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Assassin of the Tsar Cannes Debut (NYT archive)

Vincent Canby

May 11, 1991

More than 30 years ago, at an earlier Cannes Film Festival, Robert Mitchum received some unexpected publicity when a starlet with whom he was posing on the beach suddenly ripped off her bra to please the photographers. Last night a patrician Robert Mitchum, accompanied by his two grown sons, Jim and Chris, stood on the stage of the Palais du Festival and, making a gesture that seemed to be the beginning of a priest's blessing, announced that the 44th Cannes Film Festival was officially open. There was no danger of anyone's impulsively going topless, and not just because the weather was so cold and wet. If the initial selections are an indication of things to come, the 1991 festival promises to be one of the most serious in years. In the past, opening night selections have traditionally been big-budget crowd-pleasers, often American or, at least, films with English sound tracks shown out of the main competition to emphasize the difference between commerce and art.

Chosen to inaugurate this year's show was David Mamet's somber, brooding "Homicide" about the identity crisis of a big-city police detective who is both American and Jewish. It's a film that would very much like to be considered for the top prize. Shown in competition today were two equally ambitious works of which more is certain to be heard after May 20, when the festival ends. The first is a quite remarkable new Soviet film, Karen Chakhnazarov's "Assassin of the Czar," a meditation on regicide that might not have been possible to make even two years ago. The second is Patrick Bouchitey's "Cold Moon" ("Lune Froide"), a French comedy based on two stories by Charles Bukowski, the American novelist, but played somewhat in the manner of Bertrand Blier's "Going Places." It is shot in appropriately seedy black and white and designed to affront all standards of good taste of the 1990's. In spite of a downpour that left black ties limp and complex hair arrangements lank, the opening night gala went on as scheduled. Among the stars designed to stud the event was Gina Lollobrigida, looking as if time had stopped in the mid 1960's. She received an ovation from the sopping wet crowds outside the Palais du Festival, as did Whoopi Goldberg, a member of this year's festival jury, and Roman Polanski, the jury president.

Mr. Polanski, a first-rate newsmaker as well as a film director, is just back from the Soviet Union, where he was acting in a new movie, an experience he described to a local reporter as "very difficult." The studio where he was working, Mosfim, he said, "is a dump." "Nothing functions. Nobody wants to work." In the next 10 days, 21 films will be shown in the main competition, including Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" Joel and Ethan Cohen's "Barton Fink," Irwin Winkler's "Guilty by Suspicion" and a second Soviet film, Roustam Khamdamov's "Anna Karamazova" with Jean Moreau. Editors’ Picks

Akira Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in August" will be shown on Sunday out of competition. The 81-year-old Kurosawa has arrived at the point where he doesn't have to compete. Madonna's "Truth or Dare," scheduled to be screened at 11:30 P.M. on Monday, is out of competition, which could be another way of announcing that she is beyond compare. In addition to the main competition, there are several mini-festivals within the festival period. The one rather enigmatically called Un Certain Regard is programmed by the same people who handle the main festival, and is regarded as the place to put those films that, for one reason or another, do not fit into the main competition. This year it will present 19 films. The International Critics' Week will present an additional 15 films and the Directors' Fortnight 19. Running concurrently is the Film Market, where as many as 200 films are screened for possible purchase by distributors from around the world. Mr. Chakhnazarov's "Assassin of the Czar" is no mere costume epic in the woozy romantic style of "Nicholas and Alexandra." It is both a mystical and psychological exploration of the murder of the Romanov family as it is remembered by Timofeyev, a patient in a Soviet mental hospital today. The voice of a little girl named Eva has convinced Timofeyev that he is Yurovsky, the man who was in charge of the 1918 Romanov murders. Each year, on the anniversary of Yurovsky's death in 1938, the mental patient suffers the excruciating pains of the ulcers that killed the real-life assassin. To complicate matters a little more, the patient also remembers having assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. In the most matter-of-fact sort of way, the doctor who attempts to treat the patient finds himself instead playing out a psychodrama in which he is Czar Nicholas, searching the mind of the patient-assassin for the reasons behind the murder.

The film is magnificent looking but, more important, it is acted with immense skill by Malcolm McDowell, the English actor, as Timofeyev and Yurovsky, and by Oleg Yankovsky, the Soviet actor who plays both the doctor and Czar Nicholas. Not since reaching his mature years has Mr. McDowell, still best known for "A Clockwork Orange," given such a fine, strong, crafty performance. He is so good that he triumphs over his dubbed Russian dialogue, which has not been too carefully synchronized with his lip movements. The film was shot in two versions, Russian and English, with the Russian version shown here to qualify the production as a Russian entry. Some people will probably view "Assassin of the Czar" as an example of bourgeois revisionism. It is not. It neither sentimentalizes the Romanovs nor makes beasts of their murderers. Rather, the film considers these momentous events as being part of the inevitable flow of history. The mood is sorrowful and questioning. At the press conference following the critics' screening, Mr. Chakhnazarov said that much of the historical data in the film is based on information contained in the diaries of Yurovsky, the Czar, the Czarina and others made available only two years ago. The narrative frame is obviously fictional.

Mr. Bouchitey, known in France as an actor of great comic versatility, makes his directorial debut with "Cold Moon," which is actually a feature-length elaboration of a 26-minute short he directed and acted in two years ago. Not for nothing is the film dedicated to Patrick Dewaere, who co-starred with Gerard Depardieu in Mr. Blier's "Going Places" and "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs." "Cold Moon" is both abrasive and poetic, a bleakly funny tale of two layabout pals going nowhere with only the slightest awareness of what is happening to them. Simon and Dede exist on the edge of respectability, working as infrequently as possible and borrowing money when they have to. In the sequence that gives the film its principal shock value, they steal a corpse from the morgue as a practical joke. When it turns out to be that of a pretty young woman, Simon, the less aggressive of the two, falls in love with it.

It isn't the necrophilia that causes alarm but the suggestion that in the world these men inhabit, the ideal woman is possibly a dead woman. They can only relate to an idealized inert representation. The film's implications will be debated for some time to come, not necessarily in a friendly fashion. That Mr. Bouchitey is here more persuasive as a director than as an actor has something to do with the character he plays. His Dede is overwhelmingly oppressive, someone who is always on, always laughing at his own jokes. Dede would be impossible to know for more than five minutes. He is thoroughly pleased by his own noisy charm, which eludes everyone except Simon, played by Jean-Francois Stevenin as a mild-mannered man of furious, inexpressible passions. The French members of the audience loved it. They were somewhat more reserved about "Homicide," which follows "House of Games" and "Things Change" as Mr. Mamet's third film as both the writer and the director. "Homicide" begins as a tough, bluntly funny police melodrama about Bobby Gold, a detective who specializes as a hostage negotiator. In the course of his job, Bobby (Joe Mantegna) becomes sidetracked on a case involving an old Jewish woman who runs a pawnshop. Before he knows it Bobby finds himself dealing with a band of possible Jewish terrorists. The plot gets uncharacteristically thick for Mr. Mamet. Bobby it seems, has never felt he belonged, not as a cop, not as an American, not as a Jew. "Homicide" is about Bobby's awakening. It's also about several different characters named Bobby Gold. The film becomes unaccountably murky as Bobby proceeds with the murder investigation. New aspects of his personality are not revealed; instead, they are arbitrarily imposed on Bobby by the writer to make his points. The fuzziness of the character is reflected in the performance by Mr. Mantegna, who was so splendid in the two earlier Mamet films. This time the actor appears to be more bewildered by his role than laid-back in it. W. H. Macy, another Mamet regular, is fine in a much easier role that includes a short final speech containing the most pungent and moving lines Mr. Mamet has ever written. Before the screening of "Homicide," the festival paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" by showing Welles's self-celebratory trailer for the film. He introduced all of the film's principal actors, though he himself remains an off-screen voice, sounding a lot like God, as we always think Him to be in the movies. Fascinating and right.

A version of this article appears in print on May 11, 1991, Section 1, Page 11 of the National edition with the headline: Critic's Notebook; At Cannes, A Not-So-Festive Festival. Order Reprints

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