A conscientious member of the Cannes critics' corps will see five or six new films a day. We're meant to attend all 21 features in competition for the Palme d'Or, plus special screenings (like Sunday's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and another 20 or so in the sidebar program called Un Certain Regard. But there are times when a Pied Piper stands outside our classroom, luring us to play hooky.
The other day I was supposed to go to the German film Cloud 9, otherwise known as the naked-old-people-making-love movie. Then I thought, why spend 90 mins. watching something I can get at home? And I was off to a Cannes Classic screening of David Lean's 1949 The Passionate Friends, from an H.G. Wells novel about a woman (Lean's then-wife Ann Todd) who'd had an affair with someone her age (Trevor Howard) but married a wealthy, older man (Claude Rains). It's not one of the great director's masterpieces, but it had an emotional gravity that locates the difference between love and being in love, and it fulfilled the basic dictum of Golden Age movies: beautiful people with difficult problems, in radiant black-and-white. For me, it also had the romance of being made in a time when the British film industry believed in its own power to entrance something that's long been lost.
National cinemas have different Golden Ages. For Hong Kong, it was the decade from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, when directors like Tsui Hark and John Woo were revitalizing the crime film, and when young Wong Kar-wai was revolutionizing the misty romance. At the time, Hong Kong also had perhaps the world's greatest roster of glamorous stars, and prominent among them were Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, the two Tony Leungs, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau and Charlie Young. All of them are in Wong's 1994 martial-arts reverie Ashes of Time, which had a special screening last night in a version revised by the director,
Leslie Cheung is a killer-for-hire who runs an inn in a remote part of China. The other stars come by to engage his services or to hide from those ready to kill them. The film shot by that picture-taker and mood-maker of genius, Christopher Doyle is essentially a series of gigantic closeups of these beautiful faces. Lau's face holds do much emotion, she can break you heart just by being photographed; Maggie Cheung has never looked more ravishing than in her long, pensive scene here; the planes of Tony Leung Ka-fei's visage have the drama of great modern architecture. Leslie Cheung, wise, pouty, ever dangerously alert, binds this poetic, episodic film. A suicide at 46, in 2003, Leslie will live forever in glorious films like this one, which I'm happy to say is being released for U.S. theatrical distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.
In Ashes of Time, Leslie Cheung says, the root of men's problems is memory." Yet memory is the root of identity for many of us, and for some of the best films at Cannes. One of these is Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, a dreamy documentary of Davies' home town of Liverpool. Shots of working-class Liverpudlians from the '30s, '40s and '50s doing the wash, or playing with school-friends, or preparing dinner, offer a fascinating, poignant glimpse of the rhythm of ordinary life so precious because it is so rarely seen in documentaries.
Davies has been brilliantly memorializing his Liverpool youth for a quarter century: in The Terence Davies Trilogy of short films, in Distant Voices, Still Lives (the most powerful aesthetic autobiography I know) and The Long Day Dying. His new film has elements of a memoir: of a Catholic boy discovering his love for movies and, later, his love for other men. But this is mainly a biography of a place and time: of its stately old civic monuments and, later, its soulless estates (an expression, Davies says in the narration, of "the British genius for creating the dismal"); of its residents' football mania and fondness for radio's corniest comics; of the contrast between postwar rationing and the regal excesses of Queen Elizabeth's coronation ("the Betty Windsor Show").
Davies quotes Chekhov "The golden moments pass, and leave no trace" but the director's entire, exemplary career has been a mission to ensure that old moments, golden or grim, will have a prominent place in the museum of our collective memory. M.C.
A HUNDRED YEARS YOUNG
Manoel de Oliveira was born in 1908,and made his first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Working on the Douro River) in 1931, when he was 22. That documentary, a vital panorama of dockside life in Oporto, Portugal, was shown today, with the director, who will be 100 on December 11, in attendance. Oliveira has been a mainstay in the Cannes competition for a quarter century, providing such sere delights as The Cannibals (with its comic shock of a conclusion), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Marcello Mastroianni's last great film) and I'm Going Home, with a wonderful role for French film luminary Michel Piccoli. Piccoli was onstage to present an honorary Palme d'Or to the director who had never won one in competition. "Finally," Oliveira impishly exclaimed as he kissed the award, "I got one!"
Oliveira carries a cane, but he uses it less for support than as a jaunty prop twirling it, pointing it at the cheering audience till you expect him to break into a song-and-dance routine. The cane might be a tribute to his first cinema idol, the dapper French comic Max Linder, who influenced Charlie Chaplin, Oliveira's second idol. In the audience, clearly buoyed by the old man's energy, were other distinguished directors: Cannes Jury President Sean Penn, Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis and a young pup named Clint Eastwood, who will be 78 at the end of the month and who was a year old when Working on the Douro River opened in Portuguese theaters.
The Internet Movie Database tells us that Oliveira has two films in production. If he keeps going, and his vigor today suggests that's not a problem, he will eclipse Leni Riefenstahl (who released her last movie on her 100th birthday in 2002) as the world's oldest cineaste. And one of the most vital. "Vive le cinema!" he exclaimed before striding offstage. Oliveira is living proof that cinema is a game old men can play with agility and ageless grace. R.C.