Film: It's raining in the fast lane

There was high excitement at Cannes this year: a French outsider won the Grand Prix, and crashing cars became sexually charged. Which was nice. By Chris Peachment

The real surprise on the Cote d'Azur this year came not at Cannes but from further along the coast in Monaco. Much to the commentators' barely articulated disgust, the Grand Prix last Sunday was won by rank outsider, Olivier Panis, driving a Ligier, a team which has not won a race in 15 years. Even the French press were grudging in their praise. "Panis? Unbelievable," said L'Equipe. "Panis the surprise" was the headline in two others.

Canadian film director David Cronenberg watched the race from the balcony of a flat belonging to a film distributor and so had a full view of this difficult course. He told me that Panis's victory was wholly deserved, since he has put in a dogged amount of time rising through the ranks from Formula Three, and had planned the race with great forethought. Cronenberg, incidentally, races his own 1961 Cooper, which once belonged to Jack Brabham, so he knows what he is talking about.

Much the same comment could be applied to this year's winner of the Palme d'Or, Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies. Leigh, of course, is hardly a rank outsider. But he has steadily ploughed his own furrow over the years, making films about the doomed, the dispossessed and what one cabinet minister referred to not long ago as "all those ghastly people you have to sit next to on the Tube." And he was up against estimable films from heavyweight directors such as Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, the Taviani brothers, and Cronenberg himself.

Secrets and Lies deals with a forlorn suburban drudge (Brenda Blethyn, who also won Best Actress) traumatised by being reunited with the baby she gave away at birth. David Lister, in this paper on Monday, called Leigh "the poet of bleak days and rain-sodden gloom", and so it is appropriate that he won in a year that saw rain sweeping the Croisette and most of the French being highly upset that their precious Cote d'Azur was more grey than blue. There were few stars in attendance, and most had left early before the end of the second week. Next year is the 50th festival, and many suspected that the organisers were keeping their powder dry for the anniversary.

The Best Director prize was well deserved by Joel Coen for Fargo, a thriller set in the snow-scapes of Fargo, Minnesota, which featured Coen's wife, Frances McDormand, as a sweet-natured, heavily pregnant police chief, doggedly waddling along in pursuit of a pair of vicious kidnappers. Thanks to McDormand's presence, it is a warmer, less clever- clever affair than we usually expect from the Coens, and very engaging. It seemed a mite unfair to give the award only to Joel, since it is well known that both he and his brother Ethan share the direction of all of their films, whatever the official credits say.

The talking point of the festival, however, was undoubtedly Crash, David Cronenberg's version of JG Ballard's 1972 novel, which created a techno-sexual world of motorway flyovers in which sexuality and car crashes are inextricably fused. James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Unger and Elias Koteas run through the catalogue of polymorphous perversity while crashing their cars and lovingly fingering the consequent wounds. The daily canvassing of the press revealed that the critics were radically divided, either loving or detesting the film, and the audiences felt much the same, with each screening raising a cheering and booing contest from different parts of the auditorium. Vintage Cronenberg in other words; he might die in the fast lane, he might die in the slow lane, but he will never die in the middle lane.

At the press conference after the film, one outraged feminist demanded to know why there weren't full-frontal shots of James Spader. Spader paused, took a long drag on his cigarette, and finally said: "It's a matter of geography. We were fucking. And when you fuck ... you don't see the penis." His timing on the punch line was immaculate. On the question of safety- consciousness, Ballard himself suggested, "after anyone has passed a driving test, they should be given a video of this film. Always wear a seat belt, and if you want sex, do it in the back seat." He delivered it perfectly straight, but Cronenberg could be seen hiding a smile behind his hand.

The less perceptive were calling the film pornography but that suggests they are only used to the Hollywood convention in which the sex scene occurs, and then everyone gets on with the rest of the plot. Crash is about sex; along with car crashing, it permeates the whole lives of its characters, and while the film is not as explicit as hard-core pornography, it still keeps sex at the forefront of all its action. For once, "auto eroticism" seems the perfect description. Anyone who has a car and a sex life, or is planning to acquire either or both, needs to confront Crash.

Elsewhere there were few surprises. Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty was a welcome return to home territory after his global meanderings to China (The Last Emperor), Africa (The Sheltering Sky) and the Himalayas (Little Buddha). The rite of passage story may have been souffle light, but everyone was ravished by the Tuscan countryside, especially the Italians, even if they complained that it did seem to be solely populated by expatriate British. Bertolucci, however, was unrepentant, saying that it was only because the British were there that it had been preserved. If it was left to the Italians the place would look like Turin.

Raul Ruiz, the Chilean director of surreal films which tend to end up being shown only at film festivals, came up with Three Lives and a Death, which might just make it into distribution. Marcello Mastroianni is a man with multiple personalities who leads three very different lives. Finally, of course, they come to be seen as the same life. Ruiz explained that while any man may well dissimulate and lead as many secret lives as he wishes, still he is faced with only one death, and in that death his separate lives will have one inescapable juncture in common. Borges is often cited by critics dealing with Ruiz's films.

Sad to report, the bad weather inhibited Cannes' reputation for bad behaviour. There were a few porn stars with unfeasibly large breasts. Batman and Catwoman did their usual little rollerblade dance among the traffic. Toxic Avenger blobbed all over the assembled Porsches. But that is all par for the course.

No actress felt obliged to leap upon the bar and tear her clothes off with a cry of "I only do it if it's dramatically justified". No one beat up a photographer, as I once saw Klaus Kinski do very thoroughly. No toilet was discovered clogged up with intimate Polaroids of a famous actress (some years ago, they changed hands for a considerable sum). No one was washed ashore after a successful suicide attempt (a Swiss journo managed it about 10 years ago). And even the transsexual hookers, who hang around outside restaurants at one in the morning for those punters whose dinner date did not go as well as expected, were scarcely in evidence. Tucked up in bed with their cocoa most probably, like everyone else.

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