France: The Film Vote

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Cannes International Film Festival

Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the offices of

Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely. Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings) contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noe's Irreversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values of our civilization."

In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.

The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody) who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding. What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.

At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on Schindler's List and Aimee & Jaguar) why big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.

Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an actress from the Comedie Francaise, performs a text drawn from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines in safety. …