Cinema - Cannes Diary: Just don't mention `Star Wars', please

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The Independent Culture
The question worrying showbiz reporters was: where are the big Hollywood blockbusters - and more especially, where is George Lucas's Star Wars prequel? The American studios have been increasingly rejecting the Croisette as a place to launch their summer movies. Not that most of us here have lost much sleep over the matter. The last thing we want is more movie-nuts camping out on the teeming pavement outside the Palais. There are enough funny-looking aliens, most of them from LA, propping up the bars of the local cantinas.

We have had to rely on the rest of the world to supply us with spectacle, which is certainly delivered in spades by the festival's curtain-raiser, Nikita Mikhalkov's The Barber of Siberia. It's an expensive, very long, and faintly preposterous romantic epic set at the end of the last century and stars Julia Ormond as an American adventuress cutting a swathe through this strange land of (as she puts it) "Czars, caviar, vodka and bears."

All these stereotypes are duly present and correct - even, on one occasion, a vodka-swilling bear. Indeed, one has the impression - confirmed, only partly in jest, by Ormond at the press conference - that many of the cast had been at the bottle too, so loud, broad and boisterous are the performances. Unlikely to charm critics, the film none the less looks an eyeful and boasts some splendid set-pieces.

It's unquestionably a good deal more fun than Pola X, which sounds like the 10th sequel in an obscure sci-fi franchise; the title actually comes from the French translation of Pierre, or the Ambiguities by Herman Melville. It's the first film from Leos Carax, French cinema's self- styled enfant terrible, since Les Amants du Pont Neuf eight years ago.

Guillaume Depardieu (son of Gerard) plays a cult novelist who leads a pampered life with his mother (Catherine Deneuve) and fiancee until he's accosted by a wild-eyed vagrant from Eastern Europe who claims to be his half-sister. He promptly leaves everything to live with her in poverty, believing his season in hell will invigorate his writing. Alas, his new opus is rejected by his publisher as "a raging morass that reeks of plagiarism". The self-pitying protagonist looks like a thinly- disguised director-surrogate, and it's impossible not to draw the obvious comparison.

The greatest enthusiasm so far has been reserved for a tiny Scottish film in the "Un Certain Regard" section: Ratcatcher, a poetic portrait of a boy growing up on a Glasgow housing estate in the mid-1970s. Far from glum, the film views the harsh world with warmth, humour and an eye which steadfastly rejects all the obvious cliches. Lynn Ramsey's feature debut marks her as a name to watch.

Back in the competition, Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland is another small British movie (is there any other kind these days?), shot on location in Central London with a hand-held camera, no additional lighting and direct sound. It tracks three generations of an extended family over a weekend at the time of the Guy Fawkes' celebrations. Winterbottom's shooting-from-the-hip approach yields rich dividends in some intimate performances and an enormous visual energy, but it's let down by a mundane screenplay.

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