cannes -- as several of us who have covered Cannes for years were musing over this year's middling slate, talk turned to the most memorable films we'd seen at the festival over the past 15 years. I chose films that make me feel like I'm in the presence of greatness -- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pulp Fiction, Trois Couleurs: Rouge, Cyrano De Bergerac, The Sweet Hereafter, Secrets And Lies, The Piano, Europa, Do The Right Thing.
It's a list that says something about film festivals. For all the talk that they offer an alternative kind of filmmaking and smaller (i.e., less expensive) movies than Hollywood, the great film events -- Cannes, Berlin, Toronto -- tend to offer bigness, albeit bigness of a different order. Even the smallest films -- Secrets And Lies or The Sweet Hereafter -- offer big emotional effects.
Next to Pearl Harbor (see story, page 83), they're small. Next to most of the offerings at Sundance, Cannes's Critics' Week or Toronto's Discovery program, they're pretty big.
Indeed, the most startling Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in recent years -- and the one most likely to have induced cardiac arrest in the festival directorship -- played in 99, when the David Cronenberg jury honoured Rosetta, a tiny Belgian film with about three characters and extremely intimate, hand-held camera work.
The almost universal shock at that choice (downloading my e-mail when I got home from Cannes, I found 15 "What the hell?" messages) was justified not because it was an undeserved Palme, but because small films from little-known directors aren't usually big enough to cut through the noise of the festival.
The last few Palmes were won by Lars von Trier, Mike Leigh, Theo Angelopoulos, Emir Kusturica, Abbas Kiarostami, Shohei Imamura, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, Chen Kaige, and Bille August directing a script by Ingmar Bergman. Aside from Tarantino, these names don't carry much weight at the multiplex, but they do on the festival circuit. (Kiarostami and Imamura won for small films -- they shared the Palme in 97.)
Which makes Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or win with The Son's Room (see page 81 for other prizewinners) an intriguing commentary on this year's festival. It's the story of a family going through a heavy-duty trauma. In the shadow of a new century, the Cannes programmers loaded the competition with the aging lions of world art cinema -- Jean-Luc Godard, Imamura, Jacques Rivette, Manoel de Oliveira -- and the new wave of Asian cinema (Hsiao-hsien Hsou, Shinji Aoyama, Ming-liang Tsai, Hirokazu Kore-Eda).
When the dust had cleared, they honoured a small, emotionally direct film by a director no one ever expected to win.
It's like the old joke attributed to one of the studio heads when Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California -- "No, no! Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronald Reagan for lieutenant-governor."
Moretti is a festival-circuit veteran and won the directing prize at Cannes for Dear Diary in 93, but his stuff is too small to win the Palme. People who disliked The Son's Room were inclined to dismiss it as a movie-of-the-week, and even those of us who like it can grasp that argument.
The day after the prizes, the French papers were full of commentaries to the effect that the festival had "returned to Europe," neatly ignoring the fact that the director's prize was split between Americans Joel Coen and David Lynch, and that the big French winner, The Pianist, was directed by Austrian Michael Haneke.
It's more accurate to see this as a transitional festival between the old guard and a future that has yet to be validated by history. In the context of last week's column, Cannes doesn't move into the future until the future's moved into the past.
The jury wound up honouring middle-aged directors working in relatively familiar forms -- even Haneke's film, an emotionally stressful portrait of sexual repression, isn't nearly as audience-punishing as his Funny Games.
It was once said that if you wanted to give an Esquire editor a stroke, you should whisper the words, "Someday Jack Nicholson will be dead" in his ear. You can have the same effect on a Cannes programmer by substituting the name of any of theart-house giants who have been Cannes's backbone for the past three decades. La nouvelle vague est morte. Vive le cinema.
And so it's appropriate to close with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard. "If the choice is between a bad film from Kyrgyzstan or a bad film by Bruce Willis, I'll choose a film by Bruce Willis, and I can't tell you why."