Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #4: Stories and Styles

by David Sterritt

May 16, 1996

Getting into the Salle Debussy for David Cronenberg's new opus was like living a scene from the film itself. I could see the headlines already--"Critics Crushed in Crash Catastrophe!"--as I elbowed and kneed my way through the mob of journalists craving entry to the must-see Competition entry that they'd be heartily booing a scant two hours later. But hey, it wouldn't be Cannes if you didn't put life and limb at risk at least a couple of times for the sake of some movie you're not that eager to see in the first place, and it was kind of amusing that I'd gone through almost as much torment that very morning to view Aki Kaurismaki's new "Drifting Clouds," as different from Cronenberg's picture as it's possible to imagine.

I read J.G. Ballard's novel "Crash" just a couple of years ago, so it was fairly fresh in my mind as Cronenberg's adaptation unspooled, capturing the book's menacing weirdness while leaving out some of the thematic emphases that I'd thought Ballard was most interested in. These include a detailed fascination with prosthetic devices (represented in the film mainly by Rosanna Arquette's scenes) and the notion of car accidents as "marriages" in which fleshly and mechanical beings become "one flesh" in a kind of technological matrimony. What's most interesting and problematic about the movie, as with the slightly earlier "Naked Lunch," is that the more sick and outrageous Cronenberg's material becomes, the more conventional and conservative is the cinematic style he uses to explore it. "Crash" is major-league kinky in its obsession with the erotics of automotive violence and destruction, but as a movie it's a series of painstakingly correct shots and countershots that develop little aesthetic interest, much less adventurousness, despite the morbid goofiness of their narrative content. Cronenberg may feel it's necessary to temper explosive content with conspicuously tame style lest he lose any hope of a popular audience; whatever his motivation, though, I find his recent movies more compelling in conception than execution. In any case, James Spader is good as the hero--it's a nice touch to carry Ballard's reflexivity an additional step forward by casting the character named Ballard with an actor named James--and Holly Hunter is unexpectedly strong as the accident aficionado he falls in love with. Ditto for Elias Koteas as the demolition-derby guru whose dream is to recreate Jayne Mansfield's last moments for the entertainment and edification of the loosely knit cult he presides over.

"Crash" received more booing than applause at its evening press screening, in contrast to the morning's showing of "Stealing Beauty," where pros and cons seemed equally balanced to my ears. I won't quarrel with that verdict on Bernardo Bertolucci's scenic romance, which combines great personal and pictorial beauty--Liv Tyler looks terrific, as does the Italian countryside around her--with a story that's downright audacious in its refusal to embrace anything with the slightest resemblance to intelligence. Bertolucci evidently wants to rediscover his roots after the exotic excursions of "The Sheltering Sky" and "Little Buddha," and a dull sort of tangle those roots turn out to be, however gorgeous the camera makes them look on the surface. Creative performers like Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack get into the spirit of things by posing picturesquely against ripely rustic settings, and Bertolucci livens the party up with occasional doses of MTV-style visual energy. I can't imagine this picture will do anything to renew the august reputation he enjoyed in the bygone era of "The Conformist" and "Last Tango in Paris," but scenery buffs will enjoy it and Tyler fans can busy themselves comparing her performance with the more substantial contribution she makes to James Mangold's mood-driven "Heavy," also opening commercially this summer.

Bertolucci and Cronenberg may be turning into more conventional stylists as they grow older, but you can't accuse Aki Kaurismaki of any such problem. "Drifting Clouds" carries his deadpan directorial demeanor to heights of minimalism hitherto undreamed of, even by Aki himself. The story is "ripped from today's headlines," as studio publicists used to say--laid off from their jobs, a wife and husband suffer various torments and uncertainties before blundering into a happy ending as preposterous as it is gratifying--but Kaurismaki's storytelling is anything but fashionable, reducing montage and mise-en-scene to bare-bones necessities as if he had to economize right along with the penniless protagonists, themselves played with Bressonian rigor by the sort of glamourless performers Aki has favored throughout his career. Although it's dedicated to the late Matti Pellonpaa, whose acquaintance I made (along with Aki's) during my years with the New York Film Festival, this dark-and-dour romp has less humor than a full-fledged Kaurismaki masterpiece like "La Vie de Boheme" or some of that movie's immediate predecessors. But if it's not one of his most enjoyable pictures, it's certainly one of the most impressive in its sheer stylistic tenacity. It isn't every day you find a movie that makes the glacial "Match Factory Girl" look like "Speed."

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