Mature Films Win Praise at Cannes
Movies refreshingly free of sensationalism and violence generate enthusiasm at festival
CANNES, FRANCE — VANESSA REDGRAVE readily agreed when I suggested to her that in the age of "Basic Instinct," which had opened the Cannes International Film Festival a few days earlier, civilized movies like her intelligent "Howards End" are needed by the world more than ever. "That's precisely it!" she said, twice over, with a vigorous nod.
A few hours after my brief conversation with Ms. Redgrave, the legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond told me that he has made his first film as a director - a drama called "The Long Shadow" with Liv Ullman and Michael York - as a direct effort to counter the crass, dehumanizing values so prevalent on the movie scene. "I don't like violence," he said. "I don't like to photograph it, and I don't like to watch it. We may be born with violence in our hearts, but we don't have to encourage this. Violence in movies and TV must have an influence, and I won't participate in it."
Comments like these, along with some of the movies I've seen at the just-concluded Cannes festival, give me the hopeful impression that a growing number of people are recognizing how essential it is for motion pictures to shed their most dubious habits if they are to keep the respect and interest of mature audiences who want more than cheap thrills from the entertainment they consume.
Another piece of evidence came from director Sidney Lumet, who keeps the mayhem fairly subdued in his new picture, "A Stranger Among Us," even though it's a thriller with some pretty nasty characters.
"You choose the particular palette you'll use in each movie," he told me, "and there's no need for a lot of blood in this story. It's about families and a community, and that's what I wanted to stress."
None of this means violence was absent from Cannes after "Basic Instinct" made its European debut. Far from it. The screen practically exploded with mayhem - sometimes motivated, more often gratuitous or downright exploitative - for many long hours, not least when David Lynch launched the silly spectacle of his "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" prequel.
Still, audiences are perfectly receptive to gentle, thoughtful filmmaking when it is presented well enough to carry its own excitement. Some of the most rapturous applause I heard at Cannes went to such movies, and the enthusiasm generated here should bring them to international theaters in the near future.
One of them is "The Long Day Closes," directed by Terence Davies, a gifted British filmmaker. As in his last movie, "Distant Voices/Still Lives," there is hardly a shred of conventional storytelling in this delicate vision of a boy's family, church, and school life in Liverpool during the 1950s. What the film does offer is a series of dreamlike sequences that blend poetic images, scraps of evocative music, and deftly sketched character portraits into a seamless flow of wonderfully pure cinema.
This conjures up a bygone time and place in terms that are at once unabashedly sentimental and heartily intelligent. The result is a triumph for Mr. Davies, for the unique style he has cultivated, and for the British film industry that has given him the opportunity to refine his talents.
An equally unusual and somewhat more challenging film is "El Sol del Membrillo" directed by Victor Erice, whose "Spirit of the Beehive" is a key work of modern Spanish cinema. The movie chronicles an artist's creation of a painting from the first preparations to the artist's reflections on the finished work - or sort of finished, since the artist drastically alters his project along the way, ending up with something quite different from what he had expected.
The subject of the painting is a simple quince tree in the artist's backyard, and the film's meaning crystallizes when the artist explains that painting such an object does not mean freezing it in time, but rather living with it over time, which is exactly what Mr. Erice's movie does with regard to both the artist and his subject. Elements of "El Sol del Membrillo" may remind some moviegoers of the recent French success, "La Belle Noiseuse," which also presented a leisurely view of artistic creation.
Erice's film is at once more obsessively detailed and more casually conversational, however. It is less a competitor than a friendly complement to the lovely "Noiseuse" that pleased so many spectators last year.
I'll report fully on other Cannes favorites when they open more widely in theaters, but here are brief comments on a few worth special mention.
* "Bob Roberts" is a sharp and funny political satire made by and starring Tim Robbins, who is also on-screen in "The Player" this season. Its mock-documentary style isn't always convincing, but its jokes are often hilarious and its views surprisingly bold.
* "The Best Intentions," directed by Danish filmmaker Bille August from a screenplay by Ing-mar Bergman, is the story of a young minister and his wife (modeled on Mr. Bergman's parents) attempting to live a decent, fulfilling life under poor and sometimes hostile circumstances in a remote Swedish village. The film's cinematic values are rigorously simple, aside from the exquisite lighting effects that Mr. August lavishes on faces and landscapes. The tale is glowingly sincere in its concern with religious
and moral questions, however, and marks a large artistic step over August's earlier "Pelle the Conqueror."
* "Simple Men" is the best movie yet from independent American filmmaker Hal Hartley, who combines wry humor and understated drama in this shaggy yarn about two brothers looking for their missing father, a rebellious renegade of a man.
* "The Sentinel," by French director Arnaud Desplechin, is a Kafkaesque political parable about a young physician tracing the origin of a macabre object that has mysteriously come into his possession. Although the drama doesn't quite live up to its early promise, much of it is emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating.
* "My New Gun," written and directed by American newcomer Stacy Cochran, is a comedy about a suburban woman whose husband insists on her owning a handgun. Although it's a small movie, it promises bigger things from filmmaker Cochran in time to come.
In addition to their other virtues, all these movies are refreshingly free of sensationalism and other low-grade ingredients. Here's hoping audiences support them as they make their way into theaters on the international circuit.