If you were trying to find one phrase that defined American films at Cannes this year it would be ... shhhh, it's a conspiracy.
At Friday morning's press conference for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, about dirty dealings on the financial markets, director Oliver Stone said he was currently working on three documentaries, including "the biggest project of my life" - a 10-hour TV series called Secret History of America.
Of course, conspiracies are nothing new to Stone, who, for example, never accepted the official version of the Kennedy assassination. It's interesting to note that the other American entry in the competition is Fair Game, a film about the Bush's administration's decision to out CIA agent Valerie Plame, apparently in retaliation for an article written in the New York Times by her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who said the administration had manipulated intelligence to suggest there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
It's enough to cause at least one American journalist to feel paranoid. Do the French Harbour a Grudge? asks a headline on Vanity Fair's web site, covering the Cannes festival. Reporter Julian Sancton writes that Gallic "bias - nay, defiance - can be read in the selection of those American films that did make the cut. Not only does Liman's film focus on an inglorious chapter of recent American history, but it also stars Sean Penn, whose fraternization with Hugo Chavez and Raúl Castro don't exactly put him on top of the list to play Captain America. The [Cannes chief Thierry]Fremaux gang also tapped fellow Castro-sympathizer Oliver Stone - who, it should be noted, is half French - for his Wall Street sequel, Money Never Sleeps, screening out of competition ... Finally, by selecting Woody Allen's new film, the French are saying (yet again), "You don't appreciate your greatest genius, so we will do it for you."
Sancton, tongue firmly in cheek, acknowledges that he himself is half-French, but he's on to something, or at least, he's on to the way that Americans are constantly on to something. Perhaps it was the half-French part of him that forgot to mention a new documentary by Charles Ferguson, the director of the rigorous Iraq doc, No End in Sight, who is here with Inside Job, a documentary version of the Wall Street crash. Or a similarly themed Directors' Fortnight entry, Jean-Stephane Bron's Cleveland vs. Wall Street, about a lawsuit the city launched against the mortgage bankers it blames for devastating real-estate foreclosures.
I'd like to say these few examples are anomalies, a few paranoids that do not represent a majority, but I'm afraid there may be something darker going on here. Back in 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a highly influential essay in Harper's called The Paranoid Style in American Politics (later turned into a book), which traced a long history of a republic gripped by fear - of con men in government, of sinister outsiders trying to subvert the country..
"The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life, " he declared.
While almost everyone could see the anti-tax, Tea Party-like analogies in Robin Hood, the film that opened the festival, the rhetoric of blaming shadow rulers for everything going wrong is always popular. As Senator McCarthy put it:
"How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?"
Pretty much throughout American history, someone has been to blame: Masons and Illuminati, Jews and Catholics, abolitionists and munitions manufacturers, Hofstadter speculates that the paranoid style is a recurrent historical phenomenon, not unique to the United States, but (citing British historian Norman Cohn) generated under certain circumstances, by people "who believe they are Elect, abominably persecuted and assured of ultimate triumph."
That being said, as the American films at Cannes will surely all attempt to demonstrate, the United States has real enemies within and without. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you.