Robert Altman. David Cronenberg. Michael Cimino. Stephen Frears. Raúl Ruiz. André Téchiné. Chen Kaige. The Coen brothers. Bernardo Bertolucci. Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Mike Leigh. Aki Kaurismäki. Lars Von Trier. Arnaud Desplechin. What do these men have in common? For one, they all belong on a list of some of the most acclaimed directors of the late 20th century. Beyond that, each had a film in competition at Cannes in 1996, which is one of those years when the world’s most prestigious film festival actually lived up to its reputation—when it played, in other words, like a who’s who of moviemakers that matter.
The big names, once and future, didn’t stop with the main slate. Over in Un Certain Regard—the festival’s undercard competition—Éric Rohmer took on Peter Greenaway, Olivier Assayas explored filmmaking itself with Irma Vep, and cinephiles got their first look at the work of a promising young turk named Paul Thomas Anderson. Directors’ Fortnight, one of two sidebar fests held in Cannes during the same two-week stretch, premiered La Promesse from a pair of Belgian filmmaking brothers destined for bigger things. Even the outside-competition screenings were significant: Trainspotting inspired much controversy (and one epic party), while the fest closed on a blast of screwball hilarity with David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster.
Granted, not all of these auteurs delivered. (If you’ve sat through Stealing Beauty, you can attest to that.) One should judge a festival not on the number of major talents its programmers secure but on the quality of the films themselves. Even by that criteria, 1996 was a flagship year for Cannes—thanks, in particular, to a trio of main-competition titles that have since carved out a spot in the modern canon. Hot off a successful theatrical run in the States, snowy Minnesota noir Fargo scored perennial Cannes contenders Joel and Ethan Coen mountains of new acclaim. Lars Von Trier stripped his style down, reinventing his career in the process, with his devastating Breaking The Waves. And Mike Leigh, the working British master of hardscrabble-character studies, earned some of the best reviews of his career for Secrets & Lies.
Any of these films could have won the Palme D’Or, and I could easily get a couple thousand words out of each of them—or, for that matter, out of Cronenberg’s Crash, which won a special jury prize for its “audacity, daring, and originality,” even though jury president Francis Ford Coppola is said to have hated it. (The Godfather director was quick to note, much to the chagrin of fellow juror and Crash defender Atom Egoyan, that some of the jury “did abstain very passionately.”) But it was Secrets & Lies that ended up claiming the top prize, leaving recent Palme winners the Coens with Best Director (technically awarded just to Joel, as the brothers hadn’t yet adopted the joint byline) and Von Trier with the runner-up Grand Jury Prize.
So why Secrets & Lies? Leigh joined the Cannes club three years earlier, winning Best Director for his inaugural competition entry, Naked. The Palme was the next logical step for a director who was quickly establishing himself as one of Britain’s leading cinematic voices. But to chalk the victory up to mere career ascension is to deny the adoration Leigh’s movie instantly provoked. Premiering early in the festival, on the first Friday, Secrets & Lies would go on to become the filmmaker’s biggest box-office success in the States ($13 million) and to score several Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod. Some consider it Leigh’s masterpiece, but I’d argue it’s really just one of his warmest and most accessible films, boasting a typically authentic sense of place and character, but with a touch more generosity than the director sometimes affords his damaged working-class creations.
Secrets & Lies is one of Leigh’s ensemble efforts, and its characters are so finely, carefully sketched that one could imagine each of them carrying his or her own film. If there’s a nominal protagonist, it’s Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the 27-year-old London optometrist whose actions send the plot into motion. Hortense was given up for adoption when she was baby, and having recently buried her father, she’s made the decision to locate her birth mother. Much to the young black woman’s surprise, that long-lost biological parent, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), is white. Cynthia, who works in a cardboard box factory and hasn’t thought of the child she gave up in decades, has raised another daughter, a 20-year-old hellion named Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). She also has a younger brother, photographer Maurice (Timothy Spall), who she rarely sees—mostly because she doesn’t much get along with his upwardly mobile wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), with whom Maurice is having marital problems.
This is, at heart, a kitchen-sink drama, one that turns class conflict—a pet theme of Leigh’s since his BBC television days—into one of the issues dividing its dysfunctional family. (During a tour of her home, Monica boastfully identifies the luxuries Cynthia can’t afford; later she shows up her sister-in-law by handing Roxanne a pile of cash for her birthday.) The film is less interested in examining Britain’s racial tensions, even if the storyline would seem to allow for such an angle. “Nobody ever knows any more than that character would know,” Leigh explained about his actors in an interview for Secrets & Lies, confirming the widely reported story that Blethyn didn’t realize that Hortense would be black until Jean-Baptiste showed up to rehearse their characters’ first meeting. But while Hortense’s race is a surprise for the other characters, it’s never much of an issue for them. Only the very brief moment of Monica answering the door to Hortense, who’s been invited to her house, and confusing her for someone selling something suggests ingrained bigotry.
Leigh has adopted one of the most interesting approaches in contemporary cinema. His first step is always to assemble the cast. He then spends months workshopping original characters with the actors, eventually building the plot around the backstories, personalities, and psychologies they come up with together. Finally, he writes the screenplay, essentially shaping a movie out of what happens during rehearsals. (The films themselves are scripted, not improvised—a frequent point of confusion with his work.) Secrets & Lies reaps the usual benefits of this unique process, which helps account for the frequently terrific performances Leigh elicits; lent months to develop their characters, the actors often seem barely to be acting—they’re simply embodying these people on screen. Jean-Baptiste beams with come-what-may curiosity. Her Hortense is a woman so eager to learn where she came from that she approaches the sometimes awkward experience of meeting her new family with a total lack of judgmental distance. She’s radiant, in what may be the brightest glimmer of sunshine to fall over Leigh’s overcast England until Happy-Go-Lucky. Equally warm, in a more subdued way, is Leigh’s go-to leading bloke Spall, playing a man trying to broker peace between the warring factions of his family. Rarely has the actor, before or since, exhibited such a fundamental decency.
The film’s showcase performance, though, is Blethyn’s high-volume turn as Cynthia, a woman who seems, at almost all times, on the verge of an epic crying jag. It’s a big and sometimes even shrill performance, Blethyn quivering under the emotional burden of this unexpected reunion and leaning heavily on her impeccable Cockney accent. She’s a little much to endure, to be honest, but that’s part of the point: Secrets & Lies positions Cynthia as a center of gravity—a force of pure, histrionic feeling, around which everyone orbits—and the actress creates the perfect context for the other characters’ reactions. Which is to say, we can understand why Roxanne feels resentful and oppressed by her, why Monica is repelled by her, and why Hortense—having lost her more reserved parents—is drawn to her emotional openness. Cynthia is the family you could never quit, but sometimes really wish you could.
Blethyn won the Best Actress prize at Cannes and eventually scored an Academy Award nomination, too. Jean-Baptiste was also up for the Oscar, but in the supporting category. (A result of her more subdued, less flashy work or a case of racial bias on the part of the academy? Either way, it’s a leading performance.) The film’s most memorable scene puts the two of them in the frame together for that aforementioned first meeting, a two-shot in a booth at a diner. Leigh never cuts, instead letting the interaction play out in its awkward entirety—soaking in waves of discomfort and vulnerability, but also revealing early signs that these two will get past their estrangement. Leigh is frequently praised for his work with actors, less so for his formal prowess. But he makes powerful, productive use of the long take in Secrets & Lies; a later scene around a backyard-barbecue table enhances the mounting tension by holding the shot. Leigh also uses an endearing transitional device, breaking up early scenes with montages of Maurice’s photography sessions, all shot from the perspective of his camera. Besides the punchline pleasure they provide, these vignettes visualize one of Maurice’s central character traits: his ability to put on happy airs even when something’s eating at him.
There are moments in this two-hour-and-15-minute movie that exist only to provide shade and context; they don’t move the plot forward one inch, and are all the more valuable for it. Leigh nearly cut two of these scenes, before a clearer head prevailed. One of them is a sudden, dramatic encounter with Maurice’s old business partner, played by Ron Cook—a reunion as tumultuous, in its own right, as the main one. The other is an extended, low-key conversation between Hortense and a close friend. This scene feels especially invaluable, because it offers a rare glimpse into Hortense’s private life—a sense that she exists outside of the framework of the film’s main adoption story, that her whole world isn’t shaped by this new mother-daughter relationship.
I wish the movie gave Hortense a little more to do in the final act, when she basically becomes a bystander (albeit a courageously unflinching one) to the big soapy confrontations of the climactic scenes. There’s a blatantly theatrical quality to Secrets & Lies’ ending, as characters begin airing their grievances and letting slip shocking revelations; Spall even gets to deliver a titular line during his big showstopping speech. The film also wraps things up a bit too neatly, in a way that I’m convinced is somewhat key to its popularity: A messier, less crowd-pleasing movie wouldn’t settle for what feels a bit like a hasty happy ending. At the same time, though, it’s tough to blame Leigh for nursing an affection for these squabbling relatives and a desire to see them come out on the other side of their problems a little better off. Given how unsparing he can be to his characters (for a dispiriting example, see the truly bleak ending to another Cannes selection, Another Year), perhaps a little charity isn’t so detrimental. In any case, a current of comedy helps enliven the shouting-match catharsis of the final scenes. Leigh’s funniest choice: adding a couple of actual bystanders, a boyfriend and a secretary, who exist mainly to stand silently agog as their hosts work out their issues in front of them.
The humor might have helped Secrets & Lies win over jurors, critics, and audiences. (Leigh, for all his interest in the harsh realities of working-class life, is at his best when he’s spiking his naturalism with dry wit—a quality that also benefitted his latest Cannes prizewinner, the biopic Mr. Turner.) Of course, the film may also have arrived at the right place and the right time. 1996 was a banner year for not just the festival but also independent cinema on a whole. At the Oscars, Secrets & Lies competed against three other indies (and only one Hollywood movie) for Best Picture, ultimately losing to The English Patient. More fascinatingly, the Best Actress category turned out to be a Cannes rematch, with Blethyn and Breaking The Waves star Emily Watson losing to Fargo’s Frances McDormand. For one glorious year, Cannes and the Oscars didn’t look so different; the edges of mainstream moviedom seemed to inch a little further out. And then an iceberg appeared on the horizon, and down went the ship.
Did it deserve to win? I’m more partial to Secrets & Lies’ nearest competitors, honestly. Breaking The Waves remains one of Von Trier’s most powerful, cohesive provocations: a punk-rock holy movie. And as good as TV’s Fargo is, the show’s pleasures are, to some extent, mere echoes of the crooked, haunted, and frequently hilarious crime comedy that inspired them. But how about a third alternative, one that probably never got within spitting distance of the Palme: Arnaud Desplechin’s rambling, intoxicating My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument, which my colleague Ignatiy Vishnevetsky recently described as “the free-form, three-hour hip relationship drama to end all hip relationship dramas.”
Next up: Finally, after much delay, I get around to Black Orpheus, the only Palme D’Or winner (to my knowledge) that Barack Obama has written about.