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A Cannes-Do Festival

by Jeremy Mathews  
Jump to a section of this massive story
Worthy Winners:
“L’Enfant” (“The Child”) by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “Caché” (“Hidden”) by Michael Haneke, “Broken Flowers” by Jim Jarmusch, “Three Burials” by Tommy Lee Jones, “Free Zone” by Amos Gitaï, “Shanghai Dreams” by Wang Xiaoshuai

The Rest of the Competition: “A History of Violence” by David Cronenberg, “Three Times” by Hou Hsiao Hsien, “Last Days” by Gus Van Sant, “ “Manderlay” by Lars Von Trier, “Don’t Come Knocking” by Wim Wenders, “Where the Truth Lies” by Atom Egoyan

The Yungun’s: “Battle in Heaven” by Carlos Reygadas, “Kilometre Zero” by Hiner Saleem

Out of Competition: “Match Point” by Woody Allen, “Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith and Punctuation in Movie Titles” by George Lucas, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” by Shane Black

Treats on the Side: “Me and You and Everyone We Know” by Miranda July, “Factotum” by Bent Hamer, “The Death of Mister Lazarescu” by Cristi Puiu, Johanna by Kornel Mundruczo

Now That’s a Red Carpet

(If this doesn’t fulfull your Cannes fix, Jeremy’s daily reports are available at Film Threat.)

If you are viewing this page using IE on a Mac you should be ashamed. If, however, you must, then we suggest following this link to see it without photos but with text wrapping.

 
 

The 58th Cannes Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday after a week and a half worth of impressive filmmaking from directors ranging from veterans like Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen, who offered his best work of the decade, to upcoming artists like first-time director and performance artist Miranda July and Icelandic director Bent Hamer, whose U.S. debut perfectly captured the life of Charles Bukowski. The event opened the night of Wednesday, May 11, followed by 10 days worth of red-carpet marches that look like Oscar night on the way to the awards ceremony on Saturday, May 21, followed by a recap on Sunday. During these days, the festival revealed a slew of films that could (and will) almost sustain a year worth of important cinema releases. The general feeling was that this was the best Cannes since 2002, thanks in large part to several veterans working in top form.

The 21-film lineup for the official competition was filled with familiar faces, including four directors that had already won the festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or (five counting Jarmusch, who won for one of his “Coffee and Cigarettes” shorts in 1993), six who had won other awards at the festival and two more previous competitors. And the top prize went to one of the past Palme winners. With “L’Enfant” (“The Child”), their latest minimal realist effort, Belgian duo the Dardenne Brothers joined an elite group of esteemed directors who have won the Palme d’Or twice. Their first victory was in 1999 for “Rosetta,” an examination of the status of employment (including at a waffle stand!) and unemployment facing lower-class youth in their country.

Bosnian director Emir Kusturica, one of the few two-time Palme d’Or winners, served as president of the jury, whose odd combination of members included French New Wave director Agnes Varda, author Toni Morrison, Hong Kong director John Woo and actress Salma Hayek. Reports of disagreements among the members—especially Kusturica, Varda and and Morrison. At the press conference with the jury, happening its second year after a half-century tradition of secrecy, Kusturica spoke cryptically about there being three or so films they wouldn’t have been ashamed to award, and suggested that the film wasn’t so much everyone’s favorite as the one they could all agree upon.

The other major prizes went to two of the critical favorites, both of which were brilliant in their own way. Independent U.S. director Jarmusch won the Grand Jury Prize (an odd name for second place) for “Broken Flowers,” which features one of the best performances of Bill Murray’s career. The often shocking Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke won Best Director for the French film “Caché” (“Hidden”), which intelligently distorts the lens of cinematic viewing and features great performances by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. The favorite of most critics, Haneke’s masterpiece also won the top prize from two independent entities, the Ecumenical Jury and the Critic’s Prize.

The other big winner was Tommy Lee Jones’s strong directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melqiades Estrada” (whose U.S. release title apparently might be shortened to “Three Burials”), which won both Best Actor for Jones and Best Screenplay for Guillermo Arriaga. Israeli Comedienne Hanna Laslo won for being the strongest element in Amos Gitaï’s “Free Zone,” an examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which she stars alongside Natalie Portman. The Jury Prize (honorable mention) went to “Shanghai Dreams” by Wang Xiaoshuai (“Beijing Bicycle”), which explores the life of a family from Shanghai in the 1980s who was sent to a small country village 10 or 15 years prior under the government’s work program, and now dreams of home. The festival-wide Camera d’Or honor for best first film was a tie between Vimukthi Jayasundara for “Sulanga Enu Pinisa” and July for “Me and You and Everyone We Know”—no first time directors were in the official competition (Jones was originally listed as such, but was ineligible because he directed a TV movie.

  Worthy Winners
   
 
   

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne not only won the Palme d’Or six years ago, they brought the even better “Le Fils” (“The Son”) to the festival in 2002 to win the Best Actor prize. WIth “L’Enfant,” (“The Child”) they have created a simply told yet amazingly moving film dealing with fatherhood, mistakes, and the search for redemption. Made with their trademark use of source sound and handheld cameras (although with a bit less movement than their previous work, which some have said caused vertigo), the film begins with a young woman named Sonia carrying her newborn baby and looking for the absent father, whom she eventually finds begging money from cars.

Bruno, played by Jeremie Renier, is perfectly happy to see his girlfriend and the child, but has no desire to change his life in favor of making a steady living. He has no real grasp on his familial responsibilities, and earns money as a panhandler, smalltime thief and fence, selling stolen goods for schoolboys. He blows what little money he has on luxuries like renting a convertible. Bruno and Sonia still have the playful magic of young love around them, but it’s clear than Sonia is much more attentive to the job of parenting than her carefree boyfriend.

The setup leads to a long, heartbreaking sequence whose consequences are beyond Bruno’s comprehension, but clear to anyone thinking beyond daily begging. He can’t see past his simple routine because he has never had anything in his life that means as much as this young life. The rest of the film deals with these actions realistically, without contrived melodramatic moments, and is surprising and touching in its understated honesty. As in “The Son,” we meet with a powerful and emotional conclusion to the events, which are intellectually and emotionally grounded where most films would be too strained and didactic.

 
   

All three top winners were worthy, but “Caché” (“Hidden”) managed to haunt my mind throughout a week and a half in which I saw 50 films. Haneke’s film came billed as a mystery thriller, but turned out (as one might expect from “The Piano Teacher” and “Code Unknown” director) to be tense psychological exploration of repressed guilt and denial of responsibility. Daniel Autueil and Juliette Binoche star as a public television literary personality and his wife who are puzzled when they find a video cassette with hours of footage of the outside of their house on their doorstep. The tapes continue to show up, don’t seem to be shot from concealed locations and become increasingly bizarre as they no longer simply spy, but look back at locations from Autueil’s characters’ past—the camera, for example, points out the window of a car driving to his childhood home. Autueil’s character begins to suspect that the stalker may be related to some bad things he did as a young child, things he isn’t even comfortable sharing with his wife.

While the obvious aesthetic to represent the VHS tapes would be low-quality video on a TV screen, Haneke uses a sharp, quality image indistinguishable from the rest of the film except when scan lines appear during fast forward and rewind. This creates a creeping blurring of visual context as it becomes unclear whether certain shots come from a tape or simply exist in the film. Haneke shoots many of the scenes with the camera holding back for long takes, and often cuts to the footage on the tape before revealing that it is on a tape. This leaves to interpretation if other scenes are also on tape, or simply part of the film—how many lenses are viewing the scene? Haneke refuses to answer the plot’s questions in the straightforward way that most thrillers would, closing with an unsettling and uncertain end to the troubling events.

 
   

In the too-close-to-call race for my favorite film in competition, “Caché” had to compete with “Broken Flowers.” Jarmusch has made one of his best films with quiet and often humorous observations of humanity following the life of Don Johnston (“with a ‘T’”), played by the great Bill Murray as an aged Don Juan whose younger girlfriend (Julie Delpy) leaves him at the same moment he receives an unsigned pink letter telling him that the 19-year-old son he never knew about may come looking for him. The search for more information results in a trip through his life that examines the many different forms and locations of American life as each visit with one of his potential son’s potential mothers varies wildly from the others. As he looks for a void in his own life, Don observes many other lives, each lonely in their own way and portrayed by an impressive roster of actresses who dive into their roles in each vignette—Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.

Bill Murray brings the same delicacy he brought to his performance in “Lost in Translation,” reflecting a certain regret at this missing aspect of Don’s life and maintaining his skill as a comedic actor, particularly during a scene in which he eats some of an unappealing meal with Conroy’s character, a former hippy who is now half of a yuppie husband-wife real-estate team. Murray feeds off each of the actresses, and also has amazing chemistry with Jeffrey Wright as Winston, Don’s Ethiopian friend and neighbor who has been looking up how to become a detective on the Internet, and takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of who sent the letter. He tracks down the current locations of the potential parents and builds Don a dossier using Mapquest.

Jarmusch’s understated and droll observations touch on surrealism and farce while holding a muted poignancy. Murray’s presence and the film’s relatively faster (by Jarmusch standards) pace have caused some to scream that the film is too commercial. But while this film may enjoy a larger audience than Jarmusch’s past work, fans will still recognize the director’s unmistakable presence in his best work since “Stranger than Paradise.”

 
   

Entering the festival, many were skeptical about Jones’s film—a beloved actor who hasn’t proved himself as a director lands a spot in the allegedly exclusive competition instead of a more traditional Out of Competition spot. But he earned the position with a film that paints a vivid portrait of a Texas boarder town that recalls John Sayles and Sam Peckinpah in its complex but classical morality tale. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which screened for the public on the last day of competition to become a surprise award contender, is a hard-edged and articulate film about racism, promises and justice. Jones plays a rancher whose good friend, a Mexican immigrant cowboy, is found with a bullet in him after coyotes dig his corpse out of a hastily made grave. None of the law enforcement officers care about this man’s death, and so Jones’s character takes matters into his own hands.

Barry Pepper provides a subtle transitional performance as a loose-cannon boarder patrolman who has just moved from Cincinnati with his mall-loving wife, who is used to being a popular high school student rather than a loner in a dumpy small town. Unnecessarily abusive to the immigrants, he attacks them despite his boss’s attitude: “Well, somebody’s gotta pick the strawberries.” With a swift, surprising and at times harrowing narrative, Jones gradually reveals that every life is complex and includes lies and loneliness, but none should be ignored.

Credit also goes to “Amores Perros” writer Arriaga, who deserved his Best Screenplay award. In this work, he again plays with chronological sequences, using flashbacks to show a pivotal moment from two different points of view. This time, his well-constructed characters operate in a structure that serves them, improving on the time-manipulation overkill of his last script, “21 Grams.” More important is his ability to understand his characters, who come from many different locations and states of mind, yet have to live with one another.

 
   

“Free Zone” dealt with another, clearer culture class. Amos Gitaî’s intelligent work is sometimes a bit wordy and a bit bloated, other times observant and thoughtful. The film begins after Portman’s character has broken up with her fiancé, and the chauffeur (Laslo) of a small tourist business agrees too let her come with her as she drives from Israel to Jordan and into the free zone surrounded by angry countries. The road trip offers a tour of the area and its politics, while Gitaî uses layers of superimpositions (including a rather striking freeze frame one sequence) to show his characters’ memories as they travel.

Laslo, a comedienne making her debut in dramatic acting, gave a powerful performance as a woman trying to keep her family’s company together while her husband is injured due to a terrorist attack. Feeling prejudices stemming from past persecution, her trust in a Palestinean woman with whom she does business is shaky. Like her character in the film, Laslo’s mother was a holocaust survivor, and she dedicated the prize to her and the victims on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s about time we sit and have a conversation and try to solve the problem,” she said.

 
   

Wang’s “Shanghai Dreams” is a touching, if long-winded, portrait of family life in China in the 1980s. The family it centers around was relocated to a small town away from their home city, Shanghai, during a government work program. The daughter struggles with her origins and identity while forging a relationship with a young man from the country, whom, if she marries, would prevent her from going back to the family’s traditional yet distant home. Her over-strict father spoils her ambitions to do anything other than study while he fruitlessly plots and dreams of returning to his home city. Quiet but with strong acting (at the press conference with the jury on Sunday, actor Javier Bardem suggested that the film was his favorite due to the surprising performances), “Shanghai Dreams” combines a family portrait with that of an interesting period in Chinese history. “Already to be here, it’s a big help for the film,” Wang said at the Saturday night press conference after winning the award on his birthday, saying that he and other artistic filmmakers in China will hopefully have more freedom with their films because of the attention.”

  The Rest of the Competition
   
 
   

The most prominent frontrunner not to receive an award was David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” an intelligent exploration of how violence is treated in modern society and the affect it has on families and communities. Interestingly enough, Cronenberg was the president of the jury that took a lot of flack for giving the Dardennes their first Palme for “Rosetta.” Cronenberg went home empty handed, as did his talented cast, but the film remained a source of conversation until the end of the festival. Unfamiliar with the source material, a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, I was amazed at the story’s twists and turns as Cronenberg darkly studies how violence begets violence and shuts off alternate means of solving problems.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom Stall, who lives a happy, quiet life with his wife (Maria Bello) and two children. When two murderous criminals come into his diner and move to kill one of his employees, Tom acts fast and skillfully saves the day. The media quickly dub him an “American hero” while he wants to forget the whole thing. Yet events keep pushing him in another direction.

Cronenberg creates a fascinating study of the family’s metamorphosis after the violence has been introduced, including two contrasting sex scenes, one quiet and intimate, the other intense and angry. His son Jack (Ashton Holmes), who avoided fights with the school bully with wit and humor, finds himself wanting to hit back and take after his hero dad. At the center of the turmoil, Mortensen balances a great deal of alternating emotions as his character struggles between his past and his future. This work made his name come up a few times in discussions of the Best Actor prize, and he could still receive some nominations when the end-of-the-year awards season arrives.

 
   

The last film to screen for the press, and other critical favorite, was Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien’s seventh entry at Cannes, “Three Times,” a poetic triptych about love that many thought had the potential to be a surprise, out-of-nowhere victor after its successful screening. It features three stories, one set in the 50s amidst pool halls, off-duty military men and great pop songs, the next set in 1919 and told as a silent film with intertitles and the last set in the present in a rather dizzying love triangle dealt with largely through email and text messaging.

Hou has created a film of beautifully realized sets, gorgeous cinematography and a natural sense of interesting places to put the camera, including a brilliant opening shot following a billiards game, its players and its audience. The entire first segment, in fact, is a masterpiece of simplicity in its story of a young woman who works at multiple billiards halls and a soldier who falls for her. The film’s main weakness may simply be that the first part is so good that the other two excellent parts almost seem anti-climatic.

The three past Palme d’Or winners besides the Dardennes, Gus Van Sant, Lars Von Trier and Wim Wenders weren’t as lucky this this year. But they’re work will still inspire debate and conversation as it receives release.

 
   

Van Sant presented the third of a trilogy of films related to death, which began with “Gerry” (2001) and continued with “Elephant,” which won the Palme d’Or here in 2003. “Last Days” comes as a bit of a disappointment after “Elephant,” which was both observant and understanding while refusing to evaluate or explain high school violence. In this film, Van Sant uses the same aesthetic of long takes, and also replays the same time period from different shots, but the film almost has to lack power as it observes a decaying mind, damaged by drugs and depression, on the brink of suicide.

The film is loosely based on the days leading up to the suicide of Seattle grunge rocker Kurt Cobain—so loosely that the card telling us that it’s a work of fiction has to be shown early in the end titles instead of at the end of the scroll. Michael Pitt plays the sad, mumbling musical genius Blake, who looks a great deal like Cobain with his bleach-blonde, greasy hair, tall, scrawny figure and near-identical sunglasses and sweaters.

It’s always difficult to make a film about a suicide, and this difficulty shows in “Last Days,” which follows Blake around as he mumbles complaints and lyrics and walks around the wooded area near his house, makes himself cereal and occasionally picks up a guitar. Meanwhile, his entourage of band members, hangers-on and a private investigator played by magician Ricky Jay talk about his failure but don’t try to ease his pain.

Van Sant never really offers a solid depiction of Blake’s consciousness, which is partly the point, and should be commended for showing the death as a realistic wimper instead of the glorious bang that most rock-and-roll movies depict. But there is a limit to how much a character can engage the viewer. Pitt is authentic in the role, as his character walks around in a stumbled, depressed haze, mumbling unintelligible statements. There are beautiful moments in the film and some interesting shots, but the drug-addled rocker is so far gone that, without past knowledge of Cobain, we might not understand his lost talent.

The most interesting aspect of the film is how the people around Blake deal with his deterioration. We see people still trying to leech off his talent and celebrity, others still trying to communicate with him. Jay’s detective character tells the interesting story of a magician who died trying to catch a bullet in his teeth and whose death—and whether it was suicide, an accident or murder—is still under speculation, just as Cobain’s death has remained under scrutiny. Two visitors come to the house, one a yellow pages ad salesman whom Blake, barely conscious, speaks with about the ad for his model train store in a brilliant moment of comic relief. As Blake sits in an evening gown near ready to pass out, the man refuses to detract from his script. The other visitors are an identical pair of Mormon missionaries who recite their pitch to the other people at the house, creating a theme of pre-scripted conversations versus Blake’s rebellion.

Even if the trilogy didn’t end on its strongest film, there are enough moments like these to make it worth while, and it will be exciting to see what Van Sant does next.

 
   

Speaking of trilogies, the constantly inventive Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier, who won the Palme d’Or in 2000 with “Dancer in the Dark,” debuted “Manderlay,” his sequel to “Dogville.” This is the middle installment of was at one point referred to as the “U.S. of A” trilogy, but apparently is now called the “U.S.A. — Land of Opportunity” trilogy, to make sure you pick up on the irony.

The main stylistic difference between “Manderlay” and the even more dreary “Dogville” is that the open sound stage floor, on which the outlines of locations are drawn, is white instead of black. The film meets with mixed success, having a tighter script (although still longer than it really needs to be) and a more engaging plot than “Dogville,” but suffers from some of the same overbearing and simple commentary that makes some people complain incessantly about “anti-Americanism” while it disappoints those who’d like an intelligent, informed and thoughtful critique instead of poorly thought out mockery of white guilt and sexual attraction to black men.

Grace, played by Bryce Dallas Howard because Nicole Kidman left the project due to “scheduling” problems, is traveling in a caravan of gangsters with her father (Willem Dafoe), when they stop at a southern plantation. It’s 1933, but Grace is shocked to discover that they are still practicing slavery. She has the gangsters take away the white owners’ single gun and other paltry weapons and decides to stay on and teach the slaves self-sufficiency and democracy. As expected, everything goes wrong and the movie’s unclear point, even when its individual scenes are engaging, seems to be making the case not to try to set wrongs right.

The open set-design gimmick is never put to use as effectively as it was in the rape scene in “Dogville,” and the film’s most notable visual moments come during a dust storm and in the opening and closing shots, which zoom in and out on a map of the United States and leave a sense of awe after the rather spectacular ending.

Von Trier seems to get as much joy out of torturing the press as he does out of torturing his cast, as he seems to take a certain pleasure when offended questioners ask about his frequent abuse of female characters or distaste for the United States. In the press conference after the screening, Von Trier said that U.S. culture is so dominant that he considers himself an American, but since he can’t vote he has to make movies about how he perceives the country. He said that the United States influences all the other countries, and badly, “because I think Mr. Bush is an asshole and doing a lot of completely idiotic things.” Now there’s a concise theme to make a movie about.

 
   

Wim Wenders returned to the festival with “Don’t Come Knocking,” a new collaboration with writer Sam Shepard, whose previous work with Wenders, “Paris, Texas,” won the Palme d’Or in 1984. In a film that no one really thought had a shot at the award, Shepard stars as an aging Hollywood Western star who, like Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers,” finds out he has a grown son. After abandoning his film shoot in Utah and visiting his mother in Las Vegas, she tells him the news. Unlike the Jarmusch film, this one’s character knows exactly where his son his, and heads to Butte, Montana to find the mother (Jessica Lange) and full-grown child.

The film suffers from dialogue below Shepard’s best and an uneven collection of performances. As the son, Gabriel Mann was great when he was on stage singing, but gave an unfortunate one-note performance of irrational anger that was simply annoying.

It also had it’s charm, however, as it views odd aspects of American entertainment. One of the film’s best moments took place at the Gateway mall in Salt Lake City, as Shepard, walking through the courtyard, discovers too late that he’s walking across the fountain.

 
   

Canadian director Atom Egoyan, a virtuoso with multiple perspectives and character depth, also competed with “Where the Truth Lies.” Even if the film didn’t match the genius of his best work, like “Exotica,” it combines happening period style, sexual exploits and a mystery. Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth play Lanny and Vince, a performing duo similar to Martin and Lewis with Bacon as the wild boy and Firth as the straight man, who experienced a scandal 15 years ago and, despite no charges being filed, broke up the act. Alison Lohman plays an aspiring journalist who arranges an interview with Firth’s character. Her publisher will pay him $1 million, and he will talk about his life, including the mysterious scandal.

Egoyan is very observant in his study of celebrity and how its power influences those who have it and fascinates those watching. These famous performers indulge in luxurious living and the power to have sex with whichever audience member they’d like. Meanwhile, the public consumes the information of their personal lives, taking whatever information they can get their hands on. Lohman’s character is using their personal lives to jump-start her own career, and in one instance becomes intimate with Lanny through a series of lies. But Egoyan doesn’t vilify her, and she manages to be one of the film’s most sympathetic characters.

The mystery wraps up in a tidier manner than I expected from Egoyan, but still deals with the shaky perspective each character has on events, making incorrect assumptions to fill in gaps in the story. The people whom the incident changed the most lack much of the knowledge that the celebrity gossip hounds seek. A sad personal event became a much-discussed public event, making the emotional impact stronger.

  The Youngun’s
   
 
   

The general consensus at the festival was that the newcomers to the competition weren’t exactly lucky to be competing with the likes of Jarmmusch in Haneke. One young Mexican director, Carlos Reygadas (“Japón”), however, did spark some debate with the most divisive film of the festival, “Battle in Heaven.” Some found Reygadas’s effort creative and daring. And it is, but to create shock and discussion more than to make an effective film.

The opening shot starts on an aged, overweight man’s stone face. The camera moves down to reveal a young woman with ratty dreadlocks fellating him. It then cuts to the actual world, during a flag raising and the man turns out to be a chauffeur for a general. The significance of the opening shot sort of becomes clear, but Reygadas’s overall intent does not.

“Battle in Heaven” is full of brilliant camerawork and sound design, including a moment when the camera leaves a room through a window, travels around the city and listens to its many voices and sounds. But the point of it all fails to come across amidst the discussion of a baby boy who died after the main character and his wife kidnapped him. The other puzzling storyline involves the woman seen in the opening shot, the boss’s daughter who works as a prostitute as a hobby (as far as I can tell) and with whom our hero is infatuated. While a second viewing out of the festival haze might reveal more, “Battle in Heaven” seems to be little besides a stylistic exercise without a sense of theme or emotion. I admire the risks Reygadas took making the film, but they didn’t all pay off.

Another noteworthy work was “Kilometre Zero,” writer/director Hiner Saleem’s absurd and surreal visions of war, sometimes hilarious and sometimes sobering. The film takes place in 1988, in the time leading up to the Iraqi army’s massacre of Kurds using chemical weapons.

Ako (Nazmi Kirik), isn’t much of a hero in the traditional sense, as his efforts to survive include an unsuccessful attempt to convince his wife to ditch her old, dying father (who is so deaf that he rarely realizes what’s going on) so that they and their son might get out of the country. Rather than fight with the Kurdish resistance, he ends up pledging allegiance to Hussein and joining the Iraqi army with no belief in anything that he could die for.

One of the funniest scenes involves him in a trench during a bombing raid, desperately sticking his foot in the air in the hopes of getting it blown off so he won’t have to fight anymore. The Kurds in the army have joined mandatorily to survive, and their clueless running around after each explosion demonstrates their will for preservation amongst random death. The soldiers have a series of amusing conversations, one talking about the dream that is Europe—where they stopped fighting years ago and now only go to war when it’s really serious, like 60 million dead people. Plus the women are beautiful.

Saleem’s style is muted, with an eye for memorable imagery and black humor. Jump cuts punctuate awkward silence, most notably in a scene in which a Kurd and an Arab challenge each other to actually talk about why they hate the other group, but neither has the nerve to go first.

The film wasn’t exactly a hit, as there seemed to be a disapproval of the Kurd’s celebrating the fall of Sadam Hussein, but it is something that they would understandably do. “Kilometre Zero” isn’t so much a political film as an examination of an oppressed people in terrifying times. In the scenes set in 2003 that bookend the film, the Kurdish people don’t so much care whether or not the United States is imperialist or has ulterior motives in the invasion. They simply welcome the opportunity to be free in their land again.

  Out of Competition
   
 
   

This year was a big one for the festival’s Out of Competition selection, with the premier of the final installment of the “Star Wars” franchise and a new work by Woody Allen that turned out to be his best film in six to 15 years, depending on who you ask. Allen never allows his films to compete in festivals, but many agreed that if he had, he very well could have won one of the top prizes.

“Match Point,” is a sexy existential thriller that looks towards the bleak side of human nature. With some echoes of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” this tale of societal comfort combines Allen’s witty writing with the confusion and distress of making major life decisions.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a professional Irish tennis player who wasn’t quite talented enough to compete with the best of them and so quit and went to work at a country club in London. There he becomes friends with one of his students, a wealthy socialite named Tom (Matthew Goode) who invites him to the Opera, then to the country, with his family. There, he works up a romance with Tom‘s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) at the same time he meets and becomes infatuated with Tom’s fiancée, an aspiring American actress named Nola (Scarlett Johansson), whom he meets at a table tennis room in a scene of “Double Indemnity”-level innuendo.

In his first film shot in London, Allen and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin photograph the city beautifully as the story quietly builds up tension. The family likes Chris, and starts grooming him for marriage with Chloe, who can’t wait to start a family. Meanwhile, however, his interest in Nola builds and he has trouble deciding between his two possible lives.

A lot of life depends on luck, Meyers narrates over an amazing opening shot of balls whirling over a tennis net until one hits the net and the film freeze frames while Meyers describes how the ball could fall back and you lose, or go over and you win. Chris’s life is just as controlled by his cloudy desires as it is by chance encounters and the sequence of events in his life and those around him. And Allen fills it with intelligent and playful sexual dialogue and unexpected moments of clever visual storytelling.

By now, everyone knows that “Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith” improves on the wooden, pedestrian dialogue of Lucas’s other prequels by not having as much of it and features evil with personality and dramatic moments with real emotional weight. But on it’s festival premiere, there was genuine excitement and relief when the movie screened, and an equally enthusiastic crowd outside, simply there to get a glimpse of the crowd.

While many noted that this year’s festival didn’t have any hot-topic political films like Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or winner “Fahrenheit 9/11,” you wouldn’t know it from the “Star Wars” press conference. The war in Iraq came up in several of the questions, partly because the general practice of many of the journalists is to ask the question they planned on asking regardless of whether somebody already asked it. One questioner said that when he saw the film at Skywalker ranch, younger people saw similarities to Iraq in the saga’s war of political maneuvering, but older people like himself recollected Vietnam.

Lucas made no mystery of his disapproving opinion of the war, but felt that the story could be applied to many points in history, as he originally conceived the story during the Vietnam era. “Iraq didn’t exist. We were just funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction,” Lucas said. He added that the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq were amazing.

Lucas said that he looked at the Roman Empire, Germany before Hitler’s rise, and other points in history to answer his question, “How does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship?” He added that the film might awaken people in modern times to this potential danger.

 
   

On a lighter side, an Out of Competition midnight movie selection turned out to be a witty piece of imaginative comedy with great performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Shane Black, best known as the screenwriter who revived the action buddy genre with “Lethal Weapon,” has made a snappy and hilarious directorial debut with “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang,” which pays homage to pulp detective novels and the films they spawned.

Downey‘s timing is impeccable as a not-so-smooth petty criminal who winds up in a studio audition when running from the police and is mistaken for a method actor. He flies out to Los Angeles, confidently picks a fight with a guy at a party who mistreats a woman, then gets the shit kicked out of him, afterwards saying, “I’ve gotta learn to fight one of these days.”

He winds up paired with a Hollywood fixture known as Gay Perry (Kilmer), who is supposed to offer the faux actor background into the life of a private investigator. The job isn’t like the movies, it’s really boring, Perry says, but the next moment they’re in the middle of a murder mystery involving frame-ups, shoot outs and a dismembered finger—not cut off by mob bosses, but lost in an accident with a slammed door. Downey narrates the story while apologizing for his poor narrating skills and talking about movie clichés he hates. While the self-referential narration has been done enough already, Downey’s delivery and Black’s writing are so enjoyable that it doesn’t really matter.

  Treats on the Side

While much of the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival focuses on the official Competition films and major Out of Competition premieres, there’s much more to the yearly showcase of world cinema in the various sidebars. These selections offer a chance to discover less-established directors who may be on their way to greatness. And the not-quite-ready directors in these selections have the advantage of critics like myself not bothering to write about the bad films, since no one wants to read about them unless the work is exceptional.

The festival’s official sidebar is Un Certain Regard, and Director’s Fortnight and International Critic’s Week are the two established independent entities. (They admit people with festival badges and the festival includes their screenings on the schedule, but they have their own Web sites, programmers and ruling organizations.

 
   

Performance artist Miranda July’s directorial debut, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” won the Critic’s Week prize and tied for the Camera d’Or (the festival’s best first film award, open to films playing in all the selections). July already won a special prize at Sundance, where she should have received a higher honor (although the festival’s other best film, “Brick,” received the same award, so it was in good company). Since I saw July’s film at Sundance, I didn’t plan on watching it again until it was ready for theatrical release in a few months. Then, exhausted and weary of watching anything after already seeing five films one night, I went to an unannounced best-of Critic’s Week screening, planning to leave and get some much-needed sleep if I’d already seen the film. July’s film, however, had me hooked from the first frame and I couldn’t leave until I’d thoroughly enjoyed the entire thing.

July offers a completely original take on American life. The movie examines personal relationships and love in a land of shopping mall shoe stores, elitist art galleries, underage sex, Internet chat rooms, improvised and ill-advised fire stunts, the digital age and the human being’s ability to persist. In her first film, July demonstrates the ability to capture humanity with an off-kilter world with her amusing dialogue and visual situations, which include a brilliant sequence involving a goldfish left on the top of a moving car and a walk down the street that represents an entire relationship.

 
   

Another standout was Bent Hamer’s “Factotum,” an adaptation of the late writer Charles Bukowski’s autobiographical novel that played in Director’s Fortnight. Matt Dillon stars as Bukowski’s alter ego Hank Chinaski, a drunkard who lives the life of a barfly—losing bad jobs, gambling, stumbling in and out of relationships with women (Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei). Hamer, who made “Kitchen Stories,” captures the comedic antiestablishment spirit of Bukowski’s aimless life and his blunt, brutal, vulgar and brilliant prose and poetry with quiet observation punctuated by moments when the power of the writer’s words come through. While the lifestyle can seem romantic, the film doesn’t ignore the negative aspects, and includes a cruel and unsettling moment of public abuse.

Dillon gives one of the best performances of his career, adopting the physical presence of Bukowski beyond looking amazingly like him—he talks and drinks his beer the same way. His character’s disorganized persistence at writing is one of the few things he has stuck with during his life, because it doesn’t cost anything and can be a form of revolt that doesn’t require any strenuous work. Dillon also narrates the film, and in a few parts recites Bukowski’s writing and poetry without dramatic pretense, but in the same straightforward manner in which Bukowski wrote.

 
   

Un Certain Regard also had some highlights. One of the best entries was “The Death of Mister Lazarescu” by Romanian director Cristi Puiu, which went on to win the top prize. Puiu’s film is a two-and-a-half-hour nightmare through modern health care that watches an old man deteriorate out of the drama as he is basically ignored by medical personnel. It begins on a Saturday night as a 63-year-old man experiences stomach pains and a headache. He denies that his drinking is the cause of the problem to the hospital operator, to his sister over the phone, and to the neighbors who look after him while he waits for the ambulance. He ends up being repeatedly misdiagnosed—as the diagnosis morphs from his stomach to his colon to his liver—and repeatedly moved from hospital to hospital, never actually receiving the needed surgery. Puiu fully creates the hospital environments, with bureaucratic messes and class divides among staff, and directs the film like an unobtrusive documentary or Robert Altman film, making the pain of this old man’s death feel even more realistic.

 
   

An entirely different hospital-set film from Hungary, “Johanna” begins during a scuzzy green and yellow hospital’s rehearsal for a crisis, as a morphine addict falls down the stairs, gets amnesia and becomes a saintly nurse. And the entire story that follows is sung. This modern opera directed by Kornel Mundruczo and composed for film by Zsofia Taller creates a dirty, expressionistic hospital as the setting for a modern Joan of Arc tale. Johanna’s divine gift comes in the form of healing the sick by having sex with them. Putting this gift to good use, however, offends the hospital hierarchy and enrages a healthy young doctor to whom Johanna won’t submit. With high contrast lighting, lead actress Orsi Toth seems to be glowing as she tries to do good in the face of traditional authority. Knowing nothing about the film going in, I was constantly surprised by its audacity and invention. Of course, the whole point of attending the sidebar selections is to be surprised.

  Now That’s a Red Carpet

In the past decades, the festival has become a haven for celebrity journalists and paparazzi. I chatted briefly with Roger Ebert, who told me that the first year he went, there were very few U.S. journalists attended, and they were there to seriously evaluate the movies. While there are plenty of serious critics still around, the press also consists of gossip columnists looking for juicy scoops to please their editors and photographers who have no choice but to to shout as they compete with hundreds of others for shots of protected celebrities dressed as fashionably as possible.

While at Sundance you can find major movie stars dressed down and slumming with the normal folk, Cannes is like a fashion show that only lets George Lucas walk around in blue jeans. Each night the police-lined red carpet looks like Oscar night, while a large crowd (or in the case of the “Star Wars” premier, a sea) of fans look on in the hopes of spotting a celebrity.

The red carpet march, with audio, was on the screen in the press area prior to the awards ceremony, and made me excessively happy that I write about films instead of photographing the people in them. While the celebrities walking through might be used to the mess, it still must be like being in the halls in a prison of damned souls, desperately calling to you for an over-the-shoulder shot. With the urgency of people who will be shot if their task isn’t completed satisfactorily, photographers dressed up in tuxedos strain their voice to desperately yell at Salma Hayek to come back, Penelope Cruz to step away from her fellow cast members for a solo shot (“Penelope solo! This is so stupid!”) or Morgan Freeman to, “TAKE YOUR GLASSES OOOOOOOFFFFFFFFFF!!!” The stars somehow manage to smile during all this, as if they’re having a good time.

Meanwhile, the rest of us groan through our sleepiness, until we see great films like the night’s winners and remember the power of cinema.

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