Cannes Film Festival: Don't believe everything you read...

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The Independent Culture

I'd come to Cannes armed with what seemed to be two reliable tips. One was that Wim Wenders would surprise us with a major comeback film. Don't Come Knocking turned out to be the competition's outright clunker. The other was my own bet that the French comedy in competition would be a smart, cynical treat: I've been avoiding my colleagues ever since To Paint or Make Love screened. The usual duds aside, this year's Cannes has been one of the best in several years, full of solid pleasures, if not many discoveries. One major find was the Mexican film Battle in Heaven by Carlos Reygadas, by some distance the strangest and most extreme film in competition. It's the story of a fat, clueless chauffeur who, following a disastrous baby kidnap, seeks redemption from a general's daughter who moonlights as a prostitute. Battle in Heaven may be noticed for the oral-sex scenes that bookend it, but its real claim to posterity is that Reygadas thinks in intensely original filmic terms, with bravado tracking shots, visu

I'd come to Cannes armed with what seemed to be two reliable tips. One was that Wim Wenders would surprise us with a major comeback film. Don't Come Knocking turned out to be the competition's outright clunker. The other was my own bet that the French comedy in competition would be a smart, cynical treat: I've been avoiding my colleagues ever since To Paint or Make Love screened. The usual duds aside, this year's Cannes has been one of the best in several years, full of solid pleasures, if not many discoveries. One major find was the Mexican film Battle in Heaven by Carlos Reygadas, by some distance the strangest and most extreme film in competition. It's the story of a fat, clueless chauffeur who, following a disastrous baby kidnap, seeks redemption from a general's daughter who moonlights as a prostitute. Battle in Heaven may be noticed for the oral-sex scenes that bookend it, but its real claim to posterity is that Reygadas thinks in intensely original filmic terms, with bravado tracking shots, visual non-sequiturs and several bizarre moments of high Catholic symbolism.

Easily the most fun in competition came from Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, which pushed Bill Murray's deadpan style to its furthest point yet, with fabulous results. The film is in Jarmusch's inimitably laconic style, but it's also a convincing move towards the edge of the mainstream, and deserves to be as successful a mid life-crisis comedy as Sideways. Murray's staring match with a tabby cat is a moment to go down in movie history.

It's always hard to draw suppositions about the state of cinema from the impenetrable sprawl of Cannes line-up, but if you want an illustration of the polarisation of the art form today, here's a prize example. On the one hand, the multi million-dollar Sin City, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, and co-directed by him and Robert Rodriguez. It's a sex, sleaze and violence fantasia in which every frame has been digitally cooked to resemble a black-and-white comic, and it's a marvel to behold. At the other extreme, The Child is the latest exercise in quasi-documentary grunginess from Belgian duo the Dardenne brothers, who won the Palme d'Or in 1999 with Rosetta.

Their new film is true to form: characters at the bottom of the social ladder hustle to survive in drabber-than-drab industrial town Seraing, the Dardennes' perennial stamping ground. But this totally spare, biting story about a feckless young man who sells his own baby is a harrowing and finally profound work, and evidence that screen realism is alive and thriving.

So far, there are two front-runners for the Palme. The overall critics' choice is Hidden, by Austria's Michael Haneke, about a man whose guilty past emerges as a result of mysterious surveillance tapes. It raises uncomfortable questions about Western complacency and the way we picture our own lives, but it's a film that works best the less you know in advance. The other example of that is David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, which shares one of Haneke's themes (how well do we really know the people we know?), but wraps it up in a thriller narrative that mixes film noir and western elements to shocking, sometimes dryly comic effect. Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen lays down his broadsword to do a strong-and-silent routine in the Gary Cooper mould. In an ideal world, he and Bill Murray would share the Best Actor Award for taciturnity.

Film Studies returns next week

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