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Indulging in Cannes's Desserts of the Reel

Another possibility: Gus Van Sant's audacious HBO movie on the subject of American high school shootings. Elephant—as in "in the living room"—was inspired by the Columbine massacre but incorporates details from other incidents. An AOL Time Warner subsidiary, HBO is surely grateful that Elephant overlooks the Matrix-inspired black trench coats favored by the Columbine killers; they may be somewhat less pleased with the near avant-garde narrative structure Van Sant has devised.

Divisive, disturbing, and yet deeply tactful, Elephant is designed for maximum glide—it's a poetic film of long traveling shots and complex sound bridges. Van Sant spends so much time tracking through the school corridors that Watt High comes to suggest Stanley Kubrick's haunted Overlook Hotel—which it is, albeit populated by the sauntering or stumbling ghosts of cool kids and dorks, golden couples and bulimic Valley girls, mortified losers and artists manqué. Even more flagrantly artistic than Van Sant's Blair Witch Project gloss Gerry, Elephant is weakest on motivation—notably the Larry Clark touch of having the alienated perps take a farewell shower together—and strongest on evoking a succession of specific, "empty" moments. An undercranked touch football game, scored to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, is crossed by an inexplicably smiling beanpole of a girl in ecstatic slow motion.

Scenes recur from slightly different angles: Watt High is a temporal whirlpool in which Van Sant seeks to skim the surface of a particular autumn morning as long as possible before everything is capsized and dragged into the fathomless depths.

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

Late Sunday, British critic and Cannes veteran Derek Malcolm provided the morning line on the Palme d'Or. Five in the Afternoon was the third favorite at 9-2. (Asked before the movie screened what he felt the current odds were, Malcolm hazarded 5-1.) Second favorite, at 7-2, was Hector Babenco's two-and-a-half-hour São Paulo prison drama Carandiru. This punishing Tales From the Crypt cliché-fest may yet win something, but for my money, it was pretty much blown away with the Monday-morning screening of Lars von Trier's Dogville.

A Christian allegory narrated like an 18th-century novel and set in an abstract Depression America, Dogville tips its hat to Bertolt Brecht and thumbs its nose at Thornton Wilder's Our Town, but is immediately recognizable as something new. The story of a beautiful fugitive (Nicole Kidman) who is first harbored, then exploited, and ultimately martyred by the denizens of the eponymous small town, Dogville bears a family resemblance to von Trier's 1996 Breaking the Waves and his 2000 Palme d'Or winner Dancer in the Dark; it is, however, a more mature and sustained film than either. Kidman, who gives another remarkable performance—acting "natural" in an almost absurdly diagrammatic setting—heads a terrific oddball cast (including Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazarra, and Chloë Sevigny).

Brilliantly staged on a single set, running nearly three hours without a single boring minute, Dogville builds in suffering but saves its catharsis for the end credits—a devastating juxtaposition of pop music and photographic images that blows a hole in its matrix and ours. Von Trier's timing is uncanny. America, as we are often told, is the most Christian nation on earth—Dogville wonders what exactly that means. A 5-2 favorite before it screened, von Trier's movie may well be 2-1 by the time you read this. Indeed, if originality, ambition, and passion are any measure, it will be a remarkable year if any film in competition is more deserving.

Related Article: "Van Sant Wins Top Prize at Cannes" by J. Hoberman

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