By Indiewire | Indiewire May 24, 2002 at 2:00AM
CANNES 2002: Keeping The Faith At Directors Fortnight
by Michael Giltz
New religions are popping up at the 55th Cannes Film Festival: the Church of Scientology mounted an exhibit to L. Ron Hubbard in a small art store just off the Croisette.
But the old gods still hold sway. As usual, some harrumphed that the main competition bowed to old standbys like David Cronenberg, Manoel De Oliveira, Allen and Olivier Assayas out of blind faith. (Even if the movies aren't good, at least you know what to expect.)
The Directors Fortnight, Cannes' version of Slamdance, was intended to reject the old guard and champion brash new talent. But it too takes comfort in the familiar. Hence the reappearance of favorites like Catherine Breillat, Shane Meadows, Lisa Cholodenko and Lynne Ramsay. Directors Fortnight kept the faith and, some of the time, its prayers were answered.
But not by the sacrilegious Breillat, the French provocateur who co-opened the program with "Sex is Comedy." The other co-opener was "Matir Moina" (The Clay Bird), the Fortnight's first-ever film from Bangladesh.
By and large, being asked to open or close any program at Cannes is a dubious honor since those films are almost always disappointments. But these two split the curse. ""Matir Moina," about the tug between religion and politics in the just-forming country of Bangladesh, got a polite response. "Sex is Comedy," however, was roundly dismissed. It's based on the filming of Breillat's terrific drama "Fat Girl," a movie highlighted by a riveting seduction scene. Anne Parillaud stars as a director struggling to capture that moment on film, which is complicated by the fact that she's sleeping with The Actor (Gregoire Colin, who is quite naked and deservedly so) and that he and The Actress can't stand each other. The Actress is Roxane Mesquida who played the same role in "Fat Girl" and who admitted in interviews she couldn't stand her then co-star, Libero De Rienzo. It all sounds juicier and funnier than the end result. Apparently Breillat needs to be angry to be entertaining. When she's amused, we're simply bored.
Another highly anticipated film came from director Lisa Cholodenko, who scored strongly with her debut feature, "High Art." The follow-up, "Laurel Canyon," is a far more potentially commercial prospect: Christian Bale plays an uptight psychiatrist who suddenly finds he and his fiancee sharing digs with his free-spirited, pot-smoking, Rock&Roll producing mama (the marvelous Frances McDormand). McDormand is a sheer delight playing, as several critics pointed out, the very sort of person her protective mom in "Almost Famous" was deathly afraid would corrupt her son. But Cholodenko never takes a step we don't anticipate ten minutes in advance. (Okay, except for that threesome between mom, her rock singer boyfriend and her son's mousy fiancee.) Most chalked it up to the sophomore slump and confidently await her next project.
Then the faithful were rewarded. Director Shane Meadows had been championed as a talent with his Bob Hoskins boxing flick "TwentyFourSeven" and the follow-up, "A Room for Romeo Brass." If proving you have talent means breaking out of the festival circuit towards a wider art house audience (and it usually should), then Meadows surely triumphed with "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands," a genial charmer about a Scottish thief (Robert Carlyle) who returns home to claim his woman after a job goes wrong. It's an unexpected cross between Ken Loach and Sergio Leone, but Meadows pulls it off.
But the highlight of the Fortnight was Lynne Ramsay's triumph, "Morvern Callar." Ramsay trumps her coolly proficient debut, "Ratcatcher," and Samantha Morton's lead performance is sure to get end-of-the-year attention from the critics. Morton plays a young woman whose boyfriend kills himself on Christmas Eve. It proves a marvelous opportunity for the oddball Morvern to rethink her life. Ramsay won't have to rethink hers: this blackly comic drama is a triumph guaranteed to give her cachet and, if she needs them, bigger budgets down the road.
Suicide is also the focus of the debut by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. His "Japon" (Japan) has been trimmed since its debut in Rotterdam and is the stronger for it. Disarmingly simple, it follows a middle-aged man who heads to a remote village ,where he plans to kill himself. The Man (a weathered, appealing Alejandro Ferretis) is directed to the barn of a very old peasant named Ascen (Magdalena Flores). She senses his despair and reaches out as best she can. "Japon" is bold in its design, employing scenes completely devoid of sound and a grand climax with a swirling shot of Reygadas boldly stretching out for minutes. The film also features one of the most awkward sex scenes imaginable. (Flores certainly trumps Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt" for offering the most unexpected nudity.)
Also a holdover from another festival, this time Sundance, was "Only the Strong Survive," Roger Friedman's labor of love about soul singers. Sam Moore, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson and the rest are all in fine voice, as evidenced by the too-brief concert footage. This amiable, celebratory documentary, helmed ultimately by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, seemed right at home in France, which has a long history of recognizing the genius of soul singers and jazz musicians long before Americans do. Indeed, the afternoon crowd I saw it with cheered the film three times: once at the finale, again halfway during the credits (simply because they hadn't clapped for a few minutes, I guess) and then again at the end.
If Mary Wilson looked well-preserved, her makeup artists had nothing on the talents of "L'Imbalsamatore" (The Embalmer). An offbeat Italian romantic drama by Matteo Garrone, its best achievement was creating a believable love triangle between a gay dwarf embalmer, his very tall and handsome assistant, and a beautiful woman. Points taken off for leaving the physical aspect of the two men's relationship unnecessarily vague; they won us over emotionally but then chickened out.
Italy was less well-represented with the tired drama "Angela." In it, a gangster's wife falls for her husband's handsome new right-hand man. When the law comes crashing down, she refuses to turn state's evidence just to keep her affair a secret. Very noble, until you remember she was intimately involved in a murderous, drug running gang and profited nicely from it. It's based on a true story, but the characters are so colorless you find it hard to believe.
"Mon-Rak Transistor" (A Transistor Love Story) from Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang was more original. It starts out as a witty musical about a poor but cute melon farmer who loves his girl and wants to be a pop star. The musical interludes are cleverly done and the leads (Suppakorn Kitsuwan and Siriakorn Pukkavesa) have charm to spare.
But the electricity runs low when the movie drops its light tone and all-out musical numbers for a dour middle half where everything goes wrong for our hero. (And why does he never, ever pick up the phone to call his long-suffering, true love?) It rallies towards the end, but the director will have to trust what