The Classics Shelf: The 1999 Cannes Film Festival

Reviewing the cinema of the approaching millennium under the hot Riviera sun

The year 1999 is viewed, in hindsight, as one of cinematic milestones, and for good reason. Hollywood was at the top of its game with the (dubiously appraised, but healthily attended) return of the Star Wars franchise and sequels to Austin Powers and Toy Story. There was also the surprise critical and commercial successes of the game-changing The Matrix, which affected science fiction forevermore, and The Sixth Sense, as good an example of a film tricking your assumption about its narrative that had been made since The Wicker Man. After M. Night Shyamalan’s triumph at the box office, it feels like no one could ever spring a good surprise on an audience again, including its own filmmaker (though Alejandro Amenábar came closest in The Others two years later).

Independent cinema moved into new territory in 1999 when a zero-budget hit at the Sundance Film Festival was released in mainstream theatres after an almost magical promotional campaign that became its own cultural phenomenon. With its incredible profits, producers have been looking for another Blair Witch Project — and perhaps Nia Vardalos is the only other indie filmmaker to find one. For me, one of the most notable films of 1999 is Spike Jonze’s breakthrough Being John Malkovich. It’s not my favourite of the year, but I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking, “Is this how movies are going to be made now?” I had never seen anything like it and, like many of the game-changers of this year, I never did again.

The Cannes Film Festival held in May 1999 was the last before the new, for some dreaded, millennium, and featured its own watershed moments.  Since the triumph of Parasite in 2019, crossovers between Cannes and the Oscars have been frequent, but in the nineties it was much more rare, and the Academy went for a TIFF pick for most of its prizes (American Beauty), but Cannes still had some game-changers to celebrate.

After years of making acclaimed documentaries, the Dardennes brothers had their breakthrough feature with La Promesse in 1996 and, three years later, found themselves invited for the first of many times to the Cannes Film Festival. Where many cinephiles expected Pedro Almodóvar to triumph with his universally acclaimed All About My Mother, the Dardennes’ Rosetta won the Palme d’Or and earned a (shared) Best Actress certificate for Emilie Dequenne.  The filmmakers would rarely go home empty-handed with their subsequent features, including another Palme for L’Enfant in 2005 as well as citations for The Son, The Kid with a Bike (my favourite), Lorna’s Silence, and Young Ahmed.  Almodóvar, in later years, would remark that he was very happy with his prize for Best Director but attributed his loss of the top award to jury president David Cronenberg, whom he saw as a miserable man making miserable choices. Between Rosetta and the grim, controversially appreciated L’Humanité by Bruno Dumont (which won second place as well as acting prizes for its non-professional stars), it did seem that gritty was the word of the day.

Almodovar’s comments about Cronenberg and his love of misery makes the common assumption that the jury president is inextricably linked with the choice for the Palme: Francoise Sagan and her much discussed long-distance bill aside, there’s little first-hand commentary to suggest a direct intervention from the head of the group, though it’s easy in many cases to connect the head of the group with the choice being made. The jury this particular year contained, as always, an eclectic group of artists from around the world: filmmakers Doris Dörrie, Maurizio Nichetti, André Téchiné, George Miller, actors Holly Hunter, Jeff Goldblum, Dominique Blanc, singer Barbara Hendricks, and author Yasmina Reza.  It’s possible that Almodóvar’s flavour of grounded melodrama wasn’t to everyone’s taste, in my mind it’s more likely they were more excited by a left-field choice than the one most expected by the critics and crowds. By the end of the year, Almodóvar’s film would be the only film from the Cannes competition making significant rounds on the awards circuit (other than The Straight Story and what it earned for Richard Farnsworth), and is being given more 25th anniversary celebratory attention than Rosetta.

Reviews of the official competition films by Bil Antoniou except where noted, with thanks to Pat Mullen for his generous contributions.

Look for Riviera Rats: A Palme d’Or Podcast featuring Bil Antoniou and Gregory Rosebrugh, exploring every year of the Cannes Film Festival, premiering this summer wherever you get your podcasts.




All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre)

Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar offers us his best work yet with this touching and emotionally lyrical film about a nurse (Cecilia Roth in a world class performance) who leaves Madrid for Barcelona following a personal tragedy, looking to find the man with whom she needs to tie up loose ends. Instead of finding him, however, she reconnects with an old friend (Antonia San Juan), meets an HIV-positive nun (Penélope Cruz), and befriends a tragically unhappy actress (Marisa Paredes) with a drug-addicted girlfriend (Candela Peña). Almodóvar gives three dimensions to characters who would be seen as nothing more than sideshow freaks in someone else’s imagination, and gives flaws to characters who in lesser imaginations would be presented as flavourless symbols of justice. The emotional life that these characters lead, and their generous, funny interactions overcome the sometimes unimaginative (often formless) plot. Within a year of its Cannes premiere, the film was believed to have received more awards internationally than any before it, including the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s easy to see why: it has humour, charm and oh so much sexy elegance.
Awards: Best Director (Almódovar); Prize of the Ecumenical Jury


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Jim Jarmusch

Forest Whitaker is terrific as a hired hit man who styles himself a modern day samurai, elegantly swinging his guns into his jacket as if they were swords and keeping his copy of the Hagekure on him for reference at all times. He is best friends with a Haitian ice cream seller (Isaach De Bankolé) who only speaks French, which Whitaker does not understand, and is the retainer for a mobster who once saved his life, a debt which he holds in high regard. When he pulls off a hit for his old friend that makes him the target of mafiosos who don’t like loose ends, Whitaker must figure out a way to get ahead of a group of tired, old gangsters who want him removed permanently. Jarmusch combines elements of modern and classic film genres with perfect ease in telling this engaging and at times very funny tale, moving through the plot with cold precision and presenting a number of characters who are incisively memorable. Only in a Jarmusch film is vengeance not just right but necessary for the broken down villains targeted by a coolly dispassionate killer, and only in a Jarmusch film can a samurai warrior be made that much more elegant by musical accompaniment provided by RZA.


Moloch (Молох)

Alexander Sokurov

The screenplay prize is a bit of a cheat at the Cannes Film Festival. It often goes to a film that the jury wants to include in the winners circle despite its script rarely being its most powerful aspect (in the case of Nurse Betty or Drive My Car, yes, but here, not really). Sokurov’s powerful command of photography and editing would have merited a prize for directing more than its script, but the award also meant keeping him and Almodóvar on the podium so no genuine complaint is being lodged here. Made before his international breakthrough with Russian Ark three years later, this fascinating exercise in atmosphere, its title referring to the Canaanite god associated with the sacrifice of children, takes place at Hitler’s Berghof Retreat.  High atop the Bavarian Mountains, surrounded by mystical clouds and fog, it feels like we’re visiting the 20th century’s most notorious villain in the Witch’s castle from The Wizard of Oz rather than a stronghold of the Third Reich. Adolf and Eva Braun host Mr. and Mrs. Goebbels and Martin Bormann for a weekend away from the messiness of war but, in their determination to keep things light, end up talking politics the whole time. There isn’t a moment in which the obsessive, insecure Hitler isn’t tactically working the room to assure himself of his power and control of all around him, so that even Braun, the only person who can access his vulnerability, has to be careful about her interactions with him. Alternate takes on this point of history are plentiful–we recently had one of the best examples ever made from Jonathan Glazer‘s Oscar-winning The Zone of Interestbut this is one of Sokurov’s strongest and most potent efforts at thoughtful formalism.
Awards: Best Screenplay


Pola X

Leos Carax

The genius of Leos Carax applies itself to a modernized, highly eccentric adaptation of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities (the title of the film is the initials of the French title of the book, followed by the Roman numeral of the script’s draft number we are viewing). Guillaume Depardieu plays an upstanding aristocrat who abandons lady love Delphine Chuillot and stylish older sister Catherine Deneuve to pursue a nomadic life after meeting Yekaterina Golubeva. Golubeva informs him, in an enchanted scene wandering through a midnight forest, that she is actually his half-sister, sired by their father and then abandoned by him. Depardieu is so moved that he takes off on a journey that sees him degrade materially and spiritually as they scratch out an existence for themselves, buoyed only by his attempts to maintain his previously successful career as a novelist. The film is an exasperating, bleeding heart of emotions and ragged expressions: sequences of exquisite passion, some of deep melancholy, and some that hold on a bit too long, plus a headline-grabbing scene of graphic sexuality that garnered far more discussion than was necessary. It’s not for all viewers, some will be wholly alienated by it, but there’s something about the grandeur of Carax’s bold and daring emotional nakedness that makes it compelling and necessary viewing. It’s also notable for being his last feature until 2012’s Holy Motors, its failure at the French box office a devastation that prevented his pursuit of another grand work for more than a decade.


The Straight Story

David Lynch

Pat Mullen: Is the weirdest thing about David Lynch’s career the anomaly of a G-rated flick that is as sweet and wholesome as apple pie?  The rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre is dark, sexy, violent, strange, and downright twisted. But this film is Lynch through and through. Just look to the white picket fences of Blue Velvet or damn fine coffee and pie of Twin Peaks and one sees nothing out of the ordinary in the world of Alvin Straight. Played by Richard Farnsworth in a career-best performance—and, as his final role, may be the best swan song an actor ever had—Alvin takes audiences on an epic road movie as he travels from Iowa to Wisconsin on his tractor after learning that his brother had a stroke. Once one stops waiting for Alvin to stumble upon a severed ear, or worse, The Straight Story proves a disarmingly moving film thanks to Farnsworth’s open-hearted performance and Lynch’s sensitive, naturalistic portrayal of this true story. It’s a fine slice of Americana that’s deceptive in its simplicity. The film earned Farnsworth an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, along with a Golden Globe nomination, a win at the Independent Spirit Awards (where the film scored nominations for Best Film, Director, and First Screenplay), wins for Farnsworth and cinematographer Freddie Francis from the New York Film Critics Circle, and a Best Director gong for Lynch from the San Diego Film Critics among many other well-deserved honours.


Time Regained (Le temps retrouvé, d’après l’oeuvre de Marcel Proust)

Raúl Ruiz

Sometimes tough to follow but richly rewarding adaptation of one part of Marcel Proust’s supposedly unfilmable Remembrance of Things Past. As he lies dying in bed, Proust recalls all the many relationships, lovers and friends alike, real and fictional, that he has come across throughout his life. Ruiz’s camera fluidly travels through each scene, giving no strong sense of reality or continuity, only the random memories of a dying man trying to travel back to his happiest days. The production is perfectly designed, the performances all haunting and poetic (Catherine Deneuve stands out as Odette), and Ruiz’s coup of making Proust’s work a dreamy magic lantern show couldn’t be more appropriate.



Michael Winterbottom

Winterbottom’s best-ever examination of working class London threatens to overtake Mike Leigh territory as he follows the lives of three very different sisters and all the wacky characters they meet. Gina McKee is a swinging single gal who goes out on countless blind dates, providing for endless stories that get more and more bizarre; Shirley Henderson tries to take care of her growing son while coping with an irresponsible ex-husband (Ian Hart); Molly Parker is the pregnant woman who is ready to pop at any second but also has to deal with a husband who conceals from her that he’s recently out of a job. These girls also have two parents who have their own miseries to deal with. The characterizations are all at turns funny, wise and completely odd, but always with a healthy dollop of warmth and humanity. It’s a fantastic family drama featuring beautiful handheld cinematography.





Cradle Will Rock

Tim Robbins

Excellent ensemble comedy about the real life Red Scare events surrounding the birth and quick disappearance of the Federal Theatre Program (FTP) in the 1930s, a program designed to bring the great plays of the theatrical stage to Depression-era audiences at affordable prices. The latest production staged by the group and written by a starving musician (Hank Azaria), “Cradle Will Rock,” is a downcast musical with subversive Red elements that gets Uncle Sam worried about whether the show should go on. Emily Watson plays a homeless lass who practically wanders into the lead role of the show, Angus Macfadyen is Orson Welles, the director of the play, and Cary Elwes is John Houseman, the play’s producer. Inspired scenes and a very polished look overcome the lack of momentum the film seems to be trying to drive at, and the brilliant performers (Vanessa Redgrave, Cherry Jones as the FTP’s leader) certainly make up for the badly miscast ones (Macfadyen, Susan Sarandon as Mussolini’s Italian-Jewish aide). Considering the amount of production that director Robbins takes on in doing this project, which is admittedly a bit more than he can handle, it is worthy of admiration.


The Emperor and the Assassin (荊軻刺秦王)

Chen Kaige

Sumptuous, stunning epic film set in second-century Asia, about Qin leader King Ying Zheng, whose goal it is to connect the seven kingdoms and become the first emperor of a unified China. He can’t help but let greed and lust for power get in the way of what starts off as civil and proper proceedings, and a Shakespearean tragedy akin to Kurosawa’s Ran is born. It all starts off when the King’s wife (the always captivating Li Gong) devises an expert plan: Since the Yan kingdom is one that is difficult to take over, why not release the captive Prince of Yan and send him home with the Queen as hostage so that when the Prince sends an assassin (played by Kaige himself) as retaliation for his imprisonment, King Ying Zheng will have an excuse to overtake the Yan kingdom? The Queen’s wish is to avoid as much bloodshed as possible; the king makes this promise but doesn’t quite keep it. Some viewers might be a little upset by the violence in the film, but it is above all things a great tale of betrayal and revenge.
Awards: Technical Grand Prize, for production design


Felicia’s Journey

Atom Egoyan

Pat Mullen: Expectations were high after Egoyan won the Grand Prix and nearly scooped the Palme for The Sweet Hereafter (1997). While his return to Cannes didn’t surpass its predecessor, it offered a respectable follow-up with an enigmatic adaptation of the William Trevor novel about secretive caterer Joseph (Bob Hoskins) and Irish runaway Felicia (Elaine Cassidy). The plot thickens like one of Joseph’s sauces as Felicia learns that he cooks recipes passed down by his mother (Arsinée Khanjian), a former chef whose ghost haunts the film via grainy VHS recordings. Joseph watches old tapes of her cooking show and the images inject the film with Egoyan’s signature play with moving images. Khanjian has a hoot creating a Julia Child-ish culinary personality, while the joyfulness of her performance smartly contrasts with the hidden fury of Hoskins’ startling turn. Egoyan is in his element here, although the film simply offers a lot of stylistic tics and themes that he explored more strongly in The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica (1994), and other earlier works. In retrospect, though, it holds up on the better end of Egoyan’s filmography. The film scored nothing at Cannes, but landed a slew of Genie nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Cassidy, and wins for Best Adapted Screenplay for Egoyan, Best Actor for Hoskins, Best Cinematography, and Best Score, along with a Toronto Film Critics Association nomination for Best Canadian Film.



John Sayles

Beautifully photographed Alaska adventure by Sayles, who continues his habit of delivering brilliant character studies in compelling circumstances. Perpetually single club singer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio has broken up with yet another boyfriend and is moving out; her daughter (Vanessa Martinez) stopped communicating with her long ago, taking her anger out on herself physically. Along comes David Strathairn as a shy stranger who takes them on a boat trip, but when they have to abandon ship because of lethal danger, they’re stranded in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness to survive by their wits and emotional strength. Sayles shows Alaska as a political and geographically beautiful backdrop for half the film, then turns the tables and makes America’s last frontier the protagonist that these people have to endure if they expect to survive. The ending may be infuriating for some.





Kadosh (קדוש)

Amos Gitai

Gitai had been directing features since the early 1980s, but it was this drama, set in Jerusalem’s Orthodox community, whose presentation at Cannes established his reputation internationally. It promises a glimpse of a forbidden world, but it offers little more than tired melodramatic tropes, centering around two sisters whose devotion to the laws under which they have been raised robs them of joy and doesn’t give the men in their lives that much satisfaction, either. Rivka has been happily married to Meir for ten years but without offspring, which Rabbinical law states is grounds for divorce. Her husband does not want to live apart from his beloved wife but must bow to his father’s pronouncements. Rivka’s sister, Malka, is forced to obey her father’s command that she marry Yossef despite her being in love with hot young Yakov, who has left their traditional way of life and spends his nights working in a nightclub. Gitai’s most pronounced talent is for long, wordless sequences brimming over with emotional power (usually accompanied to a superbly selected musical soundtrack) and such pleasures are on display here, but despite the sensitive performances, a great deal of it is a real slog to get through.


The Nanny (La balia)

Marco Bellocchio

A wealthy doctor and his wife hire an illiterate woman from the countryside to be their baby’s wet nurse, but her ability to give the child what he cannot get from his biological mother causes an upset of power dynamics in their aristocratic home. Bellocchio accurately charts human exploitation through an emotionally resonant story and elicits a magnificent performance from Maya Sansa as the title character, but it’s a movie that feels like it is building to a much bigger climax. The explosion of wills that the story promises to lead to never arrives and the stakes are kept pretty low, and the conclusion is not satisfying, but there are pleasures to be had from its beautiful period details and uniformly strong cast.



Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

The surprise Palme winner saw a breakout performance from Émilie Dequenne, collecting Best Actress for her natural and unmannered turn as a trailer park-living woman who longs for legitimacy in the class-conscious world around her. Living with a self-destructive, alcoholic mother and having very little money and no friends, Dequenne’s Rosetta is lonely, and getting a job at a waffle kiosk is the means to obtaining a whole new life, no matter what she has to resort to to get it. The Dardennes are notable for never veering into pretentious flourishes or unnecessary symbolism, the message is felt in the seamless movement forward, the message of their characters’ fight for survival is simply in how they keeping moving forward.  The stylistic technique of keeping the camera almost always on Dequenne’s shoulder provides both a challenging sympathy with her character as well as an almost claustrophobic perspective for the audience, but none of this can change the fact that the personalities in their later films would be far richer and their situations more interesting.
Awards: Palme s’Or, Best Actress (Emilie Dequenne) (tie), Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention




8½ Women

Peter Greenaway

After the death of his wife, a millionaire industrialist calls his son home to him for comfort. The son, who has been living in Japan and managing the father’s highly lucrative pachinko parlours, brings with him his Japanese girlfriend, whom he insists his father share a bed with in order that he might recover emotionally after his loss. More and more women get added to their household until the two badass Brits have an entire harem going on, which includes a stony-faced nun (Toni Collette), a highly fertile beauty and a horseback-riding accident victim (Amanda Plummer) in a brace. Greenaway’s hopelessly strange film could possibly inspire debate as to whether or not it is promoting the objectification of women or criticizing it, but it’s a conversation to be had by anyone not bored enough to turn it off. The actors are all wonderfully droll, but the pace is sluggish and the immature, provocative dialogue is too desperate to shock.


Humanité (L’humanité)

Bruno Dumont

A terribly boring detective thriller that stars non-professional actors, about a murder of a young girl in a small town and the overly intense police detective (Emmanuel Schotté) who investigates the crime. Throughout most of the film’s running time, Schotte watches his two neighbours (Séverine Caneele and Philippe Tullier) have incredibly graphic sex, then goes out to dinner with them for more staring. At some point he also composes a pop tune on his synthesizer to beat the depression of what he’s going through (you know I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up).  Dumont hasn’t discovered any kind of subtlety here, he just keeps everything quiet and slow, which unfortunately for him isn’t the same thing. His flat performers find nothing beneath the surface of their actions, nor does the story reveal anything about characters or the nature of the crime that makes the experience rewarding.
Awards: Grand Jury Prize, Best Actor (Emmanuel Schotte), Best Actress (Severine Caneele) (tie)


Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏)

Takeshi Kitano

Kitano had a major breakthrough with Fireworks and attempts to recapture its skillful blend of harsh imagery and touching subject with this awkward, wholly miscalculated film. He plays an irascible, possibly unstable petty crook with a filthy mouth who accompanies a lonely boy across Japan to find his estranged mother. The child, Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi), is living with his grandmother, his father having passed away and his mother, supposedly, working far away to support him.  Unable to continue without seeing her further, saves up his money to make his way to where she lives. Kikujiro (Kitano) gambles the boy’s funds away but finds increasingly bizarre methods to make their journey happen, often involving his losing his temper on unsuspecting strangers, then when they reach their destination and hard truths are revealed, develops a fondness for the boy enough to protect him from the pain. Coming out less than a year after the expert handling of a similar story in Central Station, Kitano’s film only looks that much more contrived. Sekiguchi’s performance is overrun with child star mannerisms and the movements of the plot feel just as manipulated.


These films also played in competition but were not reviewed for this article.


The Letter (La lettre / A Carta)

Manoel de Oliveira
Awards: Jury Prize


Love Will Tear Us Apart (天上人間)

Nelson Yu Lik-wai


No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba)

Arturo Ripstein


Our Happy Lives (Nos vies heureuses)

Jacques Maillot


Tales of Kish (قصه‌های کیش)

Abolfazl Jalili, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Nasser Taghvai