It was a big year for American films in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but in the neighboring Un Certain Regard section, they came and went with a whimper. Perhaps that's because they simply played it too safe in a section filled with daring creativity. Literally translated as "Of a Certain Regard," this spillover section carries the whiff of snobbery ("it's good, but not good enough for competition"), but also makes room for a broader spectrum of international cinema than the 20 competition slots provide. The American cinema in Un Certain Regard suffered by comparison to far more adventurous titles.
Sofia Coppola's amusing teen drama "The Bling Ring" opened the section on a playful note, capturing the real-life antics of the titular gang that robbed celebrity homes a few years ago and luring no less than original Bling Ring target Paris Hilton to the Cannes red carpet. Critics were divided on "Bling Ring," a snazzily executed and well-acted look at the group's antics that unfortunately also trivializes the situation and limits its emotional depth.
Meanwhile, fresh from its Sundance Grand Jury Prize win, Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" -- previously just titled "Fruitvale" -- failed to wow audiences with the same caliber of enthusiasm that greeted previous Sundance winner "Beasts of the Southern Wild" last year. Another true life story, Coogler's heartfelt look at the final day in the life of a young African American man attempting to clean up his act when he was unjustly shot to death by a confused police officer on New Year's Day failed to astound audiences with the tearful climax that undoubtedly won over Park City audiences back in January. Some critics found the structure of the movie too worshipful toward its doomed protagonist, while others balked at a familiar sort of sentimentalism that other movies eschewed for more complex experiences.
That's not to say everything else found universal acclaim. Claire Denis' "The Bastards," a knowingly fragmented revenge story, attracted plenty of naysayers and supporters alike, with very few reactions in between. I was personally let down by the way the superbly acted drama was continually weakened by cold, distancing narrative devices, but must give credit to Denis for attempting something different. I heard similar defenses for James Franco's William Faulkner adaptation "As I Lay Dying," with its reliance on advanced split screen devices to tell several angles of a story at once, but I regrettably missed it. Still, there's a notable irony in the possibility that Franco, often the subject of derision and dismissal for his prolific, freewheeling experimental output, may have delivered the best-received American movie in Un Certain Regard.
Overall, however, it's possible that the U.S. dramas lacked the daring subject matter found elsewhere. "Omar," another look at frustrated Palestinians from "Paradise Now" director Hany Abu-Assad, revisits the topic of violent resistance with another likable young man divided between personal and ideological allegiances. The titular character (Adam Bakri) struggles to keep his girlfriend at bay while scheming with a couple of friends to strike back at the Israeli soldiers that complicate their lives in the West Bank.
Whereas "Paradise Now" culminated with a terrorist act, "Omar" opens with one fairly early on, focusing instead on the aftermath: After one of Omar's cohorts clandestinely shoots an Israeli soldier, Omar is captured by Israeli intelligence, tortured and forced to collaborate with them to sell out his friends. Desperate to save his romance but not entirely committed to collaborating with the enemy, Omar is an immensely sympathetic figure impressively realized by Abu-Assad's screenplay. He's constantly surrounded by agendas: The leader of his radical group lies at one extreme, while a sly Israeli agent constantly insists Omar's collaboration will bring him the best solution to his problems.
Instead, Omar finds himself caught in literal and figurative crossfire: Considered a traitor by one group and an enemy by the other, he's constantly running from new threats. Abu-Assad directs several chase sequences with the intensity of a "Bourne Identity" movie, but ultimately shows just how much the systems of oppression and protest in the Middle East encourage a constant downward spiral for anyone attempting to satisfy both sides. "You can't become a freedom fighter by watching," one of Omar's peers says. But for Omar, the fight comes to him only as a last resort.
Another form of repression was found in French director Alain Guiraudie's "Stranger By the Lake," perhaps the most talked about entry of Un Certain Regard this year. Guiraudie's sexually explicit tale of voyeuristic passion and crime is also an elegant take on Western society's ostracization of homoerotic tendencies. A tale of murder that takes place in the heat of summer at a remote lakeside cruising spot for men, "Stranger By the Lake" echoes William Friedkin's "Cruising" in its engagement of the danger and thrill of clandestine sexual arousal, but it applies the same themes with far greater subtlety.
At its center, the hunky Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) regularly hangs out at the lake and tends to find companionship -- sexually and otherwise. Over time, he forms an explicitly depicted bond with the mustachioed Michel (Christophe Paou), while also developing an apparently platonic relationship with the heterosexual Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao), who routinely hangs out on the beach while keeping his motives dubious. A sudden drowning attracts the local authorities and leads Franck to question the motives of the men around him, while viewers are compelled to think twice about everything they see take place.
Exclusively set at the lake and surrounding woodsy environment, "Stranger by the Lake" simultaneously makes views feel uncomfortably close with the onscreen action while forcing them to sift through its details. Giraudie often adapts his characters' perspectives as they spot potential suitors across the way. Viewed from a distance, their identities and motivations continually hazy, these men (there are no women) take on mysterious dimensions that echo the figures spotted through Jimmy Stewart's binoculars in "Rear Window." Alfred Hitchcock's movies have been subject to homoerotic analysis for decades, but Giraudie may have actually made the first legitimately gay Hitchcock movie. In competition, the movie could have made greater waves, but deeming it of "a certain regard" is certainly an understatement.