CANNES FILM FESTIVAL May 11-22, Cannes, France. www.festival-cannes.fr. Rating: NNNNN
Cannes - the sun bakes bare flesh in gold light, and then it rains. You score an invite to a Brazilian party at a villa in the hills, and then you're locked out of the Kim Ki-duk screening. One minute you're one of the fortunate few, the next you're nobody. The harsh truth is, Cannes giveth and Cannes taketh away.
It's hard to keep a level head. A week ago the new Woody Allen film, Match Point , looked like a minor masterpiece, a brilliant British moral drama with sexy, nuanced performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Velvet Goldmine) and Scarlett Johansson . Today I'm not so sure. Is it Woody's best film since Crimes And Misdemeanors or a lesser Gosford Park? Maybe both.
It's 11 long days rushing up and down the Croisette. Buzz dies. Mid-festival, the Michael Haneke film Hidden is the strongest contender for the Palme d'Or. But even if some other title overtakes it ( David Cronenberg is gaining, and Wim Wenders and Hou Hsiao-hsien are still to come), Hidden will have set the thematic framework for this year's festival.
It's the return of the repressed. Judging by the standout films in Cannes's Competition section, the world's filmmakers are preoccupied with bad stuff surging up from the past. Hidden is the story of a liberal bourgeois family terrorized by a series of mysterious, incriminating videotapes. Atom Egoyan 's Where The Truth Lies sees Alison Lohman digging into the murder that severed a 50s showbiz team played by Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth .
Bacon gives a terrific performance as a hyperactive hollow man, but it's countered by Lohman's unnervingly blank turn. Still, this is an impressive leap in scale for Egoyan. People who long for what he once could do with a video camera should look out for Citadel , his excellent Lebanese video diary. At the Telefilm Canada party at another villa here this week - two villas is my limit - both Egoyan and Camera Bar co-owner Hussain Amarshi hinted that Citadel would open this fall.
No doubt the most contentious return-of-the-repressed movie this year is Lars von Trier 's Manderlay . First, it brings back the style and story of Dogville, which some will have successfully expunged from their memories. Second, it picks at the wound of American slavery. And third, it tells a typically von Trier tale of past violence inflicting its order on the present.
Bryce Dallas Howard takes over Nicole Kidman 's role as Grace, the headstrong outsider in small-town America. This time she happens on the Manderlay plantation. It's 1933, but the black workers still live as slaves. When the plantation mistress ( Lauren Bacall ) dies, Grace insists on imposing freedom. But slavery is persistent.
Von Trier makes films from a shrewd, punishing sort of naíveté, and usually I like that. But Manderlay, taking on both the complexities of slavery and the current "democracy-building" in Iraq, feels both reckless and noxious. It peaks in a misanthropic payoff that's become von Trier's specialty. I'm happy to defend Dogville, Dancer In The Dark and Breaking The Waves, but the grubby Dane has finally made a movie that left me seething. I think I'm the last one.
Some feel the same way about Gus Van Sant . Sitting through Gerry, Elephant and his new Cannes Competition film, Last Days , can be like seeing America through a Xanax filter. But what a lovely view.
Last Days follows a grunge-era rock star ( Michael Pitt ) in the days leading to his suicide. Kurt Cobain is never mentioned, nor is Nirvana's music heard, but the dirty blond scruff and the sloppy cross-dressing are unmistakable. Last Days has moments that reach Elephant's minimalist brilliance, but it lacks that film's overall control and social scope.
Best film I've seen so far for both control and scope is Cronenberg's A History Of Violence . Viggo Mortensen plays Tom, a small-town family man who becomes a hero when he shoots dead two armed robbers. That draws the attention of mobster Ed Harris , who's sure Tom is actually his old nemesis Joey. That gets Tom's wife ( Maria Bello ) wondering how come he's so good at killing people.
The film can play like a textbook thriller or a remade western, but it's also the story of how violence can work like a virus. I sat one night with Toronto author Marni Jackson and TV host Teri Hart chewing it over. One thought a critical sex scene was a kind of rape. The other didn't. Jackson saw the film as an allegory of marriage. I saw it as an allegory of American power.
Hold it up to the light and Cronenberg's movie takes on shifting colours, so much so that at the press screening an exasperated Austrian yelled out, "Will you pieces-of-shit critics take this serious?"
It was in the middle of a deliberately funny scene, but not to him.
For that alone, Cronenberg deserves a prize.