Cannes warms to its annual culture clash

The 57th Cannes film festival kicked off with a very public dispute between the competition jury president Quentin Tarantino and a fellow-juror, the British actress Tilda Swinton.

It was Tarantino's contention that people go to the movies to watch stars, while Swinton - who began her career making films with Derek Jarman and has kept faith with the independent sector while appearing in bigger budget fare like 'Vanilla Sky' and 'The Beach' - argued for 'another kind of cinema', outside what she labelled the 'narrative, industrial' Hollywood model.

Abbas Kiarostami echoed those sentiments in the second film screened here. '10 on Ten' is really just a DVD supplement to his last feature, 'Ten', but it doubles as a film-making manifesto, a philosophy even, in which Kiarostami argues for realism, minimalism, digital cameras, poetry, and opposition to American movies, which are 'even more powerful than its military might, and which might make more problems for the world'.

This is the culture clash enacted each year at Cannes, and it will be fascinating to see how the jury resolve their differences as they weigh the relative merits of, for example, the ingeniously sadistic Korean thriller 'Old Boy' (a Tarantino fave, if rumours are to be believed), 'Shrek 2' and a delicately framed Argentine art movie like Lucrecia Martel's 'La Nina Santa'.

With a couple of likely contenders yet to screen (Wong Kar-wai's '2046', Olivier Assayas's 'Clean'), the front-runner for the Palme d'Or remains a French film, Agnes Jaoui's 'Look at Me' ('Comme Une Image').

Like her previous hit, 'The Taste of Others', this collaboration with acting/writing partner Jean-Pierre Bacri is a delightfully nuanced comedy of manners, an ensemble affair revolving around an overweight aspiring singer, Lolita (Marilou Berry), and her forlorn attempts to escape from the shadow of her father, a famous novelist (Bacri), or even to gain his attention.

Reminiscent of Woody Allen in his prime, 'Look At Me' delighted critics with its subtle dissection of the vagaries of ego; the way that lesser mortals orbit success, beauty and power even as the powerful and the beautiful casually exploit them (a syndrome not entirely unknown in Cannes).

'It's delightful, but it's not a festival film,' sniffed one highbrow British critic. Translation: this is a conventional, commercial offering, which makes no pretence at advancing the form. One cannot disagree, except that it's so rare to see classical cinema of this distinction - and Jaoui's deft satire of psycho-sexual dynamics is no less sharp for the film's familiar bourgeois trappings.

Despite the festival's generally more accessible strategy, and the beefed up American presence, politics, and especially gender politics have loomed large.

There are more films by women directors here than ever before. In addition to Jaoui and Martel, the roll-call includes Laure Duthilleul, Jessica Hausner, Asia Argento, Shona Auerbach, Cate Shortland, Xan Cassavetes, Nicole Kassell, Danielle Arbid, and Carole Laure.

'My impression is that something's changing,' first-time director Nicole Kassell told me. 'Certainly at my film school, the classes were 50 per cent or even 60 per cent women.'

Her film 'The Woodsman' is a brave first feature which asks us to empathise with a child molester (played with persuasive unease by Kevin Bacon) as he struggles to overcome his impulses after spending 12 years in prison. In the most disturbing scene, he tries to entice a 12 year old girl to sit in his lap.

In films from both sexes, the abuse of children has been a prevailing theme, right from Pedro Almodovar's curtain-raiser 'Bad Education', through Kore-eda's 'Nobody Knows', 'La Nina Santa', 'The Heart is Deceitful! Above All Things', 'Mean Creek', 'Dear Frankie', 'Los Muertos', 'Old Boy' and 'Tarnation'.

Asked about Argento's JT Leroy adaptation, 'The Heart is Deceitful!', 'Irreversible' director-about-town Gaspar Noe raved about 'the most incredible scenes of paedophilia I've ever seen'. Is that good? 'It's real,' he shrugged.

Like 'The Woodsman', many of these films extend a degree of compassion for the perpetrators, but taken together, they reflect a deep unease about men and masculinity. In his fine first feature, 'Mean Creek', director Jacob Estes shows a group of teenagers who goad each other into killing a fat kid with learning difficulties. A judiciously balanced morality tale, the film exposes a volatile anger and aggression in its adolescent protagonists. The closer they are to manhood, the more dangerous they are.

Similarly, in 'Tarnation', Jonathan Caouette invites us to share his mother's woes. Sent for electric shock treatments twice a week from the age of 12, Renee never stood much of a chance in adulthood. But after she was abandoned by Jonathan's father, and beaten and raped when he was 4, she fell prey to regular psychotic episodes.

Brought up by his grandparents, Jonathan started shooting home movies before he was a teenager. At 11, he was dressing up in a wig and a dress, and doing monologues which recast his mom in the role of a Texan Blanche Dubois. Five years later he was directing his first-school production: a musical version of 'Blue Velvet'.

Renee claims she was abused as a girl, but by now she's a highly unreliable witness and looking at Jonathan's grandparents, you don't quite believe it. But when he tells us that he tracked down his father and phoned him, we can credit that the conversation went like this: 'I was young, your crazy mother was just a good piece of ass. You're not gay are you? If you have AIDs I don't want anything to do with you.'

In its extraordinarily intimate, deeply unhappy home movie footage, 'Tarnation' inevitably recalls 'Capturing the Friedmans'. But this is even more raw and personal, it hasn't been filtered through a third person director/editor's eyes. Rather, Caouette cuts and morphs his images through his desktop's I-movie programme, transforming it into a psychedelic, underground trip, part confessional, part nightmare. Total budget: $218 (until they clear the music rights).

In a strong year for documentaries, Michael Moore's oppositional agit-prop 'Fahrenheit 9/11' has hogged the limelight. Understandably so. To watch a paralysed and bewildered George W Bush sitting in front of a classroom of tots, clutching his copy of 'My Pet Goat' for minutes on end as the WTC towers fall, is to preview his electoral demise this November.

Even if it draws blood, Moore's film only scratches the surface. Jonathan Nossiter's overlooked 'Mondovino' - a late competition entry - is a cogent, complimentary analysis of the commercial imperatives which drive globalization. A trained sommelier, Nossiter persuaded some of the most important winemakers and wine-writers to talk to him as he traces what one interviewee calls the 'Napa-fication' of wine over the last two decades: the incredible rise of the California vineyards and the homogenization of taste under the influence of the New York Times critic and novelist Robert Parker.

Parker's power is such, a bad review can upset an estate's stock rating. According to the film, he's inspired many a French producer to adapt to new 'scientific' methods (oxidization, oak barrels) to appeal to a short-term, supermarket palette, and in the process obliterate 'terroir', that congruence of earth, sunlight and cultivation which has distinguished wines for centuries.

More than one interviewee sees this transformation as a creeping crypto-fascism: 'There is a new fascism,' says veteran vigneron Aime Guibert: 'A fascism in the monopoly of distribution. But governments don't care.'

'I would have made it about the movie business, but it would have been much more boring,' Nossiter told me. 'Besides, winemakers are better actors.'

Overlong at nearly three hours, Nossiter's film may prove more widely palatable in its ten-hour TV cut. But taken alongside Moore's, it's a powerful, witty, poignant testament to a radical oppositional force in filmmaking, empowered by digital technology to confront media self-censorship.

If Tarantino's jury should be looking for Cannes's raison d'etre, then this would be a good place to start.

Tom Charity Prize Tips
Palme d'Or : Look At Me
Grand Prix: Motorcycle Diaries
Best Actor: Min-sik Choi (Old Boy)
Actress: Maggie Cheung (Clean)
Outside bet: 2046! if it screens at all.
Best Adline: Lizard Woman

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