Beyond the Multiplex: Cannes

Gore gets standing O. Mitchell unveils his real-sex-orgy film. Plus: Gellar plays porn star in Richard Kelly's latest.

Published May 22, 2006 1:30PM (EDT)

It has felt almost like an American weekend on the Côte d'Azur. Cannes has extended uncharacteristically warm receptions to a varied group of Yanks, ranging from the decidedly nondebonair Al Gore to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" creator John Cameron Mitchell, who premiered his real-sex ensemble drama "Shortbus" at a packed and rapturous late-night screening Saturday. And this year's first major disagreement broke out over an American film, Richard Kelly's 160-minute apocalyptic opus "Southland Tales," which a few influential critics have apparently deemed a masterpiece (although at least 10 percent of the press-screening audience walked out).

Hollywood veteran William Friedkin, who brought sleepless nights to many moviegoers 33 years ago with "The Exorcist," has been one of the unexpected surprises at Cannes with his paranoid thriller "Bug," showing in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar competition. Then there's Oliver Stone, a longtime Cannes favorite, who's here for a special commemorative screening of "Platoon," and will also show a 20-minute reel from his upcoming "World Trade Center."

Mind you, this festival is so thick on the ground that if you wanted to ignore American movies entirely this weekend, you pretty much could. I've been focusing on the major competition titles that have some vestige of a U.S. box-office future, but there are lots of intriguing films playing around town that I'll try to squeeze in before I go home, from Hungarian director György Pálfi's reportedly gruesome and spectacular "Taxidermia," to Albert Serra's "Honor of the Knights," a minimalist, modern take on the Don Quixote story, to Jean-Claude Brisseau's kinky thriller "Exterminating Angels," to the new Korean action flicks "The Host" and "The Unforgiven."

As of Day 5, Pedro Almodóvar's richly affecting "Volver" remains the leading contender for the Palme d'Or, but "Red Road," the debut from British director Andrea Arnold -- and the only first film in the major competition -- is also highly regarded. I haven't seen "Red Road" yet, but it's part of an intriguing project developed by Lars von Trier's company in which three different directors will make three different films using the same characters and actors. Arnold's film is apparently a claustrophobic thriller of crime, revenge and redemption set in the notorious housing projects of Glasgow, Scotland, and several viewers I've spoken to have described it as the festival's breakout movie so far.

I'll review "An Inconvenient Truth," the striking and surprisingly endearing film about Gore's global-warming crusade made by director Davis Guggenheim, in a day or two. (It opens in the United States on Wednesday.) The former vice president turned up in black tie and tux for the Saturday evening premiere, even though he didn't have to, and that's the sort of gesture the manners-crazed French appreciate. ("An Inconvenient Truth" screened out of competition in the third-tier Salle Buñuel theater, so formal dress was not required.)

He looked a little gray and tired (and he seems to be gaining and losing weight on an Oprah-like cycle ), but Gore received a movie-star welcome and a hearty ovation. Throughout the bistros and hotel bars of Cannes, you could hear people expressing their mystification in various world languages at the fact that he wasn't president. I didn't offer any of my lame reasons for voting for Ralph Nader in 2000, let alone try to explain that it wouldn't have made any difference if I hadn't.

Gore and John Cameron Mitchell may not have much in common besides their nationality and (perhaps) their party affiliation, but both were received here as representatives of "l'autre Amérique," the republic of freedom, tolerance and progress that so inspired earlier generations of Europeans. Mitchell's "Shortbus" has already acquired a degree of notoriety, thanks to the fact that his actors engage in many varieties of genuine on-screen sex, but its net effect is almost the opposite of pornography. It's a sad, sweet, openhearted work, a New York tragicomedy of manners that resembles what Woody Allen might make if he were 35 years younger and interested in the pansexual orgy scene.

At a press luncheon in a beach pavilion the day after the film's premiere, Mitchell explained that he didn't fetishize "unsimulated" sex, and wasn't trying to echo recent real-sex films by Catherine Breillat, Carlos Reygadas and other directors. Rather, it was mostly a question of pushing his actors to a new level of emotional realism. "All sex has elements of simulation, of performance, of projection," he said. "If you're in bed with someone, you can't even be sure they're thinking about you. So it's not as if these actors aren't acting when they're having sex. When you see an actor crying, are they really crying? Anytime we're in bed with someone, there's always an element of what's going on in our heads, of using sense memory, in fact, of acting.

"There have been several films in the last 10 years that had real sex in them, but I'm definitely not imitating those. I find many of those films very harsh, very dark, very grim. We wanted to" -- here an upward, sunrise gesture with his hands -- "we wanted to say that a lot of sex is pretty funny, pretty fun, pretty silly. Most of the sex in the film is desperate, but it's a ridiculous kind of desperate. Sex has elements of humor in it, it has intellectual elements, it has emotional elements. We're getting at all of those, or at least I hope we are."

Although no specific dates are offered and the characters hardly venture outdoors, "Shortbus" is set in New York between the 9/11 attacks and the blackout of summer 2003, and its central characters -- one straight couple, one gay couple and a number of unattached people -- are seeking sexual healing for what seems like generalized malaise and depression. Some of them find it, at least temporarily, in an orgiastic house party called Shortbus (i.e., the bus for "special" and "challenged" kids) run by New York drag queen Justin Bond, a real person who appears as himself.

Mitchell says the fictional Shortbus is based on real New York sex salons he has encountered, but declines to say whether the fictional ex-New York mayor who appears in the film, cruising for younger men, is based on a real-life model. (New Yorkers may have their own ideas.) Mitchell's "Shortbus" still has no U.S. distributor, and it remains to be seen how American audiences will respond to a film that begins with a good-looking man performing an improbable and impressively athletic act upon himself, and later on features a version of the national anthem sung, quite literally, up someone's ass. I could offer criticisms of the movie and will in due course. But it's a work of liberation, generosity and courage that deserves to be widely seen.

As for Kelly's "Southland Tales," which was one of the principal reasons I wanted to fly across the Atlantic and come watch a bunch of movies in the south of France, the battle royal has begun. In the five years since his precocious near masterpiece, "Donnie Darko," was released -- only to crash and burn before reemerging, phoenixlike, as a late-night cult favorite -- Kelly has been struggling to bring this half-parody, half-paranoid epic of the near future to the screen. I was rooting for it and I wanted it to work. I can even make excuses for this profoundly incoherent film, up to a point. But I don't think that Kelly's struggle is even half over.

As with most Cannes films, it's not fair to write a full review of a film that Americans won't see for many months; Kelly doesn't even have a U.S. distributor at this writing. But given the spreading mood of disagreement here, it's impossible to resist a few comments about this bewildering, overcooked and sporadically dazzling motion picture. "Southland Tales" is one of those movies that require extensive voice-over narration (by Justin Timberlake, I think) and complicated on-screen titles involving Roman numerals to get the audience situated and the story started. But the narration never goes away! And the first Roman numeral we see is IV! This is apparently because the first chunks of the story exist only in Kelly's three prequel graphic novels (which may or may not actually exist).

It's possible, even likely, that Kelly intends "Southland Tales" partly as a takedown of the prepackaged prequel-sequel fantasy industry, a running deconstruction of everything from "Star Wars" to "The Matrix" as soul-draining pseudo-narratives. There are moments when his satirical intention seems to shine through, as when Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays the leader of a gang of porn stars (and performer of the hit song "Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime"), starts a Venice Beach bar fight that resembles the cheesiest moments of reality TV, and when the "neo-Marxist resistance" seeking to bring down the U.S. government turns out to be a handful of incompetent losers with an ice cream truck. They are described as "the last vestiges of the Democratic Party," and I don't guess Al Gore would be terribly happy about that.

But the tone of "Southland Tales" is never remotely clear, and a lot of it is simply muddled, static and boring. Is it an elegy for a dying planet? A kitsch-riddled spoof? An attempt to infuse the action movie with the deadpan pop nihilism of Godard? I really have no idea. Furthermore, he's constantly playing narrative catch-up, inserting awkward scenes where characters lock their knees and fill in some crucial background in stilted conversation. (And every so often, there's more Timberlake.) You see, it's 2008, and good Lord, a lot has happened in two years.

Somebody, although we never learn who, has attacked Texas with a nuke. Some baron (Wallace Shawn) who looks like a minor character from David Lynch's "Dune" has invented a perpetual-motion machine that solves the American energy problem and will fuel ongoing wars in Iraq and Syria. The only downside to this new technology, it seems, is planetary insanity and a widening rift in the space-time continuum that may lead to the destruction of the world. Oh, darn!

Believe me, all that is much, much clearer laid out like that than it ever is in the film. An action star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) has foreseen the coming end of days in a screenplay he wrote with his porn-star girlfriend, Krysta Now (Gellar), and is wandering around Los Angeles acting like a nut job and reciting passages from the Book of Revelation. But Boxer is actually married to some other chick who's the daughter of a famous evil senator and the witchy head of the new super-spy agency that has replaced all U.S. law enforcement, and Krysta, despite being a dumb bimbo, is tight with the lovable losers of the neo-Marxist underground. So there's a problem of some sort and a bunch of characters we don't know or care about get killed and Seann William Scott plays twin-brother cops, one good and one evil, or something like that.

There's a giant zeppelin on its maiden voyage (and we know what happens to those). There's a magic flying ice cream truck, fueled by the collapsing fourth dimension. There's a music video by Timberlake, which is actually pretty hot but has nothing to do with anything else in the movie. There are plentiful references to the apocalyptic noir classic "Kiss Me Deadly," and a general aroma of "Robocop"/"Blade Runner" rip-off. There's Boxer and Krysta's clairvoyant film script (although we never hear or see any of it), and for some reason there's a lot of discussion about sucking dick, although unlike in Mitchell's film, we don't see it happen.

I might not care about the incomprehensible plot, larded with biblical quotations and unspecific intimations of doom, and I might be willing to accept that Kelly has some kind of Godardian pomo deconstructionist hoo-ha in mind, if I ever believed he were in control of his material. But I think back to the pitch-perfect suburban surrealism of "Donnie Darko" and just feel sad. This is an overamped, lumpy, jumpy film that never establishes either its plot or its characters clearly, and the dialogue is often cringe-inducingly bad.

Yes, there are moments of pure visual magic here, and the scope of imagination and ambition at work in "Southland Tales" is everything you would expect. If Kelly recuts this, takes out all the nonsense and releases it as an experimental, almost wordless, nonnarrative film (at, say, 90 minutes) it might become a rare and beautiful thing. As it is now, it's about the biggest, ugliest mess I've ever seen.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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