Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #2: Leigh, Altman, and Improvisation

by David Sterritt

May 14, 1996

Festivalgoers have identified this year's program as a return to auteur filmmaking after a considerable spell of more commercially geared movies, and there's no auteur more worth watchng these days than Mike Leigh, whose long and underrecognized career got a major boost when the phenomenal "Naked" debuted at Cannes three years ago. Masterpieces are often followed by lesser works, of course, so I kept my expectations for this year's "Secrets & Lies" in check even after colleagues told me it was the best picture of the opening weekend. I caught up with it yesterday afternoon and found it a worthy successor to "Naked" in every way.

On some levels it's quite different from its predecessor, focusing on people so beaten down by the social systems around them--from the economic system, which keeps them in ruthlessly subordinated and exploited positions, to the family system, which binds them in interconnected webs of deception and denial referred to by the title--that it's hard to connect then with David Thewlis's ferocious Johnny, who fought such traps with every fiber of his sick yet seductive being. Yet the picture's links with "Naked" and all of Leigh's other major films are also clear, as the filmmaker studies the specimens under his microscope with an extraordinary mixture of clinical detachment and heartfelt compassion. The strength and depth of the acting make it obvious that he developed the movie in his usual way, crystallizing the screenplay in collaboration with the performers during a long period of brainstorming and improvisation. Watch them during one of the group scenes--a birthday party near the end, for instance--and you'll see how Leigh keeps his camera at a sufficient distance to capture not just personal behaviors but the interconnections between characters (and performers) that grow more intricate and nuanced as the action proceeds. It's this sort of directorial and performative subtlety that gives an amazing degree of emotional vitality to the basically simple plot about a young black woman's first contacts with her biological mother and the white, working-class family she never knew she had.

Like every movie, "Secrets & Lies" has flaws--too much sobbing away during the big emotional scenes, at least one key moment in the plot (the very first encounter between mother and daughter) that seems insufficiently thought out, a touch of triteness to aspects of the male character who seems to be Leigh's paradigm for innate decency and dignity. But these are quibbles. "Secrets & Lies" is a profoundly humane film that should induce most of Hollywood's craftspersons to hand their heads in shame for the comparative superficiality of their accomplishments.

An obvious exception to that last statement is Robert Altman, whose "Kansas City" is better than most of my Cannes cronies recognize. In scale, it falls between large-canvas Altman pictures like "Nashville" and "Short Cuts" on one hand and intimate excursions like "3 Women" and some of his theater-based movies on the other. In substance it's a neo-noir with an uninspired story, but what makes it work is the luxurious impact of Altman's visual style, here steeped in richly colored deep-focus cinematography that's a pleasure to watch no mater what the story happens to be up to at any given moment.

Nor do I share the cynical view that Altman's notion of the picture as an attempt at cinematic jazz--which he pitched to me during a morning interview session with him and Jennifer Jason Leigh, his admirable star--is just an effort to dodge the alleged shortcomings of Leigh's performance. Jazz has always provided an accurate metaphor for Altman's best filmmaking, which is based on his orchestration of improvisatory riffs into (when they work properly) masterful ensemble articulations. Also fascinating to ponder are the links betwen his methods and those of Leigh, another auteur with a productively collaborative bent. "Kansas City" deserves more credit than it's been getting here.

There's less to say about Lucian Pintilie's new drama, "Too Late," which also has a midway position in its director's aesthetic, between the rambunctious ramblings of "The Oak" and the old-fashioned narrativuity of "An Unforgettable Summer," which forgettably screened here a year ago. Set in and around a proliferating mine that's evidently symbolic of Rumania's complexities in recent years, it builds toward a suspense sequence that almost makes up in dramatic momentum what it lacks in metaphoric originality. (I far prefer the metaphorical edge-of-your-seat stuff at the end of Mircea Daneliuc's ferocious "Jacob" back in 1988.) Pintilie knows filmmaking, but he hasn't yet convinced me of the consistency of his talent.

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