The City of Absurdity   WILD AT HEART
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  In Cannes for the world premiere of his new movie, David Lynch

Time International, 1990

In Cannes for the world premiere of his new movie, David Lynch decided to leave his shoelace untied. ''For good luck,'' he explained obliquely. As if the American writer-director needed luck last week. In the U.S. his soap opera Twin Peaks, an all-time oddity and cult sensation on prime-time TV, lured millions of addicted viewers to its season finale. ABC, the sponsoring network, announced that Twin Peaks would return in the fall. To complete the hat trick, Lynch copped theCannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or for Wild at Heart, his latest affront to the cinematic status quo. Flanked by his radiant companion Isabella Rossellini, awash in the fervent cheers and scattered outraged hoots that will forever follow his film, Lynch smiled innocently and declared, ''It's a true dream come true.''

Lynch's ''true dream'' upstaged the real-life dramas from Eastern Europe that the festival had planned as a tribute to glasnost. The 40,000 film professionals who flock to the Riviera resort every year were meeting for the first time since the convulsive changes in Eastern Europe, South Africa and China. More than ever before, movies were taking inspiration from headlines, and cinephiles heeded the scenarios as if they were dispatches from the front lines, though the messages may have been sent years or decades ago.

Suppressed since 1982, Ryszard Bugajski's Polish film The Interrogation earned a best-actress prize for Krystyna Janda. She plays a good-time gal who is arrested and undergoes torture at the hands of the state, then bears the child of her inquisitor – a poignant metaphor for the human compromises required under a totalitarian regime. Czech director Karel Kachyna's The Ear, made in 1970 and just now released, is a stark, dark comedy depicting one long night in the life of a bickering couple – a Communist Party functionary and his wife – who find their house bugged by the man's rivals. Corrosive in its vision of both domestic and political double-dealing, The Ear plays like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? crossed with Franz Kafka. A new marital drama from China, Zhang Yimou's Ju-Dou, begins as The Postman Always Rings Twice and ends as The Bad Seed. Buoyed by the voluptuous beauty of its leading lady, Gong Li, Ju-Dou was the most visually spectacular and dramatically beguiling film in ! the competition, but owing to political reasons, it remains unreleased in its homeland.

Because most films take at least 18 months to grow from proposed project to finished product, it may take until Cannes 1991 to see the fruits of freedom in East European cinema. But two of this year's prizewinners, as determined by a jury headed by filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, gave hints that the view will be just as bleak. Taxi Blues, a Soviet-French production that copped the best- director award for Pavel Longhine, was called the first ''post-perestroika'' movie. In this story about a Russian cabdriver and his wary friendship with a Jewish jazz saxophonist, Moscow may as well be New York or Paris – a civilization in decay, where ennui is a wolf howl and oblivion is the opium of the people.

Is anyone capable of making a tough moral decision and acting on it? That is the question raised in Ken Loach's controversial British film Hidden Agenda, which won the runner-up Jury Prize. Jim Allen's screenplay, set in Northern Ireland, asserts that a whispering conspiracy by right-wing Tories brought down both the Wilson and Heath governments, paving the way for Thatcher and, almost as an afterthought, making Ireland unsafe for the Irish. Alas, despite good performances, the film plods – not a good tactic if you hope to rouse the rabble.

It does no service to old masters of the cinema to show their latest, indifferent films, as Cannes did this year with Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, Federico Fellini's The Voice of the Moon, Andrzej Wajda's Korczak and Paolo and Vittorio Tavianis' Night Sun. Two old-man films atoned for all these. Manuel de Oliveira has been making movies for nearly 60 years, but his new work, No, or the Vainglory of the Commander, is startlingly vigorous in its panoramic denunciation of war – a near great film from the Portuguese director. Dirk Bogarde, now 69 but still the cinema's most elegant actor, brought autumnal grace to Bertrand Tavernier's Daddy Nostalgie, a lovely portrait of a dying man who can look back on his life and say, without a drop of irony, ''I really envy me.''

All these films may be absolved for envying Wild at Heart. Once it came on the scene, they never stood a chance against a big movie from a hot American director rushed straight from the lab to Cannes. Lynch, after all, was no longer just the director of the eccentric hits Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. During the past six weeks, in the U.S. and by reputation abroad, he had become famous as the co-creator, with Mark Frost, of perhaps the most heralded show in U.S. TV history. Set in a small town in the American Northwest, Twin Peaks begins with the discovery of a corpse – teen queen Laura Palmer – then lifts the rock of middle-class propriety to reveal a town roiling with secret sins. Big deal; Peyton Place for the '90s. But for Lynch, it was manner that mattered. The actors play in a style that might be called over-the-top deadpan. The pace is snail-like; but what a beautiful snail, motorized by images of waterfalls and anguished faces.

Hip America was instantly fixated on Twin Peaks, and tout Cannes was avid with anticipation as the countdown to Wild at Heart began. Early in the festival, Lyncholepts had lined up to see new episodes of Twin Peaks screened at the American Pavilion. A few U.S. critics proudly brandished their foreign videocassettes of the show's pilot, for which Lynch shot a tell-whodunit climax not aired in the States. Europeans pummeled Americans for details of the series. Wild at Heart may have had less at stake than the East European films, but by the time it played toward the end of the festival, the whole movie world was watching.

And Lynch delivered. Wild at Heart is splendidly grotesque and mammothly entertaining – the director's first for-sure comedy, Blue Velvet for laughs. The plot, from Barry Gifford's noirish novel, is your standard slice of poisoned American pie: a pair of loser-friendly lovers, Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), hit the road to escape Lula's mom and a phalanx of psychos who vividly illustrate Lula's contention that the ''whole world's wild at heart and weird on top.'' But the picture is packed with so much deranged energy, so many bravura images, that it's hard not to be seduced by the sick wonder of it all. One character puts cockroaches in his underwear and breaks into sobs when told that Christmas is still six months away. Heads get crushed, punctured and blown sky-high; a dog trots past with a severed hand in its mouth. Lula has the movie pegged when, at one typical moment, she exclaims, ''Lordy, what was that all about?''

Wild at Heart is about nothing, perhaps, except the power of pictures to shock the nervous system – so much so that the film may be rated X in the U.S. It's about the fun that actors can have with characters named Perdita Durango, Bobby Peru and Mr. Reindeer. It's about obsessive imagery and compulsive behavior: almost everybody chain-smokes, sometimes two cigarettes at a time. And aptly for a film shown in the living movie museum of Cannes, Wild at Heart is also Lynch's fond homage to The Wizard of Oz. Lula clicks her red slippers to get out of a jam. Her mom, played with lubricious abandon by Dern's own mother, Diane Ladd, is the Wicked Witch, all long nails, daft cackles and unquenchable vengeance. Toward the end, a good witch (Cheryl Lee, Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer) descends to earth in a bubble, waves her silver wand and tells Sailor, ''Don't turn away from love.'' Instead of Over the Rainbow, he croons Love Me Tender.

In the Wild at Heart press book, Lynch's biography reads, in its entirety: ''Eagle Scout Missoula Montana.'' And at his Cannes press conference, this ordinary-looking fellow with the buttoned-up collar and the untied shoelace answered questions with the blissed-out graciousness of an eagle scout from Mars. Told by one reporter that his films are rife with graphic visions of violence, he stared benignly and replied, ''I have even worse.'' Asked about the similarities in cast and tone between Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart, he said, ''The main thing they have in common is wood.'' Any more questions? As Sailor says to Lula, so may moviegoers say of the new king of Cannes, ''The way your head works is God's own private mystery.'' But when the rest of the world gets to see Wild at Heart, a lot of people will want to be let in on the secret.

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© Mike Hartmann