Cannes Diary Day 9: Hits and Misses from Un Certain Regard and Directors' Fortnight
by Stephen Garrett
The latest entries in Cannes’ official competition have been at best respectable but overall unimpressive. Claude Miller's "Little Lili" is a sturdy if loose reinterpretation of Chekhov's "The Seagull," transposed to a French vacation home and the world of filmmaking. (If anything, audiences may have felt a bit of festival déjà vu since two of the film's main stars, Bernard Giraudeau and Ludivine Seigner, both made such an impression in two other competition films just last week.) For a secret-agent thriller, Lou Ye's "Purple Butterfly" is an unengaging mess -- despite having sexy Zhang Ziyi as a pistol-packing spy. And Alexander Sokurov's mystifying "Father and Son" returns the Russian formalist to the planned trilogy he began with "Mother and Son," keeping intact his tendency towards oblique dramatic situations shot with arrestingly gauzy cinematography.
The official competition deservedly commands the majority of attention during the Cannes Film festival, but its sister sidebar Un Certain Regard and the festival's longtime rival Directors' Fortnight (this year celebrating its 35th anniversary) always exhibit a few notable films that rival and sometimes surpass any of the Palme d'Or candidates.
Opening Un Certain Regard was Arnaud Desplechin's "The Making of In The Company of Men," a fiercely intelligent meta-drama designed to be two things: both a story of a grown son's frustrated attempts to find his own place in his successful father's business world, and a study of the actors’ rehearsal process while preparing the story as the director guides them through the material. As a film about filmmaking, "Men" alternates between both the finished product and glimpses behind the scenes, creating a deft commentary on the creative process. The approach does distance the audience, though, to the extent that its emotional climax is somewhat compromised by the film's self-reflective commentary. But the overall effect is still gratifyingly ambitious.
The most attention-grabbing film in Un Certain Regard has been David Mackenzie's atmospheric melodrama of infidelity, "Young Adam," which will surely be among the pictures nabbed by U.S. distributors before the festival's end. Another movie in the sidebar has already been snapped up: Samuel Goldywn closed a deal on Sue Brooks' "Japanese Story," an unlikely but poignant Australian comedy-drama-romance with Toni Collette as a geologist begrudgingly enlisted to chauffeur an important and aloof Japanese business client. Accessibly mainstream even with a completely unexpected plot twist, the movie holds potential for specialized handlers.
Better known as the more unruly and eclectic venue for Cannes moviegoing, Directors' Fortnight did not disappoint this year, guaranteeing trouble with its inclusion of the anarchically provocative Takashi Miike and his latest film, "Gozu." The director's latest fever dream is the story of a young Yakuza dispatched to kill his mentally unhinged mafia-brother. But when the loony thug gets away, nothing ever seems the same again. A mishagoss of recycled themes and ideas from his more recent movies -- including lactating older women, bizarre inn-takers, wild hipster mafiosos, and the most surreal sex act cum childbearing scene ever committed to film, "Gozu" riveted its very particular hardcore audience with equal measures shock and delight.
Also winning acclaim is Sedigh Barmak's "Osama," a heart-wrenching drama about life under Taliban rule in pre-September 11 Afghanistan. The first film to be made by an Afghan after the fall of the Taliban, "Osama" tells the story of a desperately poor mother who decides to dress her pre-pubescent girl as a boy in order for her to be able to get a job and earn them money enough to live. A gripping work that graphically displays the Taliban's former grip of terror, "Osama" is one of the true gems to be unearthed here in Cannes.
One false note in the Fortnight comes from Ross McElwee's highly anticipated new documentary, "Bright Leaves," which debuted Thursday afternoon. This journey into the director's ancestral connection to the Tobacco industry and his own ruminations on a culture of addiction makes trite observations about the dangers of smoking while filling time with McElwee's own eccentric and frankly solipsistic observations about life. Anything meaningful McElwee says about life could have been better expressed in a short film. At one point, the navel-gazing is so extreme that McElwee literally turns the camera on a reflection of itself and thrills at his so-called "nicotine addiction" from the simple act of shooting film. Thin threads of insight barely make this ego trip more than just a collection of self-indulgent shots of his family over the years, and there's nothing worse than having to watch someone else's home movies -- especially for almost two hours.