Cannes asks: Cinema anyone?
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Cannes asks: Cinema anyone?

Two French films on the first day of the festival pose a valid question on the past and future of movies

Cannes asks: Cinema anyone?
Abel Gance's Napoleon.

To remind us that we're here because of cinema, the 77th Cannes Film Festival did an uncanny double bill on its first day. The festival opened on Tuesday and will run until May 25. On the first afternoon, before the ritzy kerfuffle of the opening red carpet, Cannes screened the first part of the restored 1927 silent film Napoleon, an audacious epic of the French Revolution by Abel Gance, who 97 years ago tested the limits of what cinema could do with exhilarating results (the entire film runs for seven hours; we were treated to the first four here).

An hour or so after Napoleon, Cannes officially opened with Le Deuxieme Acte, an exercise in meta-cinema -- a film within a film in which actors play actors and argue about the point or pointlessness of making a movie or not making a movie. The director is Quentin Dupieux, a postmodern trickster who holds up too many mirrors at the audience and himself all at once.

Cinema, anyone? Which kind of cinema?

Napoleon is "early cinema", showing here as part of the always-impressive Cannes Classics. The 5K restoration work undertaken by Cinematheque Francaise since 2008 renders a pristine texture and arrives equipped with a thunderous orchestral score excerpted from classical compositions, from Mozart to Penderecki and Wagner. It chronicles the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, from his days as a strategic-minded schoolboy who wins a snowball-fight against his rivals, to a solider excited as well as suspicious of the French Revolution.

Gance, a pioneer of French cinema admired by later generations including the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, was known for his bold style, and in Napoleon he deploys a wide gamut of visual techniques which the camera of his time could afford. What modern action filmmakers are doing today was already done by Gance nearly 100 years ago, to an even more thrilling effect, from kinetic tracking shots and lightning-quick montage to wild chase scenes on horseback and battle scenes of epic madness. For film historians, Napoleon is probably most famous for Gance's polyvision shot, a simultaneous projection of three screens to show three points of view (this happens in the second part of the film, not the first part shown at Cannes).

It's pointless to even compare Gance's film with the latest screen version of Napoleon by Ridley Scott, starring the constipated Joaquin Phoenix (the long-gestated and eventually unmade Stanley Kubrick Napoleon would have been a worthy contender). The 1927 Napoleon is a prime example of what cinema as a technological expression could achieve, a work that probes the medium's parameters and intelligently contests them. The lengthy, mud-soaked and rain-splashed Battle of Toulon scene alone is a testament of cinema's power to thrill and intoxicate, emotionally and viscerally, with Alert Dieudonne as Napoleon marauding through scenes like a preternatural Goth rocker ready to unleash his spell.

Le Deuxieme Acte.

In short, in an ideal world Napoleon should have been the official opening film of Cannes. But of course cinema has evolved, and the environment that sustains cinema has also evolved. So instead we have Dupieux's Le Deuxieme Acte, a self-consciously clever satire (or is it irony?) on the existence of cinema and the stars that revolve around it. The film features a stellar cast of A-list French actors -- Lea Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Vincent Lindon and Raphael Quenard -- in a story about a group of actors who question themselves and one another, as to why they're shooting a bad film.

Some people will like Le Deuxieme Acte more than others and some will laugh while others may wonder why people are laughing. But unwittingly, by showing two French films of such differing temperament on the first day of its 77th edition, the Cannes Film Festival proposes a valid existential question about the history and future of cinema -- where we came from, and where we want to go from here.

Cannes prides itself as a place that celebrates cinema. From now until May 25, let's see how it keeps up with its promise.

Kong Rithdee is deputy director of the Thai Film Archive. He reports from Cannes for the Bangkok Post.

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