David Lynch's New Peak

When you're hot you're hot. Even before David Lynch walked off with the Cannes Film Festival's top prize the Palme d'Or, for his flammable new film "Wild at Heart," Lynchmania had infected the Cote d'Azur. Each Thursday night during the festival, the American Pavilion threw a "Twin Peaks" party (serving pie and a good cup of black coffee) for crowds of "Peak" addicts who, ignoring the hundreds of new movies unreeling around them, preferred to huddle in front of TV monitors watching tapes of the latest episode from the United States. The first screening of "Wild at Heart"--at 8:30 in the morning--was so eagerly anticipated that the 2,400-seat Grand Auditorium Lumiere was half full of sleepy souls by 8. When the film ended, with the Elvis-like Nicolas Cage atop a car crooning "Love Me Tender" to Laura Dern, the audience broke into wild cheering. After a steady diet of lugubrious and sometimes immobile films from around the world, Lynch's lurid comic melodrama was a blast of freshly fetid American air.

The black-tie crowd at the awards ceremony was more divided. When jury president Bernardo Bertolucci announced Lynch as the Palme d'Or winner, the boos almost drowned out the cheers (critic Roger Ebert, pink with outrage, was leading the jeering section). The happy director (whose TV show was just renewed by ABC) seemed to relish yet another controversy.

"The whole world's wild at heart and weird on top," complains Lynch's heroine Lula (Dern), a Southern sexpot fleeing across a Gothic American landscape with her ex-con lover Sailor (Cage), while killers hired by her mother (Diane Ladd, Dern's real-life mother) track them down. "Wild at Heart" is Lynch's punchiest, campiest and most violent movie, featuring Willem Dafoe's spectacularly shot-off head, a severed hand, lots of sex, vomit, dirty talk and a leitmotif of gigantic close-ups of matches igniting. Threaded throughout are continual references to "The Wizard of Oz"--Lynch's favorite movie--with airborne appearances by both the Wicked Witch and the Good.

Though based on a Barry Gifford novel, it's (im)pure Lynch, served up in a rat-tattat style that's far more hyper than "Blue Velvet" or "Twin Peaks." What's worrisome about "Wild at Heart"--whether you take it seriously or as a goof--is the sense that Lynch is opportunistically trafficking in Lynchian grotesqueries. The mannerisms threaten to overwhelm the matter. While a number of French critics see it naturellement, as a profound critique of violent America, it's nothing of the kind. It's yet another journey inside Lynch's seething subconscious, an exciting place to visit but one that is beginning to show its limitations. There's something fundamentally adolescent about his vision--he's like a kid who never got over his first discovery that life is dirty. Spectacular and funny as "Wild at Heart" can be. its smutty-boy shock tactics make you wonder about his future. Can he grow up? American moviegoers may never see this prize-winning version of the film, currently scheduled to open in the United States in August. Lynch may have to trim; he's contractually obligated to deliver an it-rated movie, and the ratings board has told Lynch he would get an X for this version.

Cannes needed the Lynch controversy to perk things up, and Nick Cage brought some Hollywood panache to the social scene when, at the end of a formal dinner at the Carlton Hotel, he leapt on a table and sang "Love Me Tender" to the surprised wife of festival organizer Gilles Jacob. Few of the movies at the festival caused such a stir. There were major disappointments from some of the great names in world cinema. Akira Kurosawa's "Dreams"--eight episodes inspired by his nocturnal reveries--contained splendid images but never overcame its static, sententious spirit. Fellini's cacophonous "The Voice of the Moon" was even more painful, a tiresome rehashing of once glorious conceits. Though no one went so far as to claim he understood Jean-Luc Godard's "Nouvelle Vague," which was more a private notebook than a narrative, everyone agreed the images were gorgeous and, coherent or not, he had made a kind of comeback.

The crowd pleaser was Jean-Paul Rappeneau's sumptuous, rousing "Cyrano de Bergerac." Gerard Depardieu's vigorous Cyrano won best-actor honors, to the rapture of the home crowd. Two sleepers came from unlikely sources. The African filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo, from Burkina Faso, produced a marvelously shot story of village life, "Tilai," and Chinese director Zhang Yimou's ravishing "Ju Dou" was a big advance over "Red Sorghum": an orange-tinted film noir about adultery, murder and a bad-seed child.

Soviet filmmakers launched a major cinematic offensive. Their movies came in both the old orthodox style (Gleb Panfilov's reverent 3 1/2-hour adaptation of Gorky's "Mother") and the new irreverent style (best-director winner Pavel Lounguine's "Taxi Blues," about the tense, spiky relationship between a tough Moscow cabdriver and an alcoholic Jewish musician). Some of the glasnost movies were insufferably self-indulgent, but that's the inevitable downside of the new freedom.

Serious flaws: Clint Eastwood was on hand with his ambitious "White Hunter, Black Heart," based on Peter Viertel's roman a clef about John Huston and the making of "The African Queen." (Marisa Berenson plays the Katharine Hepburn role.) It's a haunting but seriously flawed movie, crippled by Eastwood's lead performance, which unwisely attempts to mimic Huston's verbal mannerisms. Everyone in Cannes was wondering what juror Anjelica Huston made of the movie, with its less-than-reverent view of her father. She kept mum, and Eastwood won no prizes.

The winner, meanwhile, was at the Nice airport the morning after the festival closed, catching a flight to Paris with his friend Isabella Rossellini. As Lynch's trophy-laden bag passed through the checkpoint, the veteran security man recognized a familiar shape on the X-ray machine. "Palme d'Or," he cooed, giving the startled director a thumbs-up sign. He may have X-rating battles ahead, but the X-ray told the real story: it's the year of David Lynch.