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Indulging in Cannes's Desserts of the Reel

 CANNES, FRANCE—American "reality" impinges most visibly on the bubble that is this year's Cannes Film Festival with the multiple images of supercool Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, peering from magazine covers and surveying the Croisette.

"La matrice," Libération opined in a lengthy review of the biggest American studio production in the festival's official section, "c'est Hollywood." The three critics signing the piece meant not the movie per se, but the "planetary" program that substitutes for actual human experience a machine-made simulation—an ersatz reality that the movie ostensibly opposes: "Like religion, psychoanalysis, and drugs," Matrix Reloaded "lures you in and kicks you out AT THE SAME TIME!"

The same might be said of Cannes—its crowds and hysteria pleasantly diminished a bit this year by strikes, fear of terrorism, the threat of SARS, and a relatively weak competition that opened with a yawn-inducing remake of the venerable French swashbuckler Fanfan la Tulipe. The most sustained applause of the festival's first half was garnered by 23-year-old Iranian wunderkind Samira Makhmalbaf's third feature, At Five in the Afternoon, set in Afghanistan and named, somewhat flashily, for a refrain in García Lorca's homage to a dead matador.

Designed for maximum glide: Gus Van Sant's Columbine ouija, Elephant
photo: HBO
Designed for maximum glide: Gus Van Sant's Columbine ouija, Elephant

There are no bullfighters in this National Geographic spread of gray dust, blue burkas, and photogenic ruins (a landscape that, even more than the Croisette, seemed strangely empty), but there are plenty of metaphors. At Five in the Afternoon opens promisingly in a newly established school for Muslim women somewhere on the outskirts of post-Taliban Kabul. Nogreh, introduced flipping open her burka and changing into white pumps, is among the most determined of the students. Serious and slightly frowning, she is played by Agheleh Rezaïe, a non-actress of exactly Makhmalbaf's age.

Repetitive and declamatory, At Five in the Afternoon is meant to be a heartbreaking poem of piercing simplicity, but well before its unhappy ending, the film is dulled by its singsong mentality and precocious naïveté, particularly once the narrative moves into the realm of allegory. Still, if Matrix Reloaded is the Matrix, At Five in the Afternoon positions itself as Zion. "My film tries to correct the false information generated by the frenetic vortex of politics and mass media," Makhmalbaf told the press. "Cinema is the only broadcast medium where the author can voice the spirit of nations denied a platform."

Indeed, Nogreh herself engages an occupying soldier in conversation: "Hello, mister—how are you?" That the soldier is French leads to an exchange of views regarding the last French election. Nogreh asks what President Chirac said to make people vote for him. The soldier isn't sure, but Nogreh's friend, a young poet recently returned from Pakistan, has the answer—voters didn't like his rival. This theory seemed to be well received by the Cannes audience, as was Nogreh's assertion that she planned to be the next president of Afghanistan.

Her ambition was echoed after a fashion by The Woman Who Imagined She Was President of the United States, the Portuguese feature that opened the traditionally more outré parallel festival known as the Director's Fortnight. This would-be travesty, a cross between Ubu Roi and Sugar Pink Rose, written and directed by João Botelho, imagines America's supreme leader as a tall blond socialite with upswept hair, a red power suit, an unseen First Gentleman, and an all-female retinue: "And now I am a true Republican and don't eat meat," one remarks apropos of nothing.

Other interesting mutations: Uzak, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's largely successful exercise in Antonioni-era modernism that sent a good chunk of its audience walking out into the night; All Tomorrow's Parties, a stylishly low-budget Chinese Alphaville— directed by Yu Lik-wai, cinematographer on Platform and Unknown Pleasures—that, despite its longueurs, should prove a velvet goldmine for music videos and perfume commercials; and a touching short by Nanni Moretti on the closing of a family drugstore on Ninth Avenue and 40th Street.

Arimpara by Kerala director Murali Nair takes a bizarre turn from quiet neorealism into ultra-low-budget gross-out; even more surreal was Wim Wenders's blues doc The Soul of a Man, which conflated space travel, '60s flashbacks (to the filmmaker dressed like a member of the Lovin' Spoonful), voice-over narration by Blind Willie Johnson (supplied by Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne), imaginary reconstructions, and most hilariously, a pair of Swedish-speaking blues enthusiasts who might have been played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara. Arnaud Desplechin's experimental Playing "In the Company of Men" proved to be a convoluted meditation on the nature of performance that, for all its purposeful gaucheries, could not match the conceptual perversity of his previous Esther Kahn.

Speaking of intentionally orchestrated embarrassments, The Mother, directed by Roger Michell from Hanif Kureishi's script, was a surprisingly affecting post-Freudian romantic triangle. And there was the well-promoted Indian noir musical known simply as Jism—a movie that upped the Bollywood ante not only with its innocently raunchy title but with a few moments of kissing.

Samira Makhmalbaf, whose glamorous presentation—hoop earrings, lush mascara, and a discreet, perhaps Hermès, chador—suggested a Beverly Hills princess, is the daughter not only of Mohsen Makhmalbaf (producer and co-author of At Five in the Afternoon) but of the Cannes Film Festival. Samira's docudrama The Apple premiered here in 1998; Blackboards received a Jury Prize in 2000; and At Five in the Afternoon—which, if nothing else, improves significantly on its precursors—seems destined to be awarded something.

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