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America Cannes

Art imitates life as U.S. directors command this year's fest, with only China rivaling for celluloid domination

CANNES, France— The world's preeminent film festival celebrated its 60th birthday party, the opening banquet catered by the world's hippest—or is that once hippest?—filmmaker.

Hardly the disaster many feared but far from the triumph others anticipated, Wong Kar-wai's first English-language feature, My Blueberry Nights—starring Norah Jones as an itinerant waitress working her way across the country—is a sweet and gooey slice of American pie. Wong's notion of the U.S. as a wild, lonely succession of highways and diners—part Robert Frank, part Edward Hopper—isn't exactly a revelation, but the only truly egregious cliché is the Ry Cooder twang that takes over the soundtrack when Jones arrives in Vegas.

Minor, if not without its privileged moments, My Blueberry Nights does include one of the most erotic sequences in any of Wong's films, a fetishistic mega close-up of the sleeping Jones's pie-à-la-mode-flecked lips. But akin to seeing Wong without his trademark shades, watching the movie unavoidably inspires two mental exercises. The first: imagining it in subtitled Chinese, recast with Chinese actors (Tony Leung in place of the too-eager-to-please Jude Law). The second: replaying Wong's greatest hits sans Orientalism—were the performances in 2046 as mediocre and the dialogue as trite as in My Blueberry Nights? Well, we'd still have the melancholy and the visual style (as is true here, even if the cinematography is too glam and the dessert colors a shade too rich). All of the filmmaker's themes—memory, regret, loss, insomnia—are present, along with the misfortune of an American-style happy ending.

Blueberry Nights set the tone for Cannes' first week, characterized by a wistful globalism and dominated by Chinese and American movies. The official selection boasts five American Palm d'Or-eates—the Coens, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Michael Moore, and Steven Soderbergh—along with David Fincher's Zodiac. Sicko and Zodiac were particularly well received, as was the Coens' lean gothic western, No Country for Old Men—a movie unencumbered by ideas or characters save for Javier Bardem's implacable killer, and an early favorite for a top prize.

The epitome of globo-absurdity, however, has been Olivier Assayas's meta-trashy, mainly English Boarding Gate , which winds up with sullen s/m hooker hit-girl and festival it-girl Asia Argento wandering drugged through the back alleys and karaoke clubs of mysterious Hong Kong; the triumph of globo-absurdity, complicated by genius, is thus far Hou Hsiao-hsien's supposed remake of the 1956 kids' film The Red Balloon.

Commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay and supposedly sent back twice for re- editing by the Cannes powers that be, Hou's first non-Asian feature is not so much a film as a film object: Flight of the Red Balloon is densely edited, conceptually complicated, and enchantingly eccentric. The eponymous balloon is at once a character, a (literally) free-floating metaphor, and the subject of a student movie.

Like Boarding Gate, Flight of the Red Balloon is centered on a spectacular, courageously off-putting performance—namely, Juliette Binoche's turn as a distracted, frowsy single mom whose current job appears to be narrating a Yuan Dynasty puppet play. In subject matter as well as self-reflexivity, the movie is surprisingly close to Hou's masterpiece The Puppetmaster—albeit looser, more lyrical, and much devoted to the problem of orchestrating "nothing" in impossibly tight spaces.

The official selection includes two other Chinese film-objects: Triangle, in which Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To handle successive chunks of the same crime story. The result is more subtraction than addition; a more productive instance of less-as-more is Wang Bing's three-hour, three-set-up documentary He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir. Unprompted and unrelenting, an elderly Chinese woman recounts her harrowing experiences during the 1950s anti-Rightist campaign and 1960s Cultural Revolution in a torrent of words that is not only a devastating critique of Chinese Communism but, in a way, the festival's most remarkable performance.

The biggest Chinese crowd-pleaser, however, has been Li Yang's Blind Mountain. An apt follow-up to Li's corrosive coal-mine thriller Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain—in which a college student is abducted and sold as a bride—has a similar documentary subtext and "blind" narrative force. Indeed, the shockingly abrupt ending brought down the house at normally soignée Salle Debussy. The scene in which rural medics demand payment up front before attending a dying patient was worthy of Michael Moore's pamphleteering Sicko, a scattershot evisceration of the American health system that's most effective when identifying said system as a raging capitalist symptom.

Speaking of social ills, it's pretty darn amazing that each of the last three Cannes film festivals has featured a terrific Romanian movie. There was The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in 2005, 12:08 East of Bucharest (soon to open in New York) in 2006, and this year Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. The title refers to the length of a particular pregnancy and the movie concerns two college students as they attempt to have it terminated.

Set in 1987, when abortion was illegal in Romania, 4 Months depicts late Communism as a barter economy in which everything is a hassle and male privilege is a given. The young women are naive but sympathetic. The movie's unsentimental humanism is all the more impressive in the light of Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment, a Christian allegory also in competition centered on an unwanted pregnancy. Zvyagintsev won first prize at Venice his first time out with The Return; The Banishment is even more accomplished, but while it is in essence the imitation of art, 4 Months is the imitation of life.

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