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Saturday Night Fever

4 minute read
Richard Corliss/Cannes

For a while, everything was so quiet. The first week or so of the 12-day Cannes Film Festival proceeded as sedately as a Riviera quilting bee. Nice little films from odd little countries made some brief impression on the 30,000 assembled producers, distributors and journalists, only to be filed away and forgotten. Celebrities of the high second rank — France’s Isabelle Adjani, Britain’s Terence Stamp, China’s Gong Li — stopped by to promote their films and to underline, by their presence, the absence of any world- class megastars except for Clint Eastwood, who was serving as president of this year’s festival jury. Even the weather, which brings more folks to this Cote d’Azur playground than cinephiles would care to admit, was only moderately fabulous. It appeared as if the 47th edition of the movie industry’s biggest annual deal-fest would tiptoe into history with a sigh and a shrug.

Then BLAM!, the Wild Bunch hit town. On the festival’s final Saturday, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and other performers from the American thriller Pulp Fiction brought some big-time, macho-and- mayhem, Uzi-in-your-gut star quality to Cannes. Quentin Tarantino, who made the sanguinary Reservoir Dogs, wrote the script and directed the film at a hurtling pace, displaying a steely assurance in his storytelling and a gift for placing scary violence at unexpected moments. When the film was shown, it was as if Tarantino were telling Cannes, “O.K., nap time is over. Now, pay attention, and I’ll show you how it’s done. Here’s why they’re called moving pictures.”

The 10-member jury, which included Catherine Deneuve and Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day), got the message. Happily infected with Saturday-night fever, it awarded Pulp Fiction the Palme d’Or as best among the 23 entries in competition. But the picture threw the international critics into a tizz. They weren’t sure they should approve of a work of popular art so enjoyably and cleverly crafted; after a week studying the snail trails of European anomie and Third World angst, watching Pulp Fiction was like sneaking out of a final exam to go on a bender.

The truth is that until Pulp Fiction barged in, Cannes this year had no strong prize contenders. Instead, it presented a roundup of best directors’ next-best films. The Chinese master Zhang Yimou sent To Live; the film, which spans 30 years of Maoist hard times, is beautifully observed and performed (the male lead, Ge You, won the Best Actor prize), but lacks the fiery power of Zhang’s Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. Nikita Mikhalkov intended his Burned by the Sun as a Russian Gone With the Wind, a story of country life amid the turmoil of tyranny, but it was meandering and cloying. As for Patrice Chereau’s Queen Margot, an epic melodrama set in Huguenot times starring Adjani, it had Hollywood values galore: dark intrigue, plenty of body hacking and bodice ripping, and a budget of $25 million, France’s largest ever. But the picture was a mess. That Zhang and Mikhalkov shared the second-place Grand Jury Prize was seen as the jury’s amicable nod to two established directors. That Queen Margot won the thanks-for-coming Jury Prize was thought to reflect the clout of the panel’s three French members.

None of these films could come near the breadth and gusto, the sheer comic wallop, of Pulp Fiction. This 2 1/2-hour tapestry weaves four tales into a meditation about tough guys with too much or too little time on their hands. What do you talk about before a killing? (Fast food in Amsterdam.) How do you escape a fate worse than death? (With luck and honor.) How do you date your gang boss’s wife? (Very carefully.) How do you remove those telltale blood stains from the backseat? (Very quickly.) Spinning delirious variations on familiar film noir conventions and pulling career-best performances from < Travolta, Willis, Thurman and especially Jackson as a Bible-spouting sociopath, Tarantino makes a smart, fatal movie. It’s Die Hard with a brain.

Tarantino’s guilty secret, which the international critics should have noticed, is that his films are cultural hybrids. The blood and gore, the cheeky patter, the taunting mise-en-scene are all very American — the old studios at their snazziest. But Tarantino’s hard guys also reflect a European sensibility, reminiscent of the existential gangster films of Jean-Pierre Melville; they talk all night about everything except what matters. With this marriage of Hollywood and the Continent, Pulp Fiction, which will open in the U.S. this fall, showed Cannes that the power of movies is all about energy, visual and verbal, that won’t slow down or shut up.

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