Here are four films that caught my attention during the first few days of the festival in Cannes.
BREAD AND ROSES -- Ken Loach, the conscience of Cannes (or, if one wishes to be unkind, the nagging scold of Cannes) returns with his first American film, a drama about labour strife in California. Maya (Pilar Padilla) comes to L.A. illegally and gets a job with her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) as a non-union janitor. She then hooks up with Adrien Brody's union organizer to help get her sisters and brothers to put down their mops and pick up picket signs. Carrillo has a stunning scene three-quarters of the way through that contextualizes her immigrant experience for her sister. Put it down for the Jury Prize, simply because Loach always wins the Jury Prize.
NURSE BETTY -- Here is Neil Labute's idea of a wacky comedy, and it works once you slide into his odd tone. Renée Zellweger stars as a woman in Kansas City who sees her husband killed while she's watching her favourite soap opera. She goes into a fugue state, fleeing to L.A. to have a romantic meeting with one of the characters in the soap (Greg Kinnear), with a pair of hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) on her trail.
Freeman makes a great villain because he has such uncanny moral authority. His villains are utterly convinced of their own righteousness (which is also why Henry Fonda's rare appearances as a bad guy are so convincing). A neat balancing act is at work in Zellweger's Betty, who has to appear to be sane yet is in fact completely nuts. Nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Allison Janney as the soap producer and Tia Texada as Rosa, Betty's L.A. roommate.
DE MIEUX EN MIEUX -- Claude Mouriéras's bleak display of family dysfunction opened the Director's Fortnight. Three adult sisters (Miou-Miou, Sandrine Kiberlain and Natacha Régnier) face the return of their father (Michel Piccoli), who walked out on them 15 years ago.
Dramatically unsatisfying -- it plants the incest bomb, then refuses to detonate it -- De Mieux En Mieux does boast outstanding performances, particularly by Kiberlain (Les Patriotes) and Régnier (The Dream Life Of Angels).
LES AUTRES FILLES and PURELY BELTER -- Here's your basic cultural difference at work: French movie about teens, English movie about teens. In the former, Solange, weeks from her 16th birthday, starts hanging out with the multicultural gang at a hairdressing school in Toulouse and is desperate to lose her virginity. In the latter, Jerry and Sewell, a couple of likely lads in Newcastle, are desperate to get the money for season tickets to the local football team.
Les Autres Filles, directed by Caroline Vignal, plays as if Catherine Breillat (Romance, 36 Fillette) had directed a hyper-hormonal, very special episode of DeGrassi High. Purely Belter is the third film by Mark Herman, writer and director of Brassed Off and Little Voice. His own odd specialty is the north-of-England romance-of-failure, or rather, failure illuminated by one piercing moment of triumph in a lifetime of poverty and abuse.