”I could…make you understood all over the world,” says Scottish star Ewan McGregor to Taiwanese actress Vivian Wu in The Pillow Book, directed by Englishman Peter Greenaway. And just as McGregor and Wu lovingly apply calligraphy to each other’s bodies in the kinkily sumptuous polyglot epic, the overriding theme of the 49th International Festival of Film at Cannes was getting naked — via words, sex, and emotion — and getting noticed for it. Which isn’t difficult on the Riviera in May with the whole film world watching.
While press wags dubbed the Pillow director ”Penis” Greenaway, it was David Cronenberg’s Crash that caused the biggest fuss, as it was designed to do. A sex-filled story of damaged souls who live for car smashups and coitus, Crash was booed at its debut on May 17. But three days later, to further boos and greater shock, it won a special jury prize for ”originality, daring, and audacity,” to the delight of U.S. distributor Fine Line. ”It was a risk to put Crash in the festival,” says marketing chief Liz Manne. ”But the fact it’s a balls-to-the-wall film is its marketing appeal.”
Sure to earn an NC-17, Crash shows plenty of Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, and James Spader, who bucked a trend among male actors at Cannes by not appearing fully, frontally nude. ”It had to do with geography,” Spader insisted. ”Most of the scenes were f—ing. You don’t see the penis.”
Naked grabs for attention didn’t taint the festival’s other, largely European prizewinners — Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (Palme d’Or), Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (the runner-up Grand Prix), Fargo‘s Joel Coen (best director), Secrets‘ Brenda Blethyn (best actress), and The Eighth Day leads Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne (who shared best actor honors). Francis Coppola’s nine-member jury chose between two emotional entries for the top prize (both set for fall release here by October Films). Breaking tells the story of an innocent who commits adultery at her paralyzed husband’s behest; in Secrets, Blethyn plays a white woman who discovers that the grown-up daughter she never saw after her birth is half black. ”The film is about what we all want and need to do,” said Leigh, ”find who we are and what we are.”
Strong movies with few stars left the 4,000 credentialed members of the press scrambling for access to the hot names. There was Temptress Moon‘s Gong Li — a ranking goddess of Cannes since Farewell My Concubine shared the Palme d’Or two years ago — in the company of Monaco’s Prince Albert, and Stealing Beauty‘s azure-eyed nymphet Liv Tyler charming a legion of photogs she nicknamed ”papanazis.” There was Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell touting In Love and War, a movie they haven’t even shot, and a 10-minute preview of Madonna’s musical Evita that screened not for sensation’s sake but ”to reassure my distributors their investment was safe,” explained Cinergi’s Andy Vajna, who could use a hit after The Scarlet Letter.
If Tyler (dubbed Liv Taylor by the French) was Cannes’ reigning poster girl, Pillow Book‘s McGregor was its boy. Riding high as one of the stars of Trainspotting — the most talked-about film in Great Britain this year and a surprise to many for not being admitted in the festival competition — he was on ample display in Pillow. ”It was f—ing freezing,” recalled the actor, who hadn’t seen the film before the festival. McGregor moved from Pillow to Trainspotting, a paean to heroin, to the fully frocked Emma in a matter of months. ”That was weird, standing outside my trailer in a wig, top hat, and tails.”