You cannot have too much of a good thing. That is finally proved by the 60th Cannes Film Festival. The world’s best-known cine-spree has suffered an attack of rejuvenation that would kill most big media events: too much excitement, too much adrenaline. But the French have a wisdom born of worldliness. Not content with urging their junket into and clearly beyond retirement age, they are giving us the best programme of films in years.
In the Golden Palm sweepstake, an American and a Romanian film vie for honours. Out of competition, Michael Moore’s Sicko, the pop polemicist’s new film attacking the US health industry, coaxed cheers. Elsewhere, an exuberant cinephilia has stuck “preludes” into each programme: curtain-raising clips from old movies that precede each competition show. (Who could resist these aperitifs of Brief Encounter, Casablanca or Sherlock Jr?) Two hours of additional birthday moviemania were provided by Chacun Son Cinéma, an anthology feature in which Polanski, Zhang Yimou, the Coens and 30 other Cannes veterans each contribute three-minute tributes to the wonder of sitting in halls of darkness watching light and colour flicker. (Best in show? Brazil’s Walter Salles.)
While there is surprise, there is youth and life. This year the usual squadron of top movie nations jetted in, only to find their roar drowned by a twin-engined aircraft arriving from Romania. Cristian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days is a documentary-style drama about illegal abortion, set in the Ceausescu era yet searingly immediate in its portrayal of human pain. Like Romania’s recent Death of Mr Lazarescu, it has a fly-on-wall style of observing everyday life, from the university dorm where we meet the two girl protagonists (one pregnant) to the police-patrolled streets and the seedy hotel where an amateur but well-paid back-street surgeon will perform the foeticide.
By half-time, no humiliation has been spared the two girls, frantic to conceal an act punishable as murder. In a hideously comical interlude the non-pregnant girl breaks away to attend an obligatory party at her boyfriend’s parental home – a scene of mortified discomfort – and then we are back with the bleeding victim, the cops in the lobby, and the sense that everything sacrificed might be unravelled in a few seconds of ill luck or misjudgment. The film has the texture of a waking nightmare and the power of a punch to the abdomen.
Even the Coen brothers, for whom Cannes is a second home (where Fargo was red-carpeted and Barton Fink golden-palmed), could hardly be expected to match this. But with No Country for Old Men, they almost do. Some critics accused this Texan tale of stolen drug money and the pursuing of an amateur desperado (Josh Brolin) by a steel-cold killer (Javier Bardem) of being, in conclusion at least, too faithful to the enigmatic tones of Cormac McCarthy’s source novel.
But what’s wrong with enigma? If the film stacks up on the side of a teasing, troubling ambiguity, that is because the Coens are artists, not popcorn salesmen. No viewer can complain, elsewhere, of short-supplied action, wit and wisdom. The chase scenes will have you gnawing your nails, while the story is framed by Tommy Lee Jones’s majestic bewilderment as an ageing sheriff. Far from having “seen everything before”, he scarcely understands anything he now sees at all. A murderous materialism is taking over his part of the world, sweeping up even semi- innocents in its dust-devil vortices.
Michael Moore’s new documentary makes it three humdingers in a row. Variety newspaper got it right with the headline “Sicko is socko”. Moore savages the state of health administration in the US. The only western country to have no nationally subsidised service, America’s medical care is in the hands, we learn, of insurance giants who reward employees for refusing claims and place company profit before the cure or prevention of illness.
The rosy pictures of state welfare in Canada, Britain and France may be challengeable. But then they must seem rosy compared with the US, where insolvent hospital patients are thrown on to the streets, where a man with a double finger-joint severance must pay $12,000 for a single reattachment (he cannot afford to reattach the second finger) and where the only free-at-source “universal” health care is – wait for it – at Guantánamo Bay. What is good enough for al-Qaeda is too good, apparently, for the rest of the nation.
Everything is certainly too good at Cannes right now. Bubbles may soon burst. Fireworks may eventually misfire. My next dispatch may record the letdown, though I still have faith. At present it is good to feel young in a festival that clearly feels the same. Cannes 2007 is, to borrow a phrase, no country for old men.