Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #3: Little Big Movies

by David Sterritt

May 15, 1996

I'm sure it's chance rather than fate, but all three of the films I saw on Wednesday had the same failing--tackling impressively big subjects with perilously little inspiration. This theme kicked off at the early-morning press screening, when Jacques Audiard's much-anticipated "A Self-Made Hero" took on World War II, the Nazi Occupation, and the French Resistance with a kind of quirky irony that recalled Francois Truffaut without equalling the wit or grace of his best pictures. This doesn't mean I actually disliked Audiard's movie; my expectations were less high than those of people who admired his "See the Men Fall" more than I did, and I enjoyed watching the audacious protagonist con his way through postwar France as a bogus Resistance hero who's all too easily believed by his credulous compatriots. But the picture contains a few egregiously false notes (my expectations dropped again when a picture of the hero's father came momentarily to life, inexplicably causing the lad to immerse his face in a bowl of soup) and in the end Audiard fails to justify the flippancy of his approach to such a large and serious subject. Back on the plus side, it's one of the rare movies to bring French-Nazi collaboration into the popular-culture arena, and that's a gesture worth applauding. Many of my friends think it's terrific, and while I rate it a lot lower than they do, I'll be pleased if its basic message finds a widespread audience.

"The Eighth Day" finds Belgian director Jaco van Dormael treading much the same territory he explored in "Toto the Hero," this time at greater length and with few cinematic ideas he didn't use more spunkily in the earlier film. Daniel Auteuil plays a jaded businessman who makes the unexpected friendship of a person with Down syndrome and learns he'd rather be a poor but happy bum than a succesful but miserable capitalist. Von Dormael's lively camera maneuvers and editing tricks make the first half of the picture less insufferable than you'd expect from that synopsis, but they eventually wear thin and the movie suffers accordingly. The story ends with a loving closeup of Georges, the mentally challenged hero, but this tribute is less than convincing since Van Dormael has conveniently killed him off in the preceding reel.

Finally catching up with Lars von Trier's lengthy "Breaking the Waves in a market screening, I found it as lofty in its goals and uneven in its achievement as the other two films. I've admired Von Trier ever since "Zentropa" took a prize here several years back, but "Breaking the Waves" is closer to his TV miniseries "The Kingdom," in its fascination with medical details and its deliberately rough-and-ready cinematic style. This style works quite well with the story being told--jagged, washed-out, discomforting shots of jagged, washed-out, discomforting people--and there's a lot to think about in the mercilessly morbid plot about a young wife who starts having reluctant sex with strangers in the belief that her selflessness is preserving the life of her recently paralyzed husband. What's the determining factor in this bizarre situation: the power of love as manifested in the wife's sacrifices? the power of disease as manifested in the husband's demands? the power of blind happenstance that bestows and removes happiness with no apparent rhyme or reason? It's for us to decide, and the movie's inordinate length and rambling storyline give us plenty of time to ponder the options. The same picture with an hour trimmed out and a more decisive ending would be a truly major work.

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