By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire May 23, 2006 at 2:45AM
Over the last three days, a trio of international auteurs has crashed the Cannes competition that could upset any predicable outcomes in this year's race for the Palme D'Or. While the films, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates," Aki Kaurismaki's "Lights in the Dusk," and Bruno Dumont's "Flandres," don't represent the finest work by these important directors, they do reflect the kind of distinctive, inimitable vision that the Cannes Film Festival is all about.
Following his solemn tour de force "Distant," Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan sharpens his vision like a knife with "Climates," a sparse exacting drama - stunningly photographed in crisp Hi-Def digital video - about the separation between a man (played by the director) and his wife (Ebru Ceylan, the director's real-life wife). Beginning in the blistering heat of the Turkish coastal town of Kas and ending in the cold snowy Turkish outskirts, the film chronicles the couples' drifting apart and their tentative reunion. In between, the man emerges as a misogynistic, selfish bastard, while the woman comes across as a hardened yet wounded victim. If the depiction seems simplistic, it also feels very true (and funny, in the same dark, physical way "Distant" drew laughs), with each perfectly mapped scene and quiet, tense exchange revealing the insurmountable battle of the sexes.
Kaurismaki and Dumont, on the other hand, offer cinematic dreams that tend towards the bridging of that gap. Surprisingly accessible considering the filmmakers' reputations, both "Lights in the Dusk" and "Flandres" derive their power less from the their stories than the culmination of their final images. In the Iceland minimalist's latest film, a lonely security guard falls into the clutches of a beautiful blonde. The poor guy is beat up, used, victimized and denied justice, but in the end find consolations. But the film is so slight that its poignant coda barely registers.
Dumont's "war film" is stronger, but ultimately lacks the power of his prior movies "La Vie de Jesus" and "Humanite." Maybe after a week of films at the Cannes Film Festival - with rape, incest, murder, graphic sex and death aplenty - Dumont's work doesn't seem all that shocking. Strangely riveting all the same, the story focuses on a simple lughead farmer, Demester (Samuel Boidon, with a deep-set menacing stare), his childhood friend, the nymphomaniac Barbe (Adelaide Leroux), and another boy she has sex with before both young men are shipped off to war in some arid mountainous region. Predictably, Dumont shows us the horrors and barbarism of battle; more fascinating, however, are Barbe's tortured madness and Demester's flat, often expressionless face, occasional smile, and final burst of emotion.
Meanwhile, a new generation of American mavericks has landed on the Croisette this year. With Richard Linklater's two films "Fast Food Nation" and "A Scanner Darkly," Sofia Coppola's much-anticipated "Marie-Antoinette" (screening tomorrow), Richard Kelly's sophomore outing "Southland Tales," John Cameron Mitchell's roundly appreciated Un Certain Regard entry "Shortbus" and over in Directors Fortnight, Julian Goldberger's re-cut "The Hawk is Dying" and Julia Loktev's "Day Night Day Night" (screening later), the average-age of U.S. filmmakers in Cannes must be its lowest in years. Is this a positive sign for American cinema? One thing's for sure; they're taking risks and breaking the rules.
Inspired, awkward, funny, sweet and shocking, John Cameron "Hedwig" Mitchell's "Shortbus" arrived on the Croisette like an unpretentious blast of fresh air. A celebration of New York dysfunction and the power of sexual pleasure, the film intertwines three main storylines, involving a Chinese-Canadian marriage counselor searching for her first orgasm, a gay couple, and a Gothic dominatrix. The nonprofessional cast is bold and fresh as they engage in all manner of graphic intercourse onscreen, but their struggles won't resonate with every viewer.
Still, "Shortbus" features one of Cannes's most revelatory moments, in which Mitchell effortlessly manages to transform the potentially scandalous into the amiably light-hearted. Some may find the initial image - of two naked men sucking each other off, while a third man gives one of them a rim-job - a tad disquieting. But quickly, the scene turns humorous, as instructions for hand placement and noise-making are issued, and then hilarious, as the trio sing a chorus of the Star Spangled Banner (i.e. "home of the of the brave, land of the free," etc.). Now that's patriotic.
Strangely enough, Kelly's "Southland Tales" also includes a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner - and while it's not harmonized into someone's asshole, it certainly isn't a celebration of American freedom. Sung inside a mega-zeppelin hurling towards its doom, minutes away from an apocalyptic 4th dimensional rift and a wave of suicides, the national anthem functions here as a strange, otherworldly paean to imminent destruction (which I guess is about right). But it's also one of many confounding pieces of a puzzling mess of a movie steeped in references to "Kiss Me Deadly," Karl Marx and "Star Wars."
Is "Southland Tales" a "film maudit," some sort of post-Godardian pop-cultural blender a la Kelly's far more resonant "Donnie Darko," or just simply a "bad movie"? If Kelly is parodying and deconstructing this Hollywood adventure - starring The Rock, Sarah Michelle "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Gellar, Justin Timberlake and a host of former SNL regulars - as it goes along, he's not doing a very fun job of it. There are a few choice bits of satire - with Geller's porn-star chat-show, a Hummer ad that would be at home in "Shortbus," and a sharp-edged set-up of 2008 America. But Cannes audiences - who left in droves before it was over - experienced the movie as more like a whimper than a bang.
[Get the latest from the Festival de Cannes throughout the day in indieWIRE's special Cannes '06 section.]