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In a shop window next door to the Festival Palais there’s a poster from the 1930s on display. Wistfully elegant, it advertises the first Cannes Festival – the one that never happened. The advertised opening date: September 1st, 1939.
But Cannes’ actual 30th birthday celebrations (it started up very promptly indeed, in 1946) were conducted not with elegance but with some apprehension. “Cannes suffocated by success,” said a Figaro headline, the article going on to claim, alarmingly enough, that the Festival now rates as “the biggest international attraction after the Olympics”. 40,000 visitors; 1,700 journalists; nearly 500 films: the statistics of overkill.
The beginning of the mass overcrowding really dates from 1968, and the Festival’s reasoned decision to accommodate potential ‘counter-culture’ rivals and then to strengthen itself so as not to risk being overshadowed by them. But the big, indispensable jamboree has reached a point where the convergence of the world’s film businessmen, the film press and much of the local tourist traffic is stretching facilities to the edge of tolerance.
The embattled organisers asked for a minimum of discipline, you might say of courtesy, from festival participants – don’t, in other words, actually try to break down the doors getting into the cinema. But, as with the Olympics, it’s easier to say that the scale should be reduced than practically to see how anyone can do it. The Mediterranean looks on, cynically blue; by 1980, at this rate, they’ll have only the water left to walk on.
One director who didn’t contribute to the crowding was Eric Rohmer. Courteously announcing that he really couldn’t face it, Rohmer stayed away but sent his film, the perfect, cool antidote to the overheated pressures. Die Marquise von O, representing Germany, is his first period film and his first in a foreign language; but from the opening images there’s no question that the director has returned in top form.
Kleist’s novel, published in 1808, concerns a virtuous young widow who finds herself mysteriously pregnant and finally takes the extreme course of advertising in the local press, asking the man responsible please to identify himself. To no one’s surprise, he is finally discovered, after tearful imbroglios and parental tantrums, to be the Russian count who rescued her from the ruder attentions of his soldiery during an assault on the citadel commanded by her father.
The playing (Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz as the protagonists, Edda Seippel as the girl’s mother) is beautifully shaded and coordinated, and the same unfaltering finesse extends to Nestor Almendros’s camerawork and the re-creation not of ‘period’ but of settings to live in. At the opening, the count leaps on to the parapet, a hero bathed in blazing light; the masterly exaggeration is counterpoint to an objective irony which brings out all the comedy of the story without ever compromising or modernising its view of the sentiments of the period. Rohmer’s control of tone, never more in evidence, is partly a matter of artistic discretion; his meticulously lucid and human film is a ‘conte moral’ in its own right, made in perfect sympathy with the original text.
After Rohmer, Rosi, whose Cadaveri Eccellenti is a genuinely heavyweight (not overweight) political thriller, moving implacably towards the discovery of conspiracy at the centres of power. Lino Ventura, a melancholy Maigret in a white raincoat, is the police inspector given the job of investigating a series of murders of judges in Southern Italy. Asking questions, scanning photographic evidence, visiting the scenes of crimes, he identifies the original assassin, then takes a step further, into the area of conspiracy which leads to his own death, shot down under the austere gaze of statues from the classical past.
The film is not ‘realistic’ (one reason, Rosi says, why he cast so many foreign actors, including Max von Sydow, Charles Vanel and Alain Cuny, all excellent); its many locations, brilliantly chosen and as brilliantly shot by Pasqualino De Santis, are selected to give a heightened atmospheric sense, a suggestion of the relation between the confidence of the past, when the institutions were fixed and seemed firm, and the apprehensions of the present. Continually moving forward, along the usual forceful Rosi trajectory, the film fills out its own scale, not as an expression of fashionable paranoia but as a more deeply pessimistic but also more bracingly enquiring study. “The truth is not always revolutionary,” is the film’s last line, spoken by a Communist.
For Bertolucci, the truth is revolutionary. As everyone knows, his 1900 lasts five and a half hours and follows the fate of two boys, the sons of landowner and peasant, born on the same day in the new century. The scale is that of a 19th century novel (Bertolucci as Victor Hugo), and early scenes are drenched in feeling for the beauty and richness of the countryside near Parma where the director grew up; the main setting, a vast farm courtyard, is a thing of beauty.
Gradually, however, a kind of implacable naivete of political sentiment takes over. The propertied classes are inevitably decadent (Bertolucci is most at home here, including the portrayal of Dominique Sanda’s progression from bright young thing of the 1920s to solitary toper of the 1940s); the local Fascisti are represented by Donald Sutherland and Laura Betti, both playing devilment to the hilt and beyond, including child-murder; the peasantry, often picturesquely wizened, emerge in 1945 into a vision of a revolutionary Utopia, cavorting under a vast red flag.
It’s ironic, certainly, that a film with such a conclusion should be financed by the full capitalist might of Hollywood; and rather more ironic that the Italian Communist Party is said to find Bertolucci’s red flag waving something of an embarrassment. Artistically, such simple didactic schematism doesn’t contain the family chronicle sprawl, the obesity of a film in which history becomes declamation.
The third of the big Italian films in the Palais, Visconti’s L’lnnocente, is a worthy grace note to a career of formidable distinction and courage, if not the posthumous masterpiece one might rather unreasonably have hoped for. Based on a novel by D’Annunzio, it concerns a man who expects his wife to tolerate his mistress, but gets a fierce shock when the wife acquires first a lover and then a child. While the household is at church at Christmas, he lets the baby die of cold, an act of willed ferocity on the route to self-destruction.
Shot (again by the versatile De Santis) largely in ostentatiously handsome and heavy interiors of the turn of the century, the film has an enclosed, slow-paced, brooding distinction, and all Visconti’s emphasis on the emotional decor of the past. Giancarlo Giannini, however, is not quite the actor to carry the central part; one watches with respectful detachment.
From Joseph Losey, temporarily established in France, comes Mr. Klein, a story which must have appealed to him for its multiple ironies, but which he has turned into a film plumped out with overweight. An art dealer (Alain Delon) in the Paris of 1942 one day receives through the post a Jewish newsletter; it seems that there is another Mr. Klein, a Jew, hovering dangerously on the periphery of his complacent life. Delon follows the elusive trail, in a kind of metaphysical detective story which can only lead towards the final takeover of his identity; at the end, caught in the Paris round-up of the Jews, he’s gazing at us through the bars of a cattletruck bound for Germany – a fate, the film suggests, which is also in some sense a punishment for the indifference and sharp detachment of his temperament.
Enigmatic encounters, including a splendid one with Jeanne Moreau, and a careful shading of settings, from the bleakly realistic to the almost dreamlike, give the film a distinction of surface. But Losey talks of aiming for “the unrelenting fascination of a Borges labyrinth”; and if he has failed to achieve this, it’s perhaps because he is also too careful, too evidently constructing scaffolding for the maze and pointing the spectator in the significant direction rather than letting him loose in it.
Jacques Rivette’s Duelle (formerly Viva) is more genuinely labyrinthine, a tale of a great jewel of mysterious powers, goddesses of night (Juliet Berto) and day (Bulle Ogier), mortals who damagingly involve themselves with these fates and a movie landscape in which the references – Cocteau, film noir, a Wellesian aquarium – ricochet off each other.
I’m at a disadvantage in not having yet caught up with Celine et Julie: with a director like Rivette, who is following a line of very conscious development through a hermetic kind of submarine world, it’s vital not to lose a link in the chain. Duelle is a riveting exercise in mise en scene, the versatile power of the tracking camera, the force of personality of players meeting mostly at tangents. Tentatively (since the film certainly demands a second look), one also suggests that the script is not quite up to its job.
The Rivette team are out in force again in Serail, the first film directed by Duelle’s co-writer Eduardo de Gregorio, who also scripted The Spider’s Strategy. A haunted house story, about an English writer (Corin Redgrave) who acquires a rambling, derelict chateau inhabited by two masquerading girls (Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier) and a forceful housekeeper (Leslie Caron), the film is stuffed with predictable allusions – Rivette, Cocteau, Resnais, Borges, Wilkie Collins, etc. But it’s done with a style which manages to absorb the references, and that particular impish irony which is evidently part of de Gregorio’s Argentinian inheritance.
The novelist’s reflections on the spider’s web of feminine hocus-pocus laid out to trap him are amused; but he still falls into the seraglio. And along with its elaborate apparatus of deception and illusion, Serail has a reassuring practicality – Leslie Caron’s cooking and gardening, of which agreeably much is made.
De Gregorio gets his ideas, familiar though they may be, into focus; Peter Weir, whose Picnic at Hanging Rock also deals in the landscape of supernatural mystery, finally lets his film wander disjointedly. The first half is concentrated evocation: a staid girls’ school in the Australia of 1900, a projected picnic outing, and the transition to the hot, hazy, dangerously beautiful setting of Hanging Rock, where panpipes tootle, watches stop and four of the picnickers mysteriously vanish.
There’s no answer to the puzzle, though the film is prodigal with hints and evasions; and in the second half, Weir involves himself with too many characters – a lonely girl, a young Englishman, Rachel Roberts’s hard-drinking headmistress – all variously haunted, all left haltingly undeveloped. After this film and the earlier The Cars That Ate Paris, it’s evident that Weir has a real sense of odd atmospheric pressures, though in both films pieces are left lying, not yet locked into place by narrative.
Colin Westerbeck writes elsewhere [in the Summer 1976 issue] about Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s picture of the New York night streets and the solitary, irrational and finally hideously murderous pursuits of the man who drives a cab around them. Taxi Driver is an unsettling film, certainly, with its fatalistic view of a mind slipping out of gear (we have the feeling that we are watching De Niro and that he is also watching us), its exceptionally bloodstained denouement, and its odd final scene, which amounts to a kind of acceptance of the violence.
But the film actually comes across as rather less of a portent than advance reports had suggested; I’m not sure that there isn’t too much natural exuberance in Scorsese for him quite to come to terms with sustained, introverted mania, however Bressonian his intentions – and those of his scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, may have been. There’s a slight suggestion of thesis about the film, as though events were being willed in the scriptwriter’s mind, antitheses thought out in terms of what might shockingly be made of them.
The lonely man in the Swedish Giliap, Roy Andersson’s film in the Directors’ Fortnight, is even more self-contained, though far less threatening. This is an odd film, very slow, full of silences that are evidently never going to be broken by speech but only by the camera’s eventual decision to turn away.
The central character (Thommy Berggren) takes a job as a waiter in a dour city hotel – his first period on duty coincides with a funeral lunch, of which one imagines the establishment may have many. Eventually, he becomes involved in hapless crime and violence. But part of the appeal of an ungainly, wryly comic, genuinely original work is its sense of the hotel as a setting, imposing its routine on staff who all think of themselves as transients, little islands of non-communication. Tables are carefully laid but the expected important guests never turn up; in the morning, a lone survivor from the funeral party surfaces from his lair behind a sofa, a sorry old man, twittering his reluctance to go home.
The Fassbinder team’s latest, Schatten der Engel, is written by Fassbinder and Daniel Schmid, directed by the latter, and based on Fassbinder’s play The Garbage, the City and Death, which caused some furore because its property speculator is a Jew, and because it contains such lines as “If they’d gassed him, I could sleep better today.”
All talk and tableaux, and featuring, as well as the rich Jew, a very melancholy prostitute who hangs about complaining of the cold, the film breaks the German postwar taboo on anti-Semitic reference with a dull thud. Fassbinder is said to have written it “almost in a state of trance”, during a flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles. However the speeches sound in German, as translated into the French subtitles they read like daily mottoes for a rather outre tear-off calendar; or in-flight bulletins.
Two American documentaries of some reputation, The California Reich (directors: Walter Parkes and Keith Critchlow) and Hollywood on Trial (director: David Helpern Jr.), were both disappointing. Tristram Powell’s BBC film on the Hollywood blacklist did a better job with much the same material, while the film about present-day Nazis in California relies on the frisson of the swastika and is notably short on historical perspective. On the whole, one suspects that European standards for the compilation/interview film are currently rather higher than America’s.
But cinema verite pulled off one of its most bizarre achievements with Grey Gardens, the Maysles’s film about Jackie Onassis’s aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, her daughter (also Edith) and their somewhat crazed seclusion in an overgrown, cat-haunted mansion in East Hampton. The film has been attacked as “exploitation”; and of course it’s voyeuristic to watch mother and daughter reviving past triumphs (the aged Mrs Beale singing Tea for Two) and nagging over past miseries (the daughter’s multiple resentments). But the film would seem if anything to have been a therapeutic experience for the Beales, who evidently feel they have found their biographers, and its mixture of performance and self-exposure is undeniably riveting. Alarmingly, the junior Edith suggests one of those snappy Hepburn debutantes from the 1940s, Tracy Lord herself perhaps, more than thirty years older, tremulous about life and herself, but still somehow frozen in time. Art and life, as usual, inextricably intertwined.
Sight and Sound September 2022
In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.Find out more and get a copy
Originally published: 9 July 2021