Safety First

Stocked with old favorites, a conservative Cannes proves Newton's Third Law of Motion

CANNES, FRANCE—Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction not only in the physical world but also in that fantastic projection that is the Cannes Film Festival.

For the past few years, each competitive slate has seemed a response to the criticism leveled at its precursor. The 2003 competition was knocked for its reliance on movies directed by familiar favorites; sexed up with two documentaries, a Japanese anime, a Korean bloodbath, and Shrek 2, the 2004 slate was dissed for rejecting new films by old-school directors like Mike Leigh and Ousmane Sembene. This year's official section is appropriately conservative and amply stocked with big names, including a number of Palme d'Or laureates: Wim Wenders, the Dardenne brothers, Lars von Trier, and Gus Van Sant.

Only the Van Sant film has screened so far. And although unlikely to garland its director with another prize, the deceptively modest Last Days—inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain—is Van Sant's masterpiece, which is to say, his best filmmaking in the 20 years since the similarly direct and affecting Mala Noche. Last Days is as pared down and worked out as his experimental Gerry or his Cannes-winning evocation of the Columbine massacre, Elephant—indeed, it's even more productively reductive.

As much as anything, Last Days suggests a one-man Gerry. First seen, the tormented, shambolic Blake (Michael Pitt) is glimpsed tramping through the woods, an ungainly American Adam, still wearing his hospital bracelet, in the primeval glen. Stumbling back to the stone castle that is his monumental crash pad (and eventual mausoleum), Blake proceeds to get wasted. Although Last Days may be the most evocative heroin movie ever made, Van Sant stays completely outside his mumbling protagonist. Instead, the filmmaker evokes a sense of internal slow motion, as well as mythic time—creating a reverse Wavelength by gradually zooming back from Blake as he launches into a guitar vamp, or subjecting the viewer to an entire Boyz II Men video, or replaying a scene choreographed around a big chunk of the Velvet Underground's vintage drone raga "Venus in Furs."

Yet Last Days is far less showy in its technique than Elephant. The pace is at once fluid and lurching; the musique concrète soundtrack is a triumph of sound design. As elegiac as its title suggests, though scarcely without its slapstick elements, Last Days is a movie of remarkable purity and amazing grace. Pitt gives a sensationally expressive performance with exactly three close-ups.

The 2005 competition may be more staid than in 2004 but, beginning with the opening-night choice of Dominik Moll's supernatural Lemming, a surprising number of the movies have been genre films—replete with murders, suicides, and assorted guilty secrets.

A domestic horror film with ample black comedy and the uncanny Charlotte Rampling in the role of a living corpse, Lemming has the proud inventor of the mini flying webcam and his wife fending off the advances of an older couple from hell—almost literally. Despite the ridiculous assertion of an online betting site, Lemming has no chance to win the Palme d'Or. (I would however extend this passable thriller an honorary Pas Mal.)

Woody Allen's Match Point (which showed in the official section, albeit out of competition) substitutes Caruso for Gershwin and London for New York. Despite the trendy veneer, the movie has an 18th-century plot: A poor boy (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) with an incongruously posh accent marries into the upper classes, only to be trapped in his gilded cage. This is serious Woody—it even plays the same murder angle as Crimes and Misdemeanors and could be the best movie Allen has made since then. Most of the British journalists I spoke to hated it. (Now they understand how many New Yorkers feel about Melinda and Melinda and all the others.)

In the reputation sweepstakes, Allen has scored a modest comeback and Atom Egoyan a somewhat lesser one. Where Match Point ostentatiously references Dostoyevsky, Egoyan's enjoyably trashy Where the Truth Liesswipes from Agatha Christie. The premise could be formulated as Martin and Lewis meet the Fatty Arbuckle scandal; artfully designed but poorly structured, it's a historical noir with aspirations toward L.A. Confidential and especially Mulholland Drive. It rivals neither, although Egoyan's vision of a polio clinic in which the child patients are entertained by a chanteuse singing "White Rabbit" seems an act out of Exotica.

The most effective of the competition's genre flicks has been Michael Haneke's Hidden. More muted in its nastiness than most Haneke, Hidden nevertheless reworks many of his favorite themes—video surveillance, childhood guilt, the family under siege. A smug TV personality (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (an unexpectedly intense Juliette Binoche) are terrorized by a series of mysterious VHS tapes left on their doorstep. Haneke doesn't resolve all the mysteries—this is an art thriller—but he effectively grounds a sense of personal menace in a larger historical framework.

Too bad the Woodman declined to put Match Point in competition. As it stands, Hidden seems the current favorite by default. But the festival isn't even half over with David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, von Trier's Manderlay, the Dardennes' L'Enfant, Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, Wenders's Don't Come Knocking, and Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times yet to screen—and then there's Mexican provocateur Carlos (Japón) Reygadas's blowjob-framed slap in the face of public taste, Battle in Heaven. More next week.

 
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