Love on the Riviera

Emotions have overflowed both on the Croisette and in the movie-houses of Cannes. Sheila Johnston braved the air-kisses
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The Independent Culture

Lemmings are rodents, and, every now and again, they are supposed, for no apparent reason, to embark on a suicidal mass-dash to the coast where they all drown. As festival-goers struggled through yet another Cannes monsoon this week, the choice of a thriller called Lemming as the opening film seemed more appropriate than ever. The festival has been dogged by unseasonably cold, wet weather and a definite deficit of glamour, unless you count Natalie Portman in a buzz-cut, Sharon Stone rubbing shoulders with Darth Vader on the red carpet, the inevitable Paris Hilton, and a 30ft inflated model of Gromit. The stingy Star Wars bash is already being described as the worst Cannes party ever.

Lemmings are rodents, and, every now and again, they are supposed, for no apparent reason, to embark on a suicidal mass-dash to the coast where they all drown. As festival-goers struggled through yet another Cannes monsoon this week, the choice of a thriller called Lemming as the opening film seemed more appropriate than ever. The festival has been dogged by unseasonably cold, wet weather and a definite deficit of glamour, unless you count Natalie Portman in a buzz-cut, Sharon Stone rubbing shoulders with Darth Vader on the red carpet, the inevitable Paris Hilton, and a 30ft inflated model of Gromit. The stingy Star Wars bash is already being described as the worst Cannes party ever.

We had all stifled yawns at the first sight of the competition programme with its roll-call of the usual suspects. It included no fewer than five former Palme d'Or winners, and a myriad of other familiar names who have often seemed to have an automatic (and unearned) invitation to the Croisette. But this time many of them are at the top of their game and, as a suite of superior films unfolded over the course of the week, it became clear that the contest for this year's awards would be a very closely run race.

The favourite, Hidden, is a formidably controlled, chilling and resonant piece from Austria's Michael Haneke. Daniel Auteuil and Juliet Binoche play a successful married couple of Paris literati who begin receiving unsettling videos, shot with a hidden camera, of their daily lives, accompanied by crude drawings of a child spattered with blood. It emerges that Auteuil has a nasty childhood secret involving an orphaned Algerian boy, and the film fans out from the mistrust and anger within his family to France's own repressed guilty secret: its shabby treatment of its former colony.

Juries are volatile and unpredictable beasts, and this year's president, Emir Kusturica, has somewhat ominously announced that democratic decisions are "very difficult for him". But Hidden's formal brilliance, thematic weight and compelling performances ought to make it a virtual certainty for a major prize.

As Lost in Translation showed, nobody can inhabit an empty hotel room like Bill Murray and, doing very little, burn up the screen. He has ample opportunity to do this in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, one of the competition's rare and most welcome comedies. Murray plays an ageing, solitary Lothario whose life is upturned after he receives an anonymous letter informing him he has a 19-year-old son. The news sends him on the road in search of four girlfriends to establish which of them is the mother. They are played by Sharon Stone, Jessica Lang, Frances Conroy and Tilda Swinton; not a bad line-up of conquests by any standards. But this is Murray's film, and he commands it with his unique blend of sarcasm, melancholy and sudden flashes of innocence. It's a touching piece, and very funny.

Inspired very loosely by events leading up to the suicide of cult muso Kurt Cobain, Last Days forms a loose trilogy with Gus Van Sant's Gerry and Elephant, and continues the director's experiments with free-form minimalist narrative. It simply observes the daily activities of a seriously strung-out rock star (Michael Pitt) and the groupies and hangers-on who live with - and off - him in his rambling, dilapidated house. Not much happens most of the time: he mutters to himself, makes macaroni cheese, sings a song and receives a visit from a Yellow Pages salesman (played by a real Yellow Pages salesman), though, oddly, is never seen taking drugs. The potent, dream-like mood is by turns mesmerising and maddening.

The second instalment in another trilogy, Lars von Trier's exploration of "America: Land of Opportunity", Manderlay, is designed to incite, with its hot-button theme of racial oppression. Bryce Dallas Howard takes over the role of the well-meaning Grace, played in Dogville by Nicole Kidman. Set in 1933, Manderlay finds Grace in Alabama, where she assumes control of a plantation whose workers are still kept as docile virtual slaves. Backed by the fire-power of her gangster-father's henchmen, she enforces a regime change and teaches them democracy, with sorry results: the story has clear contemporary resonance. It's more focused than Dogville but has similar ideas and, shot in the same Brechtian style, on a bare sound stage with minimal props, feels like an unnecessary near-remake.

Canada's two leading directors, David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, have both weighed in with mainstream projects set in the US and devoid, on the surface, of their makers' usual quirks. But A History Of Violence, a sleek, witty thriller, elegantly reworks many of Cronenberg's perennial obsessions, notably the question of identity, and the beast lurking just below the surface of normality. There are some splendid entrails on display here, too. Viggo Mortensen is a pillar of his small-town community who becomes a local hero after thwarting a robbery. Then some hoods from back East come round asking questions, and it turns out there are some disturbing hidden angles to this fine, upstanding family man.

Egoyan's Where The Truth Lies is rather stilted, but contains terrific performances from Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth as a popular team of 1950s club comics - loosely based on Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin - whose partnership is shattered by the discovery of a murdered girl in their hotel room. The case is explored in flashback by a journalist (Alison Lohman, in a weakly written and acted role) writing a book about them two decades later. Firth's dashing Darcy image is shattered once and for all by his turn here as a smug, sleazy bisexual.

Whatever their director's nationality, many films here have been explorations, directly or indirectly, of American issues (one more key example is Wim Wenders's road movie Don't Come Knocking). Even Merry Christmas, apparently a thoroughly European film about the remarkable three-day truce between British, French and German troops during Christmas 1914, finds time to slip in a contemporary pacifist message, in a scene where the soldiers are chastised for betraying a "Holy War". This rousingly old-fashioned story about the brief triumph of humanity over hatred is likely to be a real audience pleaser, even if some critics might find it a mite sentimental.

Woody Allen's Match Point, by contrast, finds the quintessential New Yorker in London. In this dark comic meditation on crime and punishment - or, rather, the lack of it - Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays an Irish tennis coach from a poor background who enters the social orbit of a wealthy upper-middle-class family. Soon the emotionally needy daughter (Emily Mortimer) has set her cap at him, and a comfortable marriage and cushy job at his father-in-law's firm beckon.

But a neurotic femme fatale, played by Scarlett Johansson (after Kate Winslet withdrew from the role), offers excitement and temptation that take him on to dangerous ground (Match Point is unusually sexy for a Woody Allen film) and force him to extreme measures in order to extricate himself. The film reflects on the ever-present element of chance that divides success from disaster, like the final point that decides a tennis championship. Match Point also divided critics in Cannes straight down national lines, with Americans full of plaudits ("Allen matches his best", enthused Variety) and Brits more sceptical of its picture-postcard images of London and retro take on modern Britain.

Over in Belgium, the Dardennes brothers (winners of the Palme d'Or for Rosetta six years ago) have made another compassionate, intimate drama about society's have-nots with L'Enfant. A very young girl has just had a baby son and struggles to involve his father, Bruno, a charming petty criminal who only lives for the moment. He promptly sells the baby to seedy child-brokers, comforting the devastated mother with the reassurance that they can "always make another one".

In this simple yet extremely powerful film, it becomes clear that the real child of the title is the feckless Bruno, and the tension hinges on whether he can see a way out of the increasingly desperate situation in which he finds himself.

Lemming itself, a psycho-thriller about the contorted relationship between an older and a younger couple (Charlottes Rampling and Gainsbourg play the two women), seems initially compelling but turns out to contain less than meets the eye - something of a disappointment after the director Dominik Moll's polished last film, Harry, He's Here To Help. And critics were left thoroughly puzzled over the enigmatic, sexually graphic The Last Battle, about a fat, middle-aged chauffeur involved with the beautiful rich girl he drives around Mexico City.

One of the very few British features here has also been one of the most controversial. Shown in the Critics' Week sidebar, where it was introduced, accurately, as a Molotov cocktail, Thomas Clay's striking debut film The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of a soulless British coastal town fallen on hard times. Disconcertingly,it looks not at all like a gritty Loachian realist drama, but is shot in the rigorous style of a high-art film (Clay's cameraman has also worked for Greece's Theo Angelopoulous, the master of the long, languid tracking shot) and is accompanied by serene music by Elgar, Harvey and Purcell.

In the course of the film, the main character, a withdrawn teenager, and his posse of delinquent, drug-taking friends commit two gang rapes, the second - and bloodily explicit - of which had dozens of viewers stomping off to the exit. At a loud and angry debate after the screening, Clay defended the graphic violence. "I think it's really necessary," he said, pointing at the wider backdrop to the story, the invasion of Iraq, which figures in numerous scenes. "At the end I wanted the horrors of war to invade the lives of the characters." The Great Ecstasy serves notice of an impressive visual talent, but audiences - and, indeed, censors - may find it hard to stomach.

Among the festival's lighter moments was Crossing The Bridge, a vibrant documentary about the Istanbul music scene by Fatih Akin, the German-Turkish director of Head-On. Playing out of competition (Akin is on the jury), it's a smartly edited and intelligently presented trip in the genial company of Alexander Hacke, of the German avant-garde band Einstuerzende Neubauten. Kurdish laments, Turkish rap, female whirling dervishes and some veteran music legends all contribute to the sheer range and vitality of a film that bears comparison with Buena Vista Social Club.

There has also been the annual blitz of overheated announcements about soon-to-be-made, might-be-made and ought-never-to-be-made projects (anyone for a remake of Lassie, starring Peter O'Toole, or Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter in a "comic romp" about Lady Godiva?). On the other hand, great excitement has fastened on Real: the Movie, a docu-drama starring David Beckham, produced by Real Madrid and designed to cash in on the club's brand name. It's one of a rash of football-themed features and documentaries being touted along the Croisette. Even Kusturica is making one.

Among all the heavyweight auteur works in Cannes, perhaps the most shamelessly enjoyable footage is the delightful English eccentricity of some extended preview extracts from The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the first full-length Wallace and Gromit film, wherein the intrepid duo's pest control company, Anti-Pesto, combats a giant rabbit. Wensleydale cheese was on the menu at the lunch after the showing.

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