Doing the Cannes-can
The world focuses on art movies one time
a year in the Côte d'Azur
George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith had its world premiere at the 58th Festival de Cannes (which ended on May 21), but the most prestigious film festival in the world is really the only time during the year that serious art cinema takes hold of the international imagination.
After a slow, even desultory start, Cannes found its groove with a succession of revelatory works by a fascinating collection of new turks and old mavericks alike. Winning the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne explore the emotional complications of a young couple desperately ill-prepared to care for their newborn son in L'enfant (The Child). Infused with a spare, anguished intensity and clearly influenced by Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, the film limns a bleak social portrait of the European underclass.
American indie-god Jim Jarmusch's new film, Broken Flowers, is his strongest in the decade since Dead Man was first shown at the festival in 1995. It stars the incomparable Bill Murray as an aging Lothario who undertakes a quietly desperate quest, searching for past lovers, to confirm he has a 19-year-old son. Jarmusch's precise, beautifully observed work and Murray's soulful performance evoke a vivid sense of regret.
Michael Haneke, a notorious Austrian director whose previous work I've mostly detested, finally draws on his cold, hard intelligence with sharp, satisfying results. In his Caché (Hidden), winner of the Best Director prize, a French couple (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) is unnerved by shocking evidence that reveals their lives are under surveillance. The sinister setup launches a devastating consideration of social inequality and the personal consequences of violence.
The fest's two provocateurs, Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas (Japón) and Danish bad boy Lars von Trier (Dogville), played their parts. Reygadas's Battle in Heaven, dubbed a Mexican Brown Bunny for its explicit oral sex, is a pretentious, mad folly marked by brilliant sound design and elaborately beautiful tracking shots. Manderlay, the middle work of Von Trier's USA trilogy about a group of slaves still in bondage 70 years after emancipation starring Bryce Dallas Howard, has some astounding moments, including unbelievably imaginative special effects. But the conceptual daring of the stagey technique that elevated Dogville now feels strained.
The festival ended on a bittersweet note after the two strongest films in the competition proved too elusive for official commendation. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is a bracing meditation on masculinity, identity and the insidious ways our most primal impulses are passed from father to son. Viggo Mortensen pulverizes the empty valor of his Lord of the Rings performances, locating a bruising sense of hate and vengeance as a man bent on protecting the sanctity of his family. The most visually intoxicating movie, Cannes regular Hou Hsaio-hsien's emotionally intricate Three Times is a triptych, set in 1966, 1911 and 2005. Each part is related in different styles, the most innovative being the middle section, done as a Chinese silent film.
Ultimately, Cannes is a blank slate that allows for multiple experiences and interpretations—personally, politically, socially and commercially. The festival does a remarkable job of playing off these often polarized constituencies. It's insular and provincial, and yet also far-reaching. Nothing in the world is quite like it.