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Code Unknown

In the shadow of Da Vinci, Cannes '06's first great film: A visionary American comedy about the end of times

CANNES, FRANCEThe Da Vinci Code, which had its world premiere last week as the opening attraction at the Cannes Film Festival, was heralded with massive hype and greeted by crushing indifference. Even the stars seemed blasé. What was the Vatican on about, Ian McKellen wondered at the morning-after press conference: Hadn't the movie proved Jesus Christ wasn't gay?

More than that, though, The Da Vinci Code offers the comforting notion that history has a meaning. In that respect at least, this dull spectacle resembled a number of movies competing in Cannes's 59th edition. Two years after Michael Moore won the Palme d'Or with Fahrenheit 9/11, social agendas have returned—at least on-screen.

The undisputed favorite midway through the competition, Pedro Almodóvar's comedy Volver (which, for all the murder and incest, is his most mainstream movie ever) is strictly apolitical; the most accomplished competing film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates, is, like the Turkish director's previous Distant, a study in alienation. But all around these cluster movies concerning war, state terror, and as one title has it, The Rights of the Weakest. The strongest of the lot, Richard Kelly's phantasmagorical satire Southland Tales, even features a porn star version of The View covering all these issues, plus "teen horniness."

Brit vet Ken Loach is represented by The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a beautifully shot if overweeningly schematic re-creation of the Irish Troubles, with unforced and undeniable relevance to the contemporary Middle East. The Caiman, Nanni Moretti's first offering in five years, is a disappointingly flat movie about (a movie about) Italy's barely defeated prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Official but non-competing, America's unfairly defeated Al Gore materialized on the Croisette in tuxedo, with the drolly titled global-warming doc An Inconvenient Truth. Yet to screen: Sofia Coppola's visit to the glory days of the French Revolution with Kirsten Dunst as Austrian valley girl Marie Antoinette.

Fast Food Nation, directed by Richard Linklater from Eric Schlosser's 2001 bestselling exposé and timed to coincide with the centennial of Upton Sinclair's classic muckraker The Jungle, makes a valiant—if curiously anemic—attempt to use the scarcely fictionalized Mickey's franchise ("Home of the Big One") as a metaphor for American life. A Mickey's ad man (Greg Kinnear) learns that for all the engineered slogans, scientific packaging, and designed aromas, "there's shit in the meat." His mission to the mega–packing plant in Colorado intersects with the stories of Mexican illegal immigrants who get jobs there, as well as that of a Mickey's register girl turned eco-activist.

Linklater's panorama is overflowing with good intentions (and, while not Blood of the Beasts, is graphic enough to put you off beef, even before reaching the plant "killing floor"). What it lacks is satiric energy. The movie's most galvanizing scene is Bruce Willis's ferocious cameo as the voice of cynical realism—a Mickey's operative who makes fun of American 'fraidy cats and reminds Kinnear that "we all have to eat a little shit from time to time." As if sensing the shortage of red meat, Linklater provides his own auto-critique with a scene in which the student eco-activists attempt to liberate a pasture filled with contented cows. The animals won't budge. "Next time we'll have to bring a cattle prod," one kid concludes.

University militants figure even more heavily in Summer Palace, a fascinating mess by Chinese director Lou Ye, the romantic whose previous features include the vertiginous Suzhou River and delirious Purple Butterfly. The action spans a dozen or more years, opening in 1987 when Lou's passionate, philosophical heroine Yu Hong (beautiful, sullen Hao Lei) leaves her hometown on the North Korean border for Beijing University. Embracing confusion, she falls into a tormented love affair. Is Yu Hong having a breakdown? Or is China? As in the 1960s, students rush off to demonstrations hoping to get lucky. (The milieu feels authentic; Lou himself graduated Beijing University in 1989.) One waits in vain for the events at Tiananmen Square to erupt into the foreground. That they never do is a factor either of Lou's political caution or his devotion to Yu Hong's stubborn self-involvement.

At once leisurely and hectic, Summer Palace has its share of suicides, betrayals, and bicycle accidents. There's also more explicit sex in this melodrama than in any previous Chinese movie; more, most likely, than in the six runners-up combined. Freedom is definitely on the march. (And so is avant porn—ranging from the ragingly punitive Danish anti-porn anime Princess, which opened the Director's Fortnight, to an autobiographical feature by the erstwhile porn star known as HPG, considered by at least one Paris journalist to be the most interesting French film at Cannes, to John Cameron Mitchell's softheaded hardcore gloss on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shortbus.)

Given that one of Lou's major influences—Wong Kar-wai—is jury president and that a former leading lady—Zhang Ziyi—is also on the jury, as well as Lou's political boldness in making the first Chinese movie to depict Tiananmen '89, Summer Palace seems destined for some sort of award. Not so the most audacious, polarizing, and to my mind, enjoyable movie in the competition thus far: Southland Tales.

Kelly's second feature is as talented as—and even more ambitious than—his debut, the cult hit Donnie Darko. A high-voltage farrago of unsynopsizable plots and counterplots, Southland Tales unfolds—mid–presidential campaign—in an alternate, pre- and post-apocalyptic universe where Texas was nuked on July 5, 2005, and a German multinational has figured out how to produce energy from ocean water. The mode is high-octane sci-fi social satire; the cast is large and antic (with wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as an anxious, amnesiac action hero and Sarah Michelle Gellar biting down hard on the role of socially conscious porn queen Krysta Now).

Essentially, Southland Tales is a big-budget, widescreen underground movie. ("Star-Spangled to Death," one colleague commented as we left the screening.) Filled with throwaway gags and trippy special effects, it's a comedy as well. Philip K. Dick is the presiding deity—the movie is thick with drugs, paranoia, and time-travel metaphysics—although Karl Marx (and his family) keep surfacing in various guises, including the last remnant of the Democratic Party. The film is a mishmash of literary citations, interpolated music videos (mainly with Justin Timberlake), and movie references—most obviously to Robert Aldrich's apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly—but it's even more concerned with evoking the ubiquitous media texture of contemporary American life. The film is a mishmash of literary citations, interpolated music videos, and movie references—most obviously to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly—but it's even more concerned with evoking the ubiquitous media texture of contemporary American life.

At two hours and 40 minutes, Southland Tales flirts with the ineffable and also the unreleasable. There's no U.S. distributor; nor does the movie's humor, much of it predicated on a familiarity with American television, political rhetoric, and religious cant, seem designed to travel easily. Received with a lusty round of boos and a smattering of applause, Southland Tales provoked the festival's most negative press screening and hostile press conference since The Da Vinci Code. The first question suggested (incorrectly) that Kelly's movie had set a Cannes record for number of walkouts and asked the director how he felt.

Why was the Kelly Code too much to take? Sensory overload is certainly a factor, but unlike Da Vinci, Southland Tales actually is a visionary film about the end of times. There hasn't been anything comparable in American movies since Mulholland Drive.

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