Film Scouts Diaries

1998 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Cannes Diary #4: Film Impressions

by David Sterritt

I've been saying for some years that I admire everything about Hal Hartley except his actual movies. Personally and professionally he's a smart, amiable filmmaker who never hesitates to take major risks and pays admirably scant attention to commercial considerations. Yet while his early pictures ("Trust," "The Unbelievable Truth," "Simple Men") struck me as promising, his more recent efforts ("Amateur," "Flirt") seemed to chart a decline rather than an improvement, and I started wondering whether he'd ever live up to his potential. The exhilarating answer has arrived with "Henry Fool," by far his best picture and one of the best American indies to come our way in years. The familiar Hartley elements are all present&emdash;the stylized acting, Godardian lighting and editing, and so on&emdash;but here they work with each other, and with the story they're telling, as never before. The plot centers on a young garbage collector (Simon) who's befriended by a mysterious stranger (Henry) who has a passion for writing. Under the influence of his new companion, Simon pens a book-length poem that's received by some as sublime art ("It made my daughter sing"), by others as an existential jolt ("It brought my period on a week and a half early"), by still others as repulsive pornography ("It's the product of a diseased mind"). Henry coaches his protégé&emdash;cheering him on, correcting his spelling, etc.&emdash;while polishing his own "Confession," which he's convinced will change the shape of the literary world when he gets around to publishing it. Subplots involve everyone from Simon's promiscuous sister and brain-addled mom to Henry's parole officer and a local clergyman going through a crisis of faith. Rarely has a film so acutely captured the symbiotic interconnectedness of the highest and lowest aspects of the human condition (is Simon's poetry spiritual or scatological or both? is art our salvation or our doom? why does Henry win the hand of Simon's sister in the middle of a bathroom scene that's as romantic as it is disgusting?); and never has Hartley so elegantly balanced the blend of comedy, drama, irony, and heartfelt emotion that he's been trying to juggle all these years. Congratulations go to all of his collaborators, most notably cinematographer Mike Spiller, editor Steve Hamilton, and the fine cast including Thomas Jay Ryan as the title character, James Urbaniak as Simon, Parker Posey as his sister, and Maria Porter as their mom.

John Boorman's career stretches from the heights of "Hope and Glory" to the depths of "The Emerald Forest," so it's a pleasure to report that "The General" ranks with his best accomplishments. In a performance worthy of any award I can think of, Brendan Gleeson plays antihero Martin Cahill, based on a real-life Irishman with a roguish streak ten miles wide. Moviegoers brainwashed (like me) by conventional Irish-themed pictures may spend the first 20 minutes trying to figure out whether Cahill is scheming on the Republican or Loyalist side of the fence, but before long it becomes clear that he's neither one nor the other&emdash;rather, he's exactly what he says he is, a criminal who serves no cause but his own comfort and power. The story chronicles various shady schemes and deals he cooks up, from a bank robbery to a heist of masterpieces from a museum, and also finds time to chronicle his domestic arrangements, which include a three-way sexual menage with his wife and her sister. Boorman keeps the action flowing at an invigorating pace, helped by Seamus Deasy's black-and-white cinematography, as rich and sumptuous as any in recent memory. Maria Doyle Kennedy and the gifted Jon Voight are among the fine supporting players.

Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira is such a towering figure in world cinema that it almost seems like quibbling to criticize his work, even when it falls short of his own lofty standard. I found some slackness and sentimentality in the first half of last year's "Voyage to the Beginning of the World," but it's hard to fault any aspect of this year's masterpiece, "Inquietude," which is easily the most visually ravishing film of the festival so far. It's also a mysterious movie, beginning with a flourish of tragicomic melodrama (an elderly man drives his son toward an absurd death in order to save him from withering away in the world's memory) and then moving through a long romantic interlude (involving an effete man and his sickly courtesan) before ending with a melancholy fable about a young woman who seeks to escape the suffocation of earthly existence. Each of the tale's successive moods is handled with consummate skill, and leaving the screening I felt I was drifting out of the most enchanted state any film has conjured for me in a very long while.

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