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With an ever growing number of films – over 1,250 this year - vying for a slot in a static schedule of about 50 films in the Official Selection, Cannes is the most ‘concentrated’ of film festivals. The result is a sharply focused snapshot of filmmaking around the world, reports Andrew L. Urban.

It was a strangely surreal yet symbolic moment slap bang in the middle of the festival that somehow encapsulated the confluence of art, politics and cinema that is the badge of the Festival de Cannes. It was about 5pm on Monday May 22, and in a secured area on the swank rooftop terrace of the Hilton overlooking the whole bay of Cannes, Al Gore (who self deprecatingly describes himself as “once known as the next President”) was sitting across the table from me, barely shaded from the afternoon sun, talking about the film in which he ‘stars’, An Inconvenient Truth, screening out of Competition. As we neared the end of our allotted 25 minutes together, the sound of a trad jazz band floated up from the Croisette, as the band marched through a bemused crowd, promoting who knows what.

"the razzamatazz of Cannes"

Here in a nutshell was the razzamatazz of Cannes, glued to the serious end of movie making where issues and films that matter are spruiked with as much fanfare as films that don’t. For the record, Al Gore’s passionate presentation of his decades-long crusade to save the world from global warming catastrophe is a stirring film which he champions with well oiled and heartfelt conviction.

The film so stirred up the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the US, it has launched a TV ad campaign to counter the film’s message about the imminent dangers of global warming, with a message to suggest that carbon dioxide is good, promoting the benefits of greenhouse gas-producing fuels. “I think it’s a good sign,” says Gore with confidence. “These commercials are unintentionally funny. They’re financed by Exxon Mobil and I hope that over time [the campaign] will be seen as one of their last gasps, but I can’t take that for granted. The role of these naysayers that receive funding from the biggest polluters on the planet has been a shameful one. Rather similar to what the tobacco companies did in trying to confuse people for years into thinking that doctors were still having a debate about whether smoking cigarettes causes lung disease…”

You can see for yourself: the film screens in the Sydney Film Festival this coming weekend (June 10 & 11) and will be released nationally later.

It is nothing unusual in Cannes to change mental gears as rapidly as coming out of the darkened cinema into the Mediterranean sunshine, so it was fitting that my next appointment was with esteemed Spanish actress Carmen Maura, one of the stars of Pedro Almodovar’s Competition entry, Volver. Maura and the rest of the female cast, led by Penelope Cruz, shared the Best Actress Award for their superb work in this film about women, characters closely resembling Almodovar’s mother and her family circle. It was the first film she has made for Almodovar in 17 years, after being his pet actress in many of his films in the 80s.

Maura, with sunglasses perched on her head, brown hair in a characteristic bob, small, busy hands and a personable manner, relishes the reunion. She loves her popularity, too, but guards her privacy. “I love that people love me,” she says with an endearing accent, “because in real life it’s very difficult to make people happy.”

Volver didn’t win the Palme d’Or (it went to Ken Loach for The Wind That Shakes the Barley), but at least Almodovar won the award for Best Screenplay.

The complex, engaging story that makes Volver resonate so strongly contains a secret that is revealed only at the end; suffice to say, it has to do with sex. But sex is very much less hidden in films like Shortbus, a veritable porn movie dressed in arthouse credentials that generated wry smiles and quite some praise from critics and audiences, largely because it was all done in such a joyous, unaffected manner by John Cameron Mitchell, which had a special midnight screening (out of Competition).

"greeted by more boos than applause"

Sex, or rather the absence of it between newly wed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, also played a central part in Sofia Coppola’s lavish film (in Competition) that was greeted by more boos than applause at its media screening on the morning of its gala presentation. At the press conference afterwards, flanked by her stars Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman who plays the oddball young King, Coppola was a bit taken aback by the news of booing, but hoped “some people will like my film.” When asked what she thought about the French Revolution (which breaks out at the end of the film) she said, “I wasn’t making a movie about the French Revolution; I was making a movie about Marie Antoinette.”

It seems the young French Queen of Austrian descent had become an object of fascination for Coppola. “She was a symbol of decadence to me, before I started the research and then I became fascinated by her journey from a 14 year old in Austria to the throne of France…”

With its promise of an ‘audacious’ approach to the biopic, the film disappoints for its languidity and lack of tension, a mix of moods that never reconcile themselves and the sheer vacuum that is Jason Schwartzman in this role. But Dunst is sparkling and the film looks ravishingly beautiful.

"most talked about"

The two most talked about films in the increasingly important Un Certain Regard section were Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (winner of the Jury Prize) and Hungarian filmmaker György Pálfi’s extraordinary Taxidermia, a film that defies labels, genres, categories and even description. Some people spent half the film with their eyes closed to avoid the confronting, graphic material, but the craftsmanship and imagination are beyond question. The media kit for the film at Cannes is arguably the most powerful and memorable, comprising what looks like a slab of raw meat cling-wrapped in a Styrofoam platter as if it had just come off a supermarket chiller shelf.

Screening (out of Competition) towards the end of the Festival, United 93 carries quite a punch, too. A dramatic, meticulously researched, real time re-enactment of the last 90 odd minutes of the fourth plane that was hijacked on September 11, 2001, it is the film that has the full support of the relatives of all those killed – except those of the four terrorists who were responsible. Director Paul Greengrass is unequivocal about his view of those men: “I don’t agree with moral equivalence. And you never unlock peace and security with political violence.”

Greengrass says his film is actually about “two hijackings that took place that day: the one we know, the other is the hijacking of a religion, through the selective quotes and omissions from the Koran. It’s a call to sleeping Muslims … the purpose of these attacks is to radicalise all Muslims.”

Meeting Ben Sliney, the air traffic chief who re-enacts his role, two of the cast and two of the widows, certainly brings this subject into focus. (Full story and interviews will be published closer to the film’s Australian release.)

Politics continued to fascinate through films like Richard Linklater’s futuristic Through A Scanner Darkly (in Un Certain Regard) and his Fast Food Nation (in Competition), neither of which were all that well received. Then there was Babel, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s complex, layered film which won him the Best Director Award. With Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a married couple caught in an accidental shooting which ricochets with vicious power across continents, Babel is a real ‘tower de force’.

On reflection, this year’s Festival was characterised by the cross currents of contemporary politics, sex, human frailty and our ability to survive in an increasingly dangerous world. And “hell, it’s just a movie,” is never really the right thing to say at Cannes, anyway.

Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux has stated that the Festival will not expand: “we are more than ever anxious to present a tight selection to better highlight the films. Cannes will never be a 300-film festival. The Official Selection represents about fifty, no more . . .” This adds to the lustre and creates even greater expectations for the program, including the Australian films, of which there were five in the Official Selection this year, a bumper crop, including Sexy Thing in the Short Competition..

Christian Jeune, the Director of the Film Department who has been coming to Australia as the festival’s movie scout for seven years, says, “I feel there’s a good new energy and a desire to deal with Australian themes, and all the people I meet have a strong sense of community. As an outsider, I sense that filmmakers want to do something.

“Australia has always been seen as a beautiful place with blue skies and lots of sunshine. But this year all the films are dealing with social themes – like Suburban Mayhem, showing a very different image of Australia. Ten Canoes, which is very accessible, is notable because when a white filmmaker takes on indigenous material you’re always suspicious that it will be too respectful or not respectful enough.

“This year it’s great that we have three different eras of filmmaking represented from Australia: established veteran Rolf de Heer, recently arrived Paul Goldman and total young newcomer, Murali K. Thalluri.”

And of Sexy Thing, Jeune says “it is a very personal kind of filmmaking, an intimate story, and made with great sensibility, not unlike Jane Campion … Denie Pentecost has a natural cinematic talent.”

Jeune says he recommended “many films that I saw this year … they are strong, interesting works, including Kokoda, Macbeth and The Book of Revelation.”

The jury spread this year’s awards amongst several films and filmmakers, with surprising and not so surprising results, Ken Loach taking home the Palme d’Or with The Wind That Shakes The Barley. The Grand Prix (consolation prize) went to Bruno Dumont for Flandres, and Pedro Almodovar won the award for screenplay for Volver (whose female cast shared the Best Actress Award), while Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu was named Best Director for Babel. In their generous mood, the jury also awarded the male cast of Indegenes by Rachid Bouchareb with the Best Actor award to share. And the much talked about Red Road by Andrea Arnold won the Jury Prize. In Un Certain Regard, Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes won the Special Jury Prize.

Published June 8, 2006

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Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth

Marie Antoinette

United 93

Ten Canoes


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