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Cannes 1980: Shifting from film to film

Cannes, France – It requires a certain amount of cinematic gear-shifting to jump from film to film here at the Cannes Film Fes¬tival. During the last few days, for example, I’ve seen Federico Fellini’s bizarre new study of feminism, Bertrand Tavernier’s thoughtful portrait of a young schoolteacher in Lyon, a Canadian thriller named “Double Negative,” and the British punk rock heroes, the Sex Pistols, in “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.”

I was also awakened at 8:19 a.m. Sunday with an invitation to a movie in which Trevor Howard was said to ride a bicycle while wearing a tutu, but I declined, explaining that I had seen him do the same thing on Bora-Bora on Bastille Day, 1978.

The new Fellini film, “La Citta Della Donna,” has created something of a scandal here, both because it’s not very good and because it establishes for once and all that Fellini is hopelessly out of touch with feminism. That would not be news, except that “La Citta Della Donna” is his attempt to deal with feminism and he deals with it by revisiting many of the scenes in his earlier films in which he cheerfully indulged his macho fantasies.

The movie stars his favorite actor and autobiographical stand-in, Marcello Mastroianni (“Oh, no!” whispers a female voice during the opening credits, “Not again Marcello!”). Inflamed by lust for the woman seated across from him on a train, he dozes off and has a two-hour dream journey through a series of typical Fellini fantasies.

Some of them work quite well. There is an improbable celebration by an indefatigable Don Juan on the occasion of his 10,000th female conquest! A tour through the hero’s own memories of the carnally extravagant local women of his childhood! A restaging of the harem scene from Fellini’s “8 1/2.”

But the movie is terribly disorganized. Fellini’s other recent fantasies, from “Fellini Satyricon” to “Amarcord,” have moved smoothly and almost musically from one fancy to another but this one leaps awkwardly. And Fellini makes it clear that he sees feminists, collectively, as shrill harems of whip-wielding harridans, forever dangling the carrot of sex just out of reach of his suffering hero. Women in Fellini’s films often have been larger than life – buxom giants threatening to smother the adolescent in all of his heroes – and this movie seems to blame feminism for his inability to find the human being inside his women.

The Tavernier film was a completely different undertaking. Tavernier is a 38-year-old former French film critic whose first feature, the wonderful “The Clockmaker,” played five years ago in the Chicago Film Festival. That film, based on a Simenon novel about a clockmaker whose son is guilty of murder, was set in Tavernier’s native Lyon – where “Une Semaine Des Vacances,” his new film, is also beautifully set and photographed.

The film deals with a week or so in the life of a 30ish schoolteacher, Nathalie Baye, who comes to the edge of a breakdown over her frustration with her job. Why does she seem to be getting nowhere with her students? Why does her own life – her pleasant boyfriend, her close women friends – seem to be going around in circles? She takes a week’s vacation, goes to see her parents in the country, returns to town, strikes up a friendship with the father of one of her students, and in a subtle process that the movie wisely does not attempt to explain, she mends.

Tavernier sees Lyon so clearly here, as he also did in “The Clockmaker.” He seems to be building up a sense of continuity in his work, and in this film. Phillipe Noiret, who played the clockmaker, has a charming cameo during which he mentions that his son is still in prison – we can keep track of Tavernier’s people from one film to the next.

The good films at Cannes are always balanced by the bad ones, those dozens or hundreds of would-be hits playing the back streets in the cinemas devoted to the film marketplace. Devoted festivalgoers haunt the unheralded films, looking for a hit. “Cousin Cousine” was picked up for a song here several years ago. More typical of the marketplace films, I’m afraid, is “Double Negative,” a Canadian tax-shelter thriller starring Michael Sarrazin, Susan Clark and the ubiquitous Anthony Perkins.

The movie is based on an impenetrable thriller by Ross MacDonald, and has been brought to the screen with all of the plot complexities of the original. You need to take notes to keep things straight. In a movie like this you look for small redeeming factors, and one of them, as always, is Perkins’ ability to invest even the smallest supporting role with the suggestion that his character is insane, weird and dangerous. The way his mouth twitches while he’s just listening on the telephone is creepy.

And creepy was the word for “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle,” a patchwork put together out of vintage 1977 documentary footage of the Sex Pistols, the most notorious British punk-rock band until it broke up and lead guitarist Sid Vicious killed himself with an overdose. The concert footage is intercut with a bewildering array of other stuff: animated re-creations of the Sex Pistols’ saga, footage from their few TV appearances, an encounter in Rio between Pistols Steve Cook and Paul Jones and great bank robber Ronnie Biggs.

This footage is tied together by a narration in which Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ creator and manager, explains with perfectly serene cynicism how he created the Pistols out of thin air with a strategy of, a) always having them play in places nobody could get in to, b) keeping them out of rock clubs, c) never letting the press hear them, and d) masterminding their attempts to scandalize the British public. The strategy was demanded, McLaren suggests, by the fact that the Pistols could not play, sing or hold a note. From time to time during the film, a cash register rings up another record or movie deal for McLaren, and he reckons at the film’s end that the band made about $1.4 million without really ever having done anything.

Well, one reflects, on being discharged from the back street cinema at 2 in the morning, there are a lot of other people here at Cannes who’ve never done anything and made a lot less money not doing it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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