PHILIP CHEAH AT CANNES 2003



Dogville... a stage set and voice-overs to move the scenes along
 

So what went wrong at the 56th Cannes Film Festival this year?

It was an exceptionally bad year in terms of poor movies in selection, which caused critics either to stomp out of screenings or drift into unintended naps.

At the crux of it is perhaps the fact that Cannes is an establishment festival, loyal to the directors it has promoted, to the point that even their poorer works are showcased.



At Five In The Afternoon...
a conscience-stirring gaze at the "enemy"

 

What is more newsworthy is how the war on Iraq (yes, that war) has affected the community of film critics. The war has polarised the community to the point that Variety attacked Lars Von Trier's Dogville in a front-page review for its "blame America first" stance. The review uncharacteristically spent time detailing the film's anti-American sentiments. Which is strange considering that this writer spent three of the film's nine chapters, bored out of his skull. Von Trier has extended Dogma's no-frills aesthetic to its logical conclusion - a stage set, where the actors and the audience have to imagine the film's environment. The result is that there is nearly nothing left to look at, and the film then falls back on the written word, by relying on voice-overs to move the scenes along.

Dogville's tale of small-town prejudice, exploitation and cruelty doesn't overtake many earlier film classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird but it's at least better than the director's previous Dancer In The Dark.

Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasion, another film that could be construed as a "blame America first" film, is about a terminally-ill man philosophising about the world he is leaving. Arcand's thesis is that Sept 11 shows that the enemy has struck at the heart of America and that the barbarians are now at the gates. But as the lead character observes, America is now the most powerful country and everyone else are barbarians, including the rest of the West.

Then this writer met Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who told him how he had visited Afghanistan before Sept 11, and how "people were just dying on the streets from hunger and deprivation." Makhmalbaf's daughter, Samira, also had a film, At Five In The Afternoon, in competition, which could also be construed as a "blame America first" film. The film's bleak, refugee-filled landscape of Afghanistan, is a conscience-stirring gaze at the "enemy."

Which brings us to Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a film evoking the Columbine student killings. And Elephant ambled off with the Golden Palm.

Footnote: A lesson from a former "enemy." Alexander Sokurov's Father And Son, a riff from his earlier Mother And Son (1996), shows an intense love between them. In an interview, Sokurov explained that at the heart of his film is the striving to express tenderness because when we don't, we lose our humanity. Father And Son won Best Film from the international film critics.

Final footnote: An American film critic, who's a very dear friend, asked me whether I was "left or right." I said: "Neither." But like Sokurov, I am also striving to express tenderness.



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