Hoskins in great performance at Cannes

Film: At the halfway point, small offerings make biggest splashes.

May 22, 1999|By Michael Wilmington | Michael Wilmington,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

As this year's Cannes Film Festival, the 52nd, passed its halfway point, it remained a year of controversies, disappointments and many critical arguments.

Some films outraged audiences. Some films alienated critics. Some films pleased many; others reaped widespread scorn.

It is hard to remember more badly received films than LeosCarax's Herman Melville adaptation "Pola X" and Bruno ("The Life of Jesus") Dumont's "L'Humanite," two offbeat French films loaded with angst and sex, including what seemed, in both cases, to be actual onscreen intercourse between the leading actors, which shocked and severely alienated part of its audience.

This dislike was overemphatic. I was equally puzzled by the lukewarm reception given Chen Kaige's great battle epic film, "The Emperor and the Assassin," and to Atom Egoyan's subtle, sometimes beautiful thriller, "Felicia's Journey," with its unsettlingly brilliant performance by Bob Hoskins as a soft-spoken serial killer.

On the other hand, some critics were incensed by Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock," a film already positioned as one of the "class" U.S. movies of the year. The movie is based on one of the great episodes in the theatrical career of the young, pre-"Citizen Kane" Orson Welles.

In 1938, the then-22-year-old Welles and his patrician producer-partner John Houseman staged a triumphant, runaway "outlaw" production for their Works Progress Administration theater of Marc Blitzstein's pro-labor union musical ("The Cradle Will Rock") after the government locked up their theater.

Welles' version of "The Cradle Will Rock" was never filmed, though it was one of his best scripts. (He intended to cast Rupert Everett as himself.) But, though director-writer Robbins' movie is vaultingly ambitious and inventive, it also trashes Welles, portraying him as an overwrought, self-infatuated libertine whom everyone seems to detest. Even though the actor who plays Welles -- Angus McFayden of "Braveheart" -- resembles Welles in long shot, he's too short, slight and unresonant a speaker, not somebody who could have directed "Citizen Kane," "Cradle Will Rock" or even "Barefoot in the Park."

Why did Robbins portray Welles this way even while copying his directorial style? Why did he portray Houseman as a mincing fop? "Cradle Will Rock" is often so accomplished and audacious, you get bewildered at the venom sprayed on these two during a tale of one of their finest hours. A shame. A waste.

On the good side of Cannes was Hoskins. In "Felicia's Journey," he gives the best performance so far in the festival, one of the most chilling portrayals of psychopathology on film. In this adaptation of William Trevor's novel, Hoskins plays a gentle, plump gourmet named Joseph Hilditch, a Birmingham, England, catering supervisor whose hobby is befriending and then videotaping and imprisoning rootless young women. Opposite him, Elaine Cassidy plays Felicia, a pregnant young Irish woman searching for her missing boyfriend who unhappily accepts Hilditch's aid. The little dance of death that results makes a great, non-gory thriller, with soft echoes of "Psycho," "Peeping Tom" and "The Collector."

What makes the film so remarkable, though, is Hoskins. He was as great in it as he was in "The Long Good Friday" or "Mona Lisa," but in a different, quieter key. Though "Felicia's Journey" has been unfavorably compared with Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter," I think it's a better movie.

In the last few days, the festival's competition has offered a good Arturo Ripstein adaptation of Garcia Marquez's "Nobody Writes to the Colonel"; a promising new Hong Kong film, Yu Lik Wai's "Love Will Tear us Apart"; and Raul Ruiz's beautiful and complex film of Marcel Proust's "Le Temps Retrouve," with Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart and, as a wonderfully sinister Baron de Charlus, the unlikely but excellent John Malkovich.

The sidebars have brought some surprises, including Werner Herzog's "Mein Liebster Fiend," a portrait of his frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski ("Aguirre, the Wrath of God"), and Masahiro Kobayashi's droll black-and-white crime movie, "Bootleg Film."

The most treasurable moments in this festival have been in the retrospectives devoted to Louise Brooks and the great romantic films (35mm prints), "L'Atalante," "Madame De," "Notorious" and"Peter Ibbetson."

Midway through the festival I began to get dolorous thoughts. Was cinema dying? Was foreign language film in its death throes?

I was constantly aware of the crushing thought that most of these films, whether great, good or "interesting," would never be seen by U.S. audiences -- not because they are boring or artless, but simply because they are foreign.

At Cannes, where you're in a movie paradise with the best movie theaters and hundreds of options, you tend to forget how lucky and rare the opportunity is.

Why can't we always see films as we do here? And why can't we treasure the heritage of film with more passion and intelligence all year 'round?

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