Cannes '96, Expert Witness #1: Hélène Zylberait
First up in this series is my dear friend Hélène Zylberait, a programmer, scholar, translator, critic, journalist, and film-lover who has been variously centered in Paris and Berlin the last several years. We met through my partner Derek, who befriended Hélène during graduate school at Cornell; she left the same summer I arrived, but to my great happiness, we have crossed paths many, many, many times. I always love talking to Hélène about movies, to include helping her think of good French substitutes, for reasons that will soon be obvious, for what Samuel Fuller means when he says, for example, "I wanted to make a film that really socked it to 'em!" I love that she happens to mention In the Mood for Love and Dancer in the Dark in these responses; I doubt she remembers this, but those were the two movies Derek and I saw in gorgeous Parisian cinemas when we visited her for New Year's Eve in 2000 and rolled in the new millennium with her. As has been true of every friend who has answered so far, Hélène confirmed some of what I guessed about her tastes and surprised me in other ways, which is the best kind of film buddy to have. I also hope you get an impression of how catholic and rangy her aesthetic tastes are, and agree with me that it's only fitting for our first Expert Witness to be French herself, and a frequent veteran of the Croisette.
(And if I may be so gauche: if you're looking for a brilliant English-to-French translator, especially but not only for movie-related books, look no further! I'll gladly put you in touch with my talented, eloquent friend.)
ND: First, let my readers know about some of the many jobs you've had related to film, and what kind of work you've done most recently.
HZ: As a life-long cinephile, my dream was always to somehow talk about movies. So far, thanks to incredible encounters, I have been able to work in different movie-related fields. I started out as a film journalist for various publications, and more specifically on Radio Nova in Paris. After a few years I got the opportunity to work in art-house movie theatres in Paris’s Latin Quarter as an assistant programmer and projects organizer before becoming head of distribution for Cine Classic (a company specializing in revivals). While researching and putting together programs for the Paris Holocaust Memorial, I met Christa Fuller, the widow of the great Samuel Fuller. I translated his amazing autobiography A Third Face, which got published in France in 2011 by Editions Allia. Since then, I have been working as both a translator and an interpreter for publishing houses, film producers, and distributors.
Fairly early at Cannes in 1996, Secrets & Lies, Fargo, and Breaking the Waves emerged as the three films to beat for the Palme. The eventual awards confirmed them as the perceived cream of that year's crop. Had you been on the jury, divvying prizes among that trio, which would you have championed for the Palme? What do you most love or admire about it?
At the time, I would have probably championed Fargo. I remember vividly seeing it at the movie theatre and being impressed by the mix of genres that is so perfectly crafted here: thriller, comedy, gruesome yet kind of funny moments, like the foot getting forced inside the mincer or whatever it was. I also thought Frances MacDormand was at her absolute best, along with Blood Simple, which I saw around that time in a brand new print. These characters, everyday people caught in an inextricable situation, both touched and scared me.
Do you have briefer thoughts about the other two films in that trio? As I recall, you aren't the biggest von Trier fan....
I think Lars von Trier is probably one of the most talented directors alive. I really do. All his body of work is groundbreaking and disturbing. That being said, again, at the time, I thought Breaking the Waves was a misogynist film. In retrospect, I was maybe too young when I saw the film (I was then 20) and I probably took the whole story too literally. I was angry at all the characters, hence at the director. Although I was a huge fan of Europa and The Kingdom, this film left me with nothing but rage and sadness. Which is probably a good sign! I only recently reunited with Lars von Trier through Melancholia, which is, to me, one of the best films ever made about depression.
I remember being very moved by Secrets & Lies. I saw it again a year or two ago and I was struck by how bright and powerful it is. The performances by Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste add a layer of social consciousness to this intimate story in such a way that anyone can relate to it. Still today, it is my favorite of Leigh’s, along with Naked.
As you look at the other films in the main competition that year, are there other titles or filmmakers for which you'd have advocated strongly? Why so?
I would have advocated for Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument. It had a strong influence on me and pretty much all the people I knew at the time. We were students and related to the characters, who were ten years older than we were, although I remember we had heated conversations after seeing the film. Some thought it was too "Parisian," too pretentious, too self-centered—but deep down, I think we secretly wanted to become like them, and especially like Mathieu Amalric. I was also (and still am) very passionate about Desplechin's first feature, The Sentinel, which in my opinion remains one of the best films about Europe after the Berlin Wall.
But the film that really shook me at the time was Trainspotting, which was part of the Official Selection but screened Out of Competition, particularly since I was closer in age to its characters. It was a reality shock.
As a cinephile living and studying in Paris, I'm curious what you remember about the initial reception of some of that year's French crop. You've already spoken about My Sex Life..., but what about Audiard's A Self-Made Hero, Leconte's Ridicule, or Téchiné's Les voleurs? Did they make a big impact in the French market when they came out commercially? Did Irma Vep, which didn't land a Competition slot, eventually loom over all of them? From that group, it certainly made the biggest impression in the States.
I remember film critics comparing Audiard's A Self-Made Hero to Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. Its topic certainly made a strong impression on the French audience. Since France always had a hard time talking about the attitude of some French people during the War, it was and remains a very daring film. Mathieu Kassovitz was then very famous as the director of La Haine but this film showed his talent as an actor.
Like all Olivier Assayas films, Irma Vep certainly made a great impression on me. Assayas has this amazing ability to change his style and modes of narration with each film. The critics pointed out the freedom of this film. It’s also a great homage to silent films. In Paris, I always lived on the top floor of my apartment buildings, so I always see the roofs of the city. Still today, in those moments, I often think of the scene in which Maggie Cheung “becomes” Irma Vep by putting on the black latex bodysuit and walking on the roofs. It was not cinema anymore. It was Maggie Cheung coming to life.
Any other movies listed in the sidebars from Cannes '96 that especially stand out for you, for better or worse?
One of these is Looking For Richard. I saw it in an empty room at 4pm in an art-house movie theatre in Paris and I loved it! Al Pacino, one of my heroes, walking me through Shakespeare. What else could I ask for??
In this context, I should also mention The Sunchaser. I am a huge Michael Cimino fan. Although I have to admit it is not his best achievement, you can’t ignore his humanistic message—as in all his films. That’s what prevails here: the torrent of emotions that Cimino sends you is almost overwhelming. He probably is one of the all-time most sensitive directors.
You've been to Cannes a few times over the years. What would you say are the most distinctive aspects of seeing a movie there, as opposed to in regular release, or even at another festival?
Sometimes, the show is not only on the screen but also in the room. Press screenings are usually the rockiest ones. There are famous stories of people almost punching each other over a film. La Grande Bouffe was a huge scandal in 1973, as was Under the Sun of Satan in 1987. People boo. When they leave the room in the middle of a film, they make sure everyone hears their seat slam—although the screening room was recently renovated, so maybe they don’t make that much noise anymore…
In this vein, I remember the screening of Irréversible (2002) by Gaspar Noé. It was incredibly violent. People were leaving, screaming at the screen, or arguing with each other. I even heard a guy threaten the director—just, like, screaming at the screen. It was insane. Same for The Brown Bunny (2003). People left while making sure to make a lot of noise. Someone screamed that it was “not cinema but porn!"
On the other hand, if the audience loves a film, it’s beautiful. They can clap for twenty minutes, cheer, and honor the director like a king. That was certainly the case at the end of In the Mood for Love. Also, the same year, when the lights came back up after Dancer in the Dark, people sitting next to me were crying in each other’s arms. Whether you like the film or not, you have to admit you don’t see these kinds of reactions often.
But honestly, what matters is the film and its life afterwards. Every so often, when journalists re-watch the same films back in Paris, weeks or even months after the Cannes screening and far from the feverish atmosphere of the festival, some of them can have a more nuanced opinion. Cannes is a place of strong emotions. Either you love or hate. There is little in between. It can sound crazy, but for ten days the festival is a world of its own. You can criticize that aspect of the event, but nonetheless there is something remarkable about the passion you witness there.