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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.

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.

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.

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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