THE 59th FESTIVAL DE CANNES Cannes, France, May 17-28. Rating: NNNNN
Cannes -- The Cannes Festival du Film is not what North Americans think of as a film festival.
It's not Toronto or Montreal or Tribeca or Chicago, where a couple of hundred films are shown to undiscriminating film buffs who believe they're highly sophisticated because they're skipping X-Men 3 to see a three-hour movie from the Balkans directed by someone who believes that editing your film will give you syphilis.
Cannes is less a film festival as we understand it than a convention for the film business. The stars show up to draw the press, and the press shows up to draw the stars, in a perfect relationship of reciprocal parasitism.
On opening weekend the big Hollywood picture gets screened and you see Tom Hanks and Ron Howard and every other star who happens to be around.
The stars are there to work, just like everyone else, but what you don't see in the public presentation is the hive. For every big star, there's a support system of at least four people hovering nearby. It takes dozens of workers to set up that red carpet, hang the big poster, rig the stands for the photographers.
Then the stars leave. It's kinda fun to observe the slow-mounting desperation on the part of TV reporters as the A-listers return to wherever it is they return to.
The best film I've seen so far is Pedro Almodóvar 's Volver loosely translated as The Return. I'm no great fan of his recent films, Bad Education and Talk To Me, which everyone else loved but I found creepy and necrophiliac.
Penélope Cruz is at home in her first language as a working-class mom who suddenly finds her favourite aunt has died and her husband has died under problematic circumstances. Oh, and her late mother (early Almodóvar stalwart Carmen Maura ) shows up, apparently a ghost, now living with her sister.
It's really a return to the subject matter of early Almodóvar, but filmed in the voluptuous, saturated colours and relative stately style of All About My Mother, Talk To Her and Bad Education. That is, it's a fast story told slowly, but Almodóvar has reached such a level of virtuosity that he can toss off the Hitchcockian "hiding the body" scene without even breaking a sweat.
Richard Kelly , whose 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko made a splash, showed up with his epic post-apocalyptic fantasy Southland Tales . It's bad in ways that ordinary directors wouldn't dream of, though it does contain what may be my favourite line of dialogue in any film this year: "Scientists are predicting that the future will be even more futuristic than they had predict-ed," spoken by porn star Krysta Now ( Sarah Michelle Gellar ).
Summer Palace , directed by Lou Ye , tracks small-town girl Yu Hong as she enters Beijing University and starts having a lot of badly lit sex with her new boyfriend. It's 1989, so everybody goes to Tiananmen Square. I'm not sure what's going to give the Chinese censors more problems, the sex or the politics, even though the politics are vague: we're never told why the students went to the square or what happened to them there. Then Yu goes back to her hometown and the film devolves into three other soap operas.
After making some fun money movies like School Of Rock and the Bad News Bears remake, Richard Linklater 's gotten deadly serious on us in his narrative adaptation of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation .
A go-getting young executive ( Greg Kinnear , very good) gets assigned to look at unacceptable fecalcoli-form levels in the beef that a fictional fast food chain called Mickey's is grinding into burgers. He runs into the film's two juiciest cameos, Kris Kristofferson as a cranky old rancher and Bruce Willis as Mickey's meat buyer.
The film also deals with the struggles of the Mexican illegals who work in the slaughterhouse/packing plant; the star here is Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full Of Grace). The high school girl who works Mickey's counter gets advice from her uncle (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke in the third of the film's good cameos) and winds up hanging out with latent eco-terrorists at the local college.
Linklater seems to have forgotten that just because something's serious doesn't mean it can't be funny. He's taken serious to mean earnest, which is deadly.
Red Road , by Andrea Arnold (who directed the Oscar-winning short Wasp), is set in Glasgow and stars Kate Dickie as Jackie, who monitors closed- circuit surveillance cameras around a desperately poor housing project. When an unexpected familiar face shows up on her monitor, she starts stalking the man, an ex-con. Yes, she's out for revenge.
The first half of the film is shot as if every character has his or her own surveillance camera. It's like middle-period Atom Egoyan, but without Egoyan's interest in bland kink. It straightens out at the end, unfortunately.
William Friedkin and Ashley Judd who saw the part as big-time Oscar bait do a change of pace in Bug . Based on a play by Bryan Singer , the director of The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men movies, it basically takes place in a single shabby hotel room.
Judd plays a white-trash divorcee who slings beer in a local roadhouse, nervously awaiting her ex-husband's release from prison. Harry Connick Jr. as the ex jolts the picture every time he appears.
Judd meets Peter ( Michael Shannon ), whose odd demeanour instantly spells paranoid schizophrenic to anyone who's watched way too many movies, but spells dreamboat to Judd. Guess who's right? The climax is wildly over the top, though you can see how it might be a stunning piece of live theatre.
Princess is a half-animated, half-live-action film by animator Andres Morgenthaler . August, a missionary priest, returns home when his porn-star sister dies. He assumes custody of his niece, the saucer-eyed Mia, and comes to realize that the child has been serially abused by her mother's "friends." So August tells the porn magnates, "Get my sister's pictures and films off the market, or else."
From the evidence onscreen, Morgenthaler is one pissed-off Dane.
See John Harkness's daily Cannes reports till May 28 in our Cannes coverage.