Much adored, and justifiably so, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" has emerged as the early frontrunner in this year's race for the Palme d'Or. No other film in the festival's competition has so far drawn such universal praise from Cannes attendees. A return to Almodovar's favorite topics -- women, motherhood, incest, death and forgiveness -- "Volver" is the Spanish maverick's most finely crafted and emotionally satisfying feature since "All About My Mother," which garnered Almodovar a Best Directing prize at Cannes in 1999.
Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas star as two sisters whose life is turned upside down by several incidents: the death of their aunt; the reappearance of their dead mother; and a tragic episode involving Cruz's husband and daughter. Equal parts mystical mystery and family melodrama, "Volver" lovingly examines the bonds between mother and daughter and the vivid details of women's work (most memorable, the way paper-towels soak up blood, the chopping of vegetables, and the fluttering of black fans by a group of black-clad lady mourners). Cruz, Almodovar's latest muse, sparkles every moment onscreen, leaving little wonder as to why she has become an international star.
A more brutal portrait of feminine crisis, Andrea Arnold's intense and evocative thriller "Red Road" is another competition highlight. Kate Dickie delivers a powerhouse performance as Jackie, a woman who monitors security cameras around a poor section of Glasgow. Reeling from a terrible accident that has left her alone and dead inside, Jackie spots the man responsible for her devastating loss and sets in motion a twisted plan for revenge.
While broadly similar to such recent films as "21 Grams" and "Open Hearts," "Red Road" features the dreamy and ominous visual handiwork of Arnold and her "Wasp" cinematographer Robbie Ryan; using mostly handheld cameras and long lenses, Jackie's harrowing journey feels, at times, like a blurry nightmare from which she cannot wake.
While not without its faults, "Red Road" is a strong debut from a director-to-watch; and as the first entry in Zentropa Films' "The Advance Party" collection -- a trio of films made by three different directors, all using the same actors (all of whom are excellent) playing the same characters - one hopes the remaining two will be just as memorable.
Shanghai-born director Lou Ye offers another depiction of an anguished young woman. Somewhere between X-rated teen melodrama and brave political statement lies the director's latest "Summer Palace," which traces several years in the life of a lovesick young woman across recent shifts in China's history, from 1989's Tiananmen Square student revolt to 1997's repatriation of Hong Kong and beyond. Like his steamy, sumptuous previous features "Suzhou River" and "Purple Butterfly," Lou Ye lavishes the same sort of obsessive attention on his alluring lead, the college-aged Yu Hong (relative newcomer Hao Lei, who acts her guts out).
The movie's first half is its strongest. After a gorgeous under-lit pre-credit sex scene between Yu Hong and her young boyfriend, she ventures to Beijing University, depicted in the film as a heady, hippy-ish haven for poetry, philosophical debate and free love. But this near caricature of '60s-like university life provides only the backdrop for Hao's complex passionate affair with another student, Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong). When it eventually comes, Tiananmen Square seems merely an afterthought. And so, too, does the rest of the film's roughly 75 minutes. While director Lou appears to depict the psychological fallout of the famed revolt on these impressionable youths, it doesn't always make sense. If Chinese censors demand cuts to the film, unfortunately, they probably won't be the ones that "Summer Palace" needs.
No stranger to political filmmaking, Ken Loach presents one of his more successful films of late with "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," a portrait of the Irish struggle for independence in the 1920s. Cillian Murphy plays an aspiring doctor who reluctantly joins his brother's bloody crusade against the Black and Tans. While Cannes prize-winning screenwriter Paul Laverty lays it on overly thick with the brutality of the British and a few too many overt socialist speeches, the story reveals increasing complexities, moral tradeoffs and layers of hypocrisy. Late in the film, after a truce is signed with the British, the characters face their most difficult quandary: whether to fight amongst themselves. With the final moments, Loach and Laverty deliver a final punch that conveys the awful toll of war, whichever side you're on.
Richard Linklater's "Fast Food Nation," an adaptation of Eric Schlosser best-selling novel, also tries to weigh the political with the personal, and similarly, doesn't always find the right balance. Remarkably even-handed considering the material, Linklater's "Fast Food Nation" doesn't effectively demonize the fast food machine as much as convey the way its many intricate parts function. While characters as diverse as Kris Kristofferson's earthy rancher and Ethan Hawke's bohemian uncle all talk about the evils of the industry ("there's shit in the meat" is the film's most provocative claim), the film largely eschews direct indictments, leaving this viewer, at least, feeling hungry for more.
Linklater may be lauded for the film's subtlety, sympathetic characters and meandering narrative, but the story feels soft, requiring more of the bile of "Tape" and less of the slipperiness of "Slacker." It's not until near the film's end where Linklater finally reveals the "killing floor," a gory verite sequence that recalls George Franju's 1949 slaughterhouse shocker "Blood of the Beast."
If Cannes attendees really want to swear off meat, the movie to see is Hungarian filmmaker Gyorgy Palfi's "Taxidermia," a wildly grotesque, triptych chronicling three generations of men in the same family. Even more outlandish than his debut "Hukkle," "Taxidermia" begins with a flaming penis, a man who makes love to the disembodied parts of a pig, and the birth of a baby with a tail. The second section - and the strongest - is a hilarious satire of Soviet-era triumphalism, as our hero grows up to become a competitive sports-eater. The final story follows the hero's son, an emaciated masochistic taxidermist who takes care of his absurdly obese father along with a trio of oversized cats. Not for the squeamish, the film features streams of vomit, needles inserting into flesh, and all manner of human and animal innards. Who knows what it all means, but it's a stomach-churning romp that makes "Fast Food Nation" look like alfalfa sprouts.
[Get the latest from the Festival de Cannes throughout the day in indieWIRE's special Cannes '06 section.]