Film: From soccer-mad monks to bad taste in a bordello

Fresh from Cannes, picks out his highs - and a very definite low - from this year's festival

Most unspeakable film

Peter Greenaway's 81/2 Women was an absolute stinker, joyless and inept. Greenaway described it as "a laconic, comedic film" in the vein of Fellini, but that wasn't how it came across. What was most dispiriting - apart from the bombastic dialogue and mannered, pantomime-style performances - was its underlying misanthropy. Instead of the humour, hedonism and flights of fantasy that Fellini brings to his movies, Greenaway offers a series of stilted, over-decorated tableaux vivants in which the cast prance around naked, like animated tailors' dummies.

The 81/2 Women in question, prisoners in a private bordello set up by an English businessman (John Standing) and his priggish son (Matthew Delamere), each represent a stereotypical male fantasy. When she's not locked up and limping in a see-through perspex corset, a naked Amanda Plummer flits in and out of frame on a white stallion. Toni Collette is a shaven-headed, big-nippled nun who takes her vow of obedience very seriously. Other residents include a Japanese siren with gambling debts, a pregnant woman, and a whore with a heart of gold (Polly Walker). Father and son snuffle round their prey like pigs in search of truffles and, between times, have an incestuous affair.

It's hard not to think of Greenaway as the Rigsby-like proprietor of the upmarket boarding house, biting his nails in glee behind the scenes as the men's fantasies become ever more extreme. This impression is reinforced by the casting. There's no sign of Miss Jones, but the the smooth-talking black stud is played by Don Warrington (better known to many viewers as Philip in TV's Rising Damp.)

Best "Bosnian" British film

Ironically, the only British film to win a prize in Cannes this year was made by a Bosnian. Jazmin Dizdar's Beautiful People, an epic comedy- drama with 25 leading characters, combines Mike Leigh-like naturalism with flights of Balkan fantasy worthy of Kusturica, none more startling than the scene in which a drunken, drugged-up English football fan (Danny Nussbaum) falls asleep on his way back from Amsterdam and is airlifted into the Bosnian war zone along with a consignment of medical supplies.

Dizdar casts a sceptical, if affectionate, outsider's eye on the Brits. In scenes that are vaguely reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital, he shows overworked doctors, cold-hearted politicians, teachers and journalists who are caught up in the daily grind while ex-pat Serbs and Croats fight on double-decker buses.

Beautiful People ends on a riotously optimistic note that has more to do with Bosnia than Britain. "That's very much a Balkan element," Dizdar says. "We're a very unpredictable nation... only a few years ago, we were all so much in love with each other. Now, everything has turned upside down and the people have become so ugly, so full of hatred, not only for each other but for themselves. That contradiction in our character has always attracted me."

If he was exhilarated about landing The Best Film Prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, so was Fay Weldon (whose son, Dan, produced the movie.) "All power to Jasmin, who everyone thinks is a girl, of course," she enthused. "Beautiful People is completely uncynical and not in the least sentimental."

Most inscrutable film-maker

Khyentse Norbu had easily the most unusual background of any film-maker in Cannes. When he was six years old, he was recognised as the incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), a religious reformer and saint revered for his part in protecting Buddhism in Tibet in the late-19th century. Most of his childhood was spent studying and meditating in a small temple, away from his family. He's now a revered and senior lama himself.

Interviewed in a balmy garden, Norbu didn't seem entirely comfortable about either the attention lavished on him by the press or the identity foisted on him by his peers. "I have complete belief that I am a reincarnation of my past life, whatever it is - a dog or a bird or a butterfly," he said, "but to be a reincarnation of a saint... I have a big doubt."

Norbu's beguilingly funny film, The Cup (which screened in Un Certain Regard) is about a group of Tibetan monks who move mountains to watch the 1998 World Cup Final on satellite TV. It was thanks to his friendship with British producer Jeremy Thomas (Crash, The Last Emperor) that he was able to make it. He showed the screenplay to Thomas. "I didn't really expect anything because my film is very short and probably not very interesting, but after three days, Jeremy called me and said he had the money."

In his monk's robes, Norbu was an incongruous presence in Cannes. On the afternoon I met him, an assistant offered him and his lead actor (also a monk) a choice of tickets for that evening's screening: either Jim Jarmusch's slick, witty but very violent Ghost Dog, or an Indian film whose name nobody could remember. Inevitably, they opted for the Jarmusch.

Best film by an old-timer

Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira, born in 1908, made his first film 70 years ago. His latest effort, The Letter, is an updating of Madame De La Fayette's 17th-century novel, The Princess Of Cleves. An account of an unfulfilled love affair between a married woman (Chiara Mastroianni) and a singer (Pedro Abrunhosa), it's an extraordinarily stylish and oblique piece of film-making. Never one to hurry, Oliveira has an engaging knack of interrupting the narrative to study some piece of sculpture or foliage. The most dramatic moments happen off-camera, or almost unnoticed at the edge of the frame. The closest the two lead characters come to consummating their relationship is when their eyes lock together across a room.

This might be a tale of doomed love, but it comes laced with lots of deadpan humour. When Mme De Cleves hears on the TV news that her beloved singer has injured in a car crash, she gasps in such overwrought, melodramatic fashion that we think she is about to suffer from a Lady Macbeth-like fainting fit. The effect is at once comic, banal and touching.

Relationships, Oliveira implies, hinge on throwaway moments like these. "All he ever does is show people talking in rooms," said one journalist after last week's screening at Cannes, as if that was the easiest thing in the world. The reverse is true. Oliveira deservedly won the Jury prize, the first nonagenarian ever to do so.

Best film about an old-timer

David Lynch's The Straight Story is about a good old boy (Richard Farnsworth) driving several hundred miles on a mini-tractor to see his ailing brother. A good-natured, shaggy dog story, it is closer in tone to a late Peckinpah movie such as The Ballad Of Cable Hogue than to Lynch's usual anatomies of the seamy side of small-town America.

There's just one moment when the imp of the perverse rears its head. The old man is interrupted on an open stretch of road by a distraught "deer woman" (Sally Wingett), who drives 40 miles to-and-from work, and who has deer crashing on to her bonnet every time she makes the journey. She doesn't know where they come from, or why. She's the single character in the film who wouldn't have looked out of place in Lost Highway.

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