After 10 days of being pushed, prodded and poked by the world's hordes of paparazzi at the Cannes Film Festival in their spittle-flecked enthusiasm to get a picture of Angelina or Brad or Benicio, the essential plot of Wim Wenders's Palermo Shooting, with a famous photographer on the run for his life and re-assessing his career in Palermo, Italy, sounded like what could be the feel-good film of the festival. I hate paparazzi with a passion; they hog all the power outlets in the Cannes press room, they shove and shout and scream at people in order to get them to look at them so they might thereby increase the saleability of their shot, and, most damningly here at Cannes, they're both annoyingly innumerable and wildly irrelevant. (I know I'm biased, but I see it this way: I can read two reviews of the same film and learn something different from each, get a entirely separate set of insights from each writer, learn any number of things and have any number of ideas raised. I can look at 800 different photographers' snapshots of Gwyneth Paltrow on the red carpet and they all say the same thing: Dahr, she purdy.)
So, yes, the idea of watching a Wim Wenders film about a photographer who's having a crisis of conscience about his profession seemed like a capital idea. Watching Palermo Shooting, though, made any enthusiasm the film's description in the official catalog might have elicited drain away so swiftly and suddenly it boggled the mind. Finn (Campino) is an international hot-shot photographer, who knows he must choose between his serious art or the lucrative globe-trotting fashion shoots that have made him a star. And this, from the get-go, is problem number one: Films about people who have to choose between two different kinds of success are, by definition, boring. The second problem comes with the casting of Campino, who is certainly a well-made slab of Euro-flesh, but whose range of expressed emotional states ranges from hunky bewilderment to bewildered hunkiness.
One night in Dusseldorf, Finn dodges death as he misses a car headed right at him on the freeway; Finn was idly taking a photograph out of the top of his convertible at the time, so it's not as if he's going to get that Driver's Ed gold star any time soon, but he still feels shaken and out of sorts. Seeing a boat nearby with the word Palermo on it, he goes to Palermo, Italy, a beautiful Mediterranean town full of old-world architecture and sunshiny charm. But it seems that someone is following Finn -- a gray-coat-clad archer who fires spectral arrows at Finn that evaporate as soon as they strike. Finn strikes up a friendship with a local art restorer, Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and tries to get to the bottom of who his mystery playmate is.
So there could be a relationship storyline -- but the interactions between Finn and Flavia are fairly sexless and limp. There could be an action or thriller storyline -- but Wenders isn't really interested in that, either. There's a quote from the great literary critic Robertson Davies that says "Thou shalt not read The Bible for its poetry"; as a variation on that rule, I'd like to offer that thou shalt not have people run for their lives just so they can dawdle and enjoy the scenery. To its credit, Palermo Shooting is beautifully shot, from the crude concrete vitality of Dusseldorf to the sun-splashed wonder of Palermo. The problem is that Palermo Shooting is pretty much inert, with Finn wandering around like Mopey McGee trying to figure out malaise, and his flight from danger goes from vaguely intriguing to decidedly laughable when it's explained that Death, personified, is chasing Finn down.
There are plenty of funny moments in Palermo Shooting; it's too bad they weren't intended to be funny. When Finn has a moment of reverie in a late-night bar, The Velvet Underground on the jukebox, a spectral vision of none other than Lou Reed drops by to dispense wisdom. I guess it's no good being Wim Wenders if you don't get to do stuff with your famous friends, but it's a pretty silly moment, with the croaking, haggard Reed playing the part like some hipster iteration of Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life. ("Every time a bell rings, a junkie gets a brand-new rig. ..." No, Reed doesn't say that. His actual dialogue is much, much more dull.)
And as Finn wanders Europe, contemplating the mysteries of the universe and dodging Death's arrows, much of Palermo Shooting's dialogue is a series of banalities masquerading as profundities. If you could show me a version of this film with any and all dialogue scenes cut out of it, you would have a nicely-shot bit of film; a travel agency promotional film, perhaps, or a long-form perfume ad. But every time the people on-screen were talking, the Cannes audience was provoked to rueful grunts of sad laughter, each grim chortle or unstifled guffaw saying something like Good heavens, I can't believe the man behind Wings of Desire made this, or Wow, Campino's got the look of a young Harry Hamlin but without any of that burdensome acting ability or charm to weigh him down.
By the finale of the film -- which has Finn realizing that he's actually being followed by Death, personified as Dennis Hopper, and then the two having a nice chit-chat about the nature of existence, the way of all flesh and Death's opinion that film photography is more artistic than digital, the audience was riveted, but really more in that grim way where they were waiting solely out of intellectual curiosity, to see how things could go wrong next.
After Palermo Shooting ended (with a title card offering the film as a tribute "To Ingmar (Bergman) and Michelangelo (Antonioni)," which made me imagine Bergman and Antonioni saying Uh, thanks, but. ... from the next world), the Cannes press audience booed and laughed and stumbled out into the streets for detailed digressions and discussions on how, exactly, Wenders had, as our British friends say, lost the plot. Palermo Shooting goes fairly off the mark, or fires blanks, or has a damp fuse; I'm not sure about which firearm metaphor applies here, and if Wenders can't be bothered to have any cohesion to his signs and symbols, why should I? Palermo Shooting is hardly the worst film I've ever seen at Cannes -- Southland Tales still takes the Palme d'Junk in my book -- but it's still a little sad to see a major filmmaker make such a series of major mistakes in the name of a fairly minor film.