The good and the bad of Cannes 2006 -- The rich bounty of global offerings at this year's film festival overshadowed a mixed bag of American movies

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

There are so many film festivals contained within Cannes — which one would you like to hear about? The self-consciously cosmopolitan gathering featuring Shortbus, a strenuously dizzy American hardcore-sex pic? The Cannes in which Days of Glory (the French title is Indigènes), a stirring, classical French combat picture about North African men fighting Nazis for motherland France in 1943, would win the Palme d’Or if I ran the jury? Or how about the Cannes where one of the very best pictures I saw wasn’t in competition at all? Bamako (also called The Court in English), by the Mauritanian-born writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako, is a fluid stunner of a piece that weaves together seemingly found (but in fact meticulously selected and framed) vignettes of everyday African life and a seemingly official (but in fact daringly invented) trial that charges the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund with deepening the continent’s many miseries. The prescreening experience was a melee of queuing and jostling, with scores turned away as if from the appearance of Marie Antoinette herself on the red carpet. Of course, if and when Bamako is released here in the next year or two, it will come and go from art-house theaters in about a week.

So let’s talk about Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette, shall we? Everyone at Cannes was, weighing the wispy stylishness of the costumes, shoes, music, and assorted accessories against the melancholy frivolity of its blithely apolitical content. The French Revolution registers as little more than noise outside the window in Coppola’s telling, with Kirsten Dunst yummy as a bonbon as the title character, and Jason Schwartzman lumpy as a Mars bar as Marie’s damp teenage husband, King Louis XVI. In an age of Girl Power, girl powerlessness in a setting of privilege turns out to be the elusive young filmmaker’s wistful theme, carrying through from Lost in Translation. And yet Coppola herself is clearly an heiress to Hollywood power with an A-list tech team under her command. I haven’t decided yet whether I’m more touched than appalled — or the other way around — by such a Versailles, 90210, vision of history.

But something of Coppola’s projected vulnerability moves me. And strangely, something of Richard Kelly’s yowling Cannes bust, Southland Tales, moves me too. Not that I even stayed for the whole garbled shebang from the fellow who made Donnie Darko (which I liked), so lost in unintelligibility were Kelly’s intentions and so self-congratulatory the farcical high jinks of the cast, many of them SNL alums. Rather, I was moved or was it gobsmacked — by how unprotected Kelly appeared to have been while making his second feature, as if no one would help him do any better.

On the other hand, there was nothing that needed protecting in John Cameron Mitchell’s determinedly unarousing little porn ditty, Shortbus. The provocateur who made Hedwig and the Angry Inch meant to show people Doing It, in all sorts of outré positions, while maintaining their right to be blithering clowns, and he succeeded: In an early scene, a freakishly styled dominatrix arranges her sex paraphernalia on the sill of a window overlooking the scarring wound of the World Trade Center site, and the movie treats the juxtaposition with boorish disregard, on the blasé assumption that one hole is no different from any other.

Not every American entry was so muddleheaded. Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is a crisp, effective, star-driven dramatization of Eric Schlosser’s incisive and gut-churning nonfiction book about corporations, burgers, and the horrors involved in the capitalist quest to see billions served. (Greg Kinnear, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, and Maria Full of Grace‘s Catalina Sandino Moreno are among the ensemble players.) The structure, built for a post-Crash audience, is one of the better recyclers of the now familiar Traffic pattern of interlocking stories. (Alejandro González Iñárritu fancies the same structure in his simplistic parable of global interconnectedness, the Brad Pitt-bannered Babel — but then, González Iñárritu’s got an early copyright on the game after his own Amores Perros and 21 Grams.)

Still, the American entries chosen in all sections — from the clunk of The Da Vinci Code, out of competition on opening night, to the weakness of Southland Tales to the willful passivity of Day Night Day Night by Julia Loktev in the Directors’ Fortnight, about a pretty young woman with intentions of carrying out a suicide bombing in Times Square for impenetrable motives — suggest that Cannes curators don’t know what they want from the specimens of American cinema they select. Are they looking for proof of deficiency? Phooey. Are they tone-deaf to what American cinema is about when it’s not about Michael Moore? More discerning Stateside-based scouts might be of use.

In contrast, Pedro Almodóvar’s joyfully received Volver showed the Spanish enchanter at the peak of his mature gift for telling stories about women that women can’t believe they didn’t invent themselves. (Penélope Cruz hasn’t been lovelier since…the last time she was in a film by Almodóvar.) Bruno Dumont, the fascinating, anhedonic specialist in grim, stripped-down, hard-nut stories (i.e., La Vie de Jésus, L’Humanité) about brutish people without the words to make sense of their feelings, returned with Flandres, an even more elemental drama of rural sex in Belgium and wartime brutality in an unnamed desert country. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the fine Turkish filmmaker with a special talent for chronicling male loneliness (his masterful Distant, about the relationship between an alienated city dweller and his country cousin, won a prize at Cannes two years ago), returned with Climates, an astute study of a restless middle-aged man who can’t commit to his younger girlfriend. (Ceylan himself plays the commitmentphobe and his pretty wife, Ebru Ceylan, stands her ground as the badly treated lover.)

From England, first-time Cannes competitor Andrea Arnold emerged as the festival’s winner of the unofficial title Filmmaker to Watch with her gripping voyeuristic drama Red Road, about a Glaswegian woman whose work as a surveillance camera operator switches from the professional to the personal with the appearance of a certain man on a certain screen. (Officially, the picture won the Jury Prize, while British stage and TV pro Kate Dickie was a strong contender for the acting prize that went to the ladies of Volver.) The story ties up a little too neatly (I sniffed a whiff of Sundance predictability, then discovered there’s Sundance Institute support involved), but the directing is strong and sure.

In the end, Cannes regular Ken Loach won top prize for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a predictably unpredictable choice at such a proudly obstreperous global fest: In a straight-ahead historical drama, the socially conscious filmmaker builds a complex story of political struggle in 1920s Ireland. Red Eye‘s Cillian Murphy makes an unlikely revolutionary, gentle and wee, but he bears down with a conviction that would make Coppola’s Marie Antoinette run for the dessert table.

How They Did Cannes

He went Clooney gray and crinkle-eyed for Babel

He crooned in lounge-lizard shirts for The Singer

He got rotoscoped for A Scanner Darkly

He played an amnesiac for Southland Tales