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The Times (18/May/1972) - Waiting for the bonnes bouches

(c) The Times (18/May/1972)

Waiting for the bonnes bouches

As this year's Cannes Film Festival nears its end. the pace has begun to accelerate. Suddenly in the last two days a large number of films are due which at least promise well on the previous form of those involved in them if nothing else. Three Warhol/Mossissey films, the main American entry, Slaughterhouse Five, the brand-new Hitchcock, Frenzy, which will actually close the festival (a real treat in store for those who have not seen it: I will be writing about it next week when it opens in London), the new Skolimowski, King, Queen, Knave, and several more.

It will be a relief if some at least of these live up to their promise, since after a flurry of interest at the weekend, the festival has been in the doldrums for the past few days, with too many solid, unexceptionable, unexceptional films that just about kept things ticking over without exciting, surprising, outraging, or otherwise doing anything to take the curse off the glum, rain-soaked weather. Truth to tell. I did not care much even for the first of the last batch, King, Queen, Knave. Like Skolimowski's last film, the woolly, splendid Deep End. it is made in English, though presented as a German entry. Based on Nabokov's blackly comic novel about a triangle consisting of a rich, aging businessman. his younger wife and their idiotically awkward teenage orphan nephew, it has moments of grotesque amusement, but is it basically the sort of stylised comedy which imperatively requires spot-on timing and perfect consistency of lone, such as very few directors can achieve working in a language not their own. And in this case too many scenes seem slightly out of focus. Too much dialogue, even from the mouth of such a seasoned professional as David Niven. sounds forced and uncomfortable. But then the story depends more than most of Nabokov's on the sheer brilliance of this style. Put through a conventional script factory mincer, it has nothing much left to show for itself.

In handling this kind of subject matter. Skolimowski could profitably take a look at what James Ivory does with Savages shown to great success in the Directors' Fortnight. It is a subject quite unlike those of any of his Indian films; an allegory which when described sounds very dangerous and pretentious. The film does not, either, start very reassuringly, with some 20 minutes or so of imitation silent film showing a group of supposed savage tribesmen (who may be recognized as the characters of the main story in disguise) stumbling upon the mouldering remains of a gracious New England home. But as soon as the film goes into colour and begins to speak, the director's command becomes evident. The whole central section, a smart dinner party set some time, in the 1920s, is classic, the writing and the playing (all in a high, artificial style which is perfectly sustained) match each other beautifully and a lot of what is said and what happens is very funny indeed. The very end of the film falls off a bit since it is excessively predictable and rams home the message about the precariousness of civilization a little ;too firmly for comfort. But that detracts hardly at all from the triumph at the film's centre.

Most of the films in competition deserve little attention — as last year. They are mostly straight commercial offerings, according to the lights of the various countries involved, and the excitements are to be sought (and occasionally found) round the fringes. Some seem to have liked Elio Petri's The Working Classes Co to Heaven very much, I found one or two scenes admirable — an interview in a lunatic asylum between our injured working man hero and a former class hero who has declared himself insane, a bitter comic deflowering in the front seat of a tiny car — but the main business of the film, which concerns itself with strikes and pickets and the Italian way of family life, is terribly repetitious and long-drawn-out. The French entry Chere Louise is an essay in the higher lunacy with Jeanne Moreau as an aging spinster involved with a much younger man, directed by Philippe de Broca with none of the proper Warner Brothers high-Thirties gloss. The German Trott — is an elegant but empty period drama with delusions of social significance. And so on.

One great exception, though: Fellini's Roma, shown out of competition. I know I am generally accounted crazy where Fellini is concerned, so perhaps I should add that even people who normally hate Fellini consider this one masterly. I have now seen most of it three times, and find it grows with each re-seeing. It is an anthology of glimpses of and attitudes to the City of Rome an essay film rather along the lines of The Clowns. There are childhood reminiscences, a nightmarish evocation of the traffic on the freeways speeding into Rome, then gradually slowing to a grinding, deadlocked halt all round the Colosseum, there is a haunting episode showing the excavators for the new Rome underground breaking into a complete ancient Roman home, which then crumbles to dust before their eves, there is a cold ecclesiastical fashion show which starts as camp fantasy and ends as a sort of apocalyptic vision of a church and a society in full decadence, and a really stunning, how did-he-pos-sibly-do-it? climax with Rome invaded by hundreds of deafening motor-cyclists. Fellini has never been better, never more completely in control of his means and aware of his ends. After Satyricon it is perhaps a minor, transitional work. But a minor masterpiece is a masterpiece none the less, and Roma is the nearest thing to a masterpiece this festival has yet offered.