It too features Zhang Ziyi, an impudent beauty who shows she's as adept with emotional nuance as with acrobatics. Tony Leung Chiu Wai, looking like an Asian Clark Gable, returns as a jaded ladies' man living in a Hong Kong hotel in the '60s. Lost romance hangs in the air like cigarette smoke as women come and go. And in this aquarium of exotic frocks, a delirious narrative swims between past and future like a recurring dream. The film felt unfinished. Maybe it was. The credits featured "a special appearance by Maggie Cheung," but her performance was left on the cutting room floor - which she didn't discover until the premiere.

Cheung, however, won the best actress prize for her lead role as a recovering junkie in Clean, a France-Canada-U.K. co-production. The story begins in Hamilton, Ont., portrayed as a hellish panorama of industrial squalor, before shifting to Paris and London. French director Olivier Assayas credits his Canadian co-producer, Niv Fichman, with choosing Hamilton. "It's this run-down industrial city which is incredibly exotic to European eyes," he says. "I thought it was scary and beautiful."

In a festival of socially conscious films - Moolaadé's eloquent drama of female circumcision in an African village, the ghosts of Sarajevo in Jean-Luc Godard's elegiac Our Music, Look At Me's astringent comedy about a fat girl's self-esteem among French literati - Canada added a tincture of redemption with Clean and CQ2. Both are tales of damaged female renegades trying to go straight. With her second feature, CQ2, legendary Quebec sex symbol Carole Laure directs her 20-year-old daughter, Clara Furey, as a delinquent who finds salvation in modern dance. With raven hair and gypsy eyes, Furey recalls the fierce beauty of her mother, who pioneered onscreen nudity in the '70s. CQ2's final, tense love scene involves a glimmer of flesh, but on the set Furey says the director "had the delicacy to turn her head away."

In the end, this Cannes belonged to America, as Tarantino and Moore delivered shock therapy to a Gallic institution. But on closing night, another Canadian, Alanis Morissette, stood on an art deco stage erected offshore and sang Cole Porter's Let's Fall in Love across the water to party-goers lining the beach. As gentle surf lapped in time to the music, for a moment the romance of the Riviera eclipsed the festival of Troy and Iraq, of flying daggers and dying soldiers.

Bons Mots: Some festival chatter

WHILE PENCILLING a mass of cryptic doodles on a white linen tablecloth, Nick Nolte talks about playing Canadians in Clean and Hotel Rwanda: "Canada is certainly the best half of the North American continent."

Shrek 2's Mike Myers on the Canuck menace: "We look a lot like Americans but we're the enemy within! We're the body snatchers!"

Maggie Cheung on being hounded by Hong Kong paparazzi after her divorce from Clean director Olivier Assayas: "I'm opening wine, and the caption would be, 'She's so depressed she has to drink herself to death.' I'm with my mum, and it's, 'There's only her family left.' Immediately I looked for a flat in Paris."

Gael García Bernal, the red-hot Mexican star of Motorcycle Diaries and Bad Education, on being changed by fame: "I wake up with myself every morning so I don't feel the difference."

Michael Moore on his reversal of fortune: "I've gone from pariah to prophet. I couldn't walk down the street after the Oscars without people shouting, 'You should be exiled!' Now they come up and shake my hand."

Giving Moore the Palme d'Or, Quentin Tarantino whispered in his ear, "I want you to know it was not because of the politics."

Charlize Theron on watching The Life and Death of Peter Sellers with his abused ex-wife Britt Ekland, her character in the film: "She got upset and one of her eyelashes came undone. She just ripped them off and put them in her bag."

Maclean's June 7, 2004