Festival de Cannes
15-26 May, 2002

No introduction necessary, I presume. Good thing, too, since I've never been before and hence don't have the foggiest idea what I'm getting into, although foreboding words like "melee" and "deluge" keep popping into my head unbidden. Nor do I really know whether I'll be able to update this page on a daily basis -- chances are I'll be awarded the lowly blue press badge, signifying my protozoan status on the Great Film Critic Chain of Being (I believe the hierachy, bottom to top, goes like so: Yellow, Blue, Pink, Pink with Mystical Privilege-Bestowing Yellow Dot, White, Ebert), which means precious typing minutes will be wasted queueing for artsy Adam Sandler movies. I'll do my best. As with last year's Toronto report, don't expect more than a glib sentence or two on each film, especially if I wind up hunched over a terminal at some cybercafé come minuit. (I'll try to restrain myself with the frog humor, e.g. resisting just now the idea of writing this entire paragraph in the patois of Pepe Le Pew. You're welcome.)


Hollywood Ending
Woody Allen | USA | Out of Competition | 46
Of a piece with the previous two DreamWorks pictures -- jokes moderately better, Woody's timing demonstrably worse. (This period will make for a grim chapter in future critical bios.) Redeemed by a handful of first-rate, in-his-prime one-liners (production designer Isaac Mizrahi: "Every location we need is out there waiting to be found, except two. Harlem and Times Square. Those I have to build") and the germ of a brilliantly stilted comic performance by Barney Cheng, whose character inexplicably gets the boot just as he's promising to take the movie to another level.

24 Hour Party People
Michael Winterbottom | UK | Competition | 68
Bracing wit and boundless energy, especially during the giddy, gloriously undisciplined ascension phase; it's all so convincingly off-the-cuff that I initially thought the opening scene to be bona fide archival footage, being unfamiliar with Steve Coogan and His Preternatural Self-Assurance (all ages; doors open at 9pm). Loses its way a bit after Ian Curtis swings, especially for those of us unfamiliar with Happy Mondays, but rallies for a nicely anarchic conclusion. Less winter, more bottom: Good show, lad.

Welcome to Collinwood
Anthony & Joe Russo | USA | Directors' Fortnight | 65
Straight-up, arguably unnecessary remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street (again?) gets by thanks to the ornery charisma of its überhipster cast (L. Guzman, P. Clarkson, W.H. Macy, S. Rockwell, hilarious Clooney cameo), though the biggest laughs derive from the deliberate obscurity of its anachronistic lowlife lingo. Possible year's best line: "I hate to say it, but this Bellini is starting to look like a real Kaputschnik."

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo | Spain | Critics Week | 76
Best not to say much about this genre-defying tour de force, except to note that it's so fiendishly clever and thrillingly imaginative, so utterly sui generis (but think Amenábar by way of Egoyan with a splash of Spike Jonze) that its hollow center, once revealed, feels doubly disappointing. Nonetheless, sure to be one of this fall's conversation pieces. Do not miss.

Wed 15

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Dai Sijie | France | Un Certain Regard | 40
Blatant, ungainly tale of covert intellectual shenanigans in one of Mao's re-education camps, theoretically buttressed by a tepid love triangle the combined angles of which add up to 155 degrees tops. Xun Zhou (of Suzhou River fame) singlehandedly saves the picture from outright wretchedness with her impish joie de vivre...and, okay, her succession of skimpy swimming costumes. Paean to Western lit frequently verges on the hilarious -- apparently even the water buffalo smell different the morning after you first experience The Red and the Black. Good to know.

Amos Gitai | France/Israel/Italy | Competition | 50
Or Kippur II: The Prequel. Birth of Israel portrayed in the same energetically desultory mode as the Yom Kippur War, with the first half devoted to perplexed figures wandering a Beckettian landscape and the second half a hallucinatory barrage of explosions and gunfire. Without making a fuss about it, Gitai depicts the Jews as obsessive chroniclers of their own history -- the film's best and most emblematic scene finds two men hunkering down as the battle finally begins, tense, ready to risk their lives for their new country...just as soon as one of them finishes narrating a WWII reminiscence, his delivery getting more and more animated as shells burst all around them in the present-tense war they have yet to join. Trouble is it's way too declamatory, what with recalcitrant Palestinians repeatedly exclaiming "We will remain here in spite of you, like a wall!" and the climactic manic monologue coming across like a whiny parody of Ryan Gosling's self-loathing thesis in The Believer. Not to mention the way that characters keep getting plugged at dramatically opportune moments, i.e. seconds after they've made some ironically optimistic proclamation. A screenwriter might help. Remember those, overreaching auteurs?

Thu 16

Marie-Jo and Her 2 Loves
Robert Guédiguian | France | Competition | 61
Nothing groundbreaking here narrative-wise -- loving both of them was breaking all the rules, etc. -- but Guédiguian grounds the film in simple yet absorbing detail, from the proper way to pour concrete to the pleasure of standing naked on your balcony on a fine spring day. Jean-Pierre Darroussin simply magnificent as the passive cuckold, and I never cease to be amazed by the way that Ariane Ascaride's rather hard, vulpine features can suddenly, almost imperceptibly open up; it's as if Margaret Hamilton had been given the opportunity to play romantic leads. Really dopey ending, but at least it isn't the one I thought the opening scene was clumsily foreshadowing.

Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore | USA | Competition | 66
Gotta say I've grown a little weary of Moore's signature shtick, and his self-righteous provocations are the least effective aspect of this surprisingly sober, frequently incisive examination of American gun culture. More often than not, he keeps his outsized personality in the background, letting the force of his argument (in a nutshell: the media perpetuates a cycle of violence with its unrelenting emphasis on the shocking and sordid, promoting fear in pursuit of cash) shoulder most of the film's weight. Hard not to like a movie in which Marilyn Manson comes across as far more intelligent and thoughtful than Charlton Heston; hard not to resent a movie that scores a montage of disgraceful U.S. military actions to Louis Armstrong's recording of "What a Wonderful World" (coincidentally also prominent in Marie-Jo, above; c'mon, people, don't just reach for the most obvious 45 in the collection). Hit and miss, but I cut the guy slack for saying things nobody seems to want to hear...and for charging into Toronto homes unannounced to see whether it's true that Canadians are so secure that they don't even bother locking their doors. Anyone know Skander Halim's address?...

Blissfully Yours
Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Thailand | Un Certain Regard | 54
Rating's kind of arbitrary, to be honest, and could easily rise or drop several notches in the rather unlikely event that I someday determine what the hell this movie is supposed to be about, or even just what it's trying to achieve. Not boring, just utterly baffling: bizarrely structured (the audience applauded the peppy opening credits sequence, which kicks in at roughly the one-hour mark), devoid of anything remotely resembling momentum, full of intriguing details (suggested alternate title: Moisturize Me, Baby) that never "pay off" in any traditional sense. Closing scroll suggests it's yet another doc/fiction hybrid, but I found this one considerably more arresting in its passive gaze than La Libertad, even if the final moments hint at an emotional catharsis that the movie hasn't previously done much to earn. Guess I should have hated it, really, given how little happens. Didn't, though.

The Religion Hour (My Mother's Smile)
Marco Bellocchio | Italy | Competition | 45
Provocative premise -- committed atheist learns his late mother's being considered for canonization -- proves to be merely the framework for one of those coyly allusive, maddeningly indulgent journeys of self-discovery so inexplicably beloved by Italian auteurs. (See also most of Fellini, Rosi, et al.) And could somebody over near the stereo turn down the oppressively rapturous score at the next opportunity? Grazie. Seeing it did confirm, however, that Sergio Castellitto may be the most underrated thesp alive; his physical reaction to a compliment from his son's religion teacher -- a complicated repositioning of his upper torso that somehow clearly suggests "You're altogether too kind and also kind of hot I just realized" -- is in the running for the fest's single finest moment.

Sex Is Comedy
Catherine Breillat | France | Directors' Fortnight | 42
Not in Breillat's hands it ain't, though the change of pace, however inept, is at least somewhat refreshing. Probably the most irritatingly self-aggrandizing picture since Deconstructing Harry; we're meant to marvel at how Breillat (Anne Parillaud's got the director's severe look and brusque mannerisms down pat) managed to chisel Fat Girl's bravura defloration sequence from the recalcitrant marble of a vain, passive-aggressive actor (played, significantly, by Grégoire Colin, whereas Roxane Mesquida more or less reprises her role). Attempts at humor mostly fall flat, likewise attempts at pathos; mostly of interest to Breillat's hardcore fans, who'll experience it as the cinematic equivalent of one of the Beatles' fan-club Christmas albums. Actually, I'm surprised Kevin Smith hasn't made this movie yet, now that I think about it...

Fri 17

All or Nothing
Mike Leigh | UK/France | Competition | 62
Best to get the fest's most crushing disappointment out of the way early, I suppose. Plenty of terrific moments, but this is basically Life Is Bleak, complete with (MINOR SPOILER!) a home-stretch medical emergency that opens the unhappy family's emotional floodgates. A bit demoralizing to see Leigh trafficking in grotty kitchen-sink miserabilism again after the leaps and bounds he made in the '90s; climactic tête-à-tête feels surprisingly pro forma (Spall and Manville are fine; they just don't take the scene anywhere very memorable), and a subplot about an abusive boyfriend and the girl he impregnates seems kind of pointless now that Rita Tushingham is playing grandmothers. The film's extraordinary bits -- Sally Hawkins recoiling in horror, then collapsing in shame, when her suitor displays his handiwork; Kathryn Hunter berating cabdriver Spall in Franglais for not warning her that they'd be taking a tunnel -- feel isolated, like ideas from other, unfinished scripts that got crammed into this one in an attempt to make the primary storyline/dynamic seem less ordinary. That said, if every filmmaker's misfires were this strong, life would be almost too wonderful to bear.

Carlos Reygadas C. | Mexico | Directors' Fortnight | 23
Marries the cranium-thumping pretension of Dumont to the smug, calculated exploitation of Korine; I checked out emotionally about halfway through the extended, swooping helicopter shot of the suicidal protagonist lying anguished and prone beside a dead horse with its intestines spilled out on the ground. Apparently it's been cut by 20 minutes or so since Rotterdam (by Reygadas), which can only be a good thing given the dour, self-consciously elemental way the official version plods along. Impressive handheld 16mm Scope photography held my interest for a while; soundtrack made me wonder why I don't own any Shostakovich.

Dix-sept fois Cécile Cassard
Christophe Honoré | France | Un Certain Regard | 50
Starts off promisingly, with some inspired visual conceits -- ghost of a dead husband represented by a film projected on the bedroom wall; colors shifting in the background while Godardian profiles dominate the foreground -- but Béatrice Dalle, who as far as I can tell can only do feral, loses her grip on the character once the intensity of her grief subsides, and the film's latter half comes across like warmed-over Assayas, setting Dalle in motion and cranking up loud guitar-based rock whenever the energy starts to flag (i.e., every five minutes). Note to die-hard Balibar fans: She's barely even in it; don't waste your time.

Sat 18

City of God
Fernando Meirelles | Brazil | Out of Competition | 67
Exceedingly familiar gangland material nonetheless packs a cumulative wallop, in large part because Meirelles doesn't seem to care that his fact-based story plays more or less like BuenoHombres. Vigorous direction, inventive narrative structure, strong performances across the board; suffers mostly from the aforementioned sense of déjà vu, plus a protagonist who's even more of a passive voyeur than Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous alter ego. Sure to be overpraised by some, but also sure to be unfairly dismissed by those whose knees start jerking at the first sign of the Miramax logo. Give it a chance.

The Uncertainty Principle
Manoel de Oliveira | Portugal | Competition | 36
They got this guy in Portugal. Manoel Something-or-other. Or is it. Maybe it's Guillermo. Anyway, he's got this theory: You wanna test something, you know, scientifically -- how slowly a movie can creep along, what amount of pseudo-philosophical claptrap the human brain can process before ennui sets in, why actors stand around clearly reading their lines from cue cards just off-camera instead of committing their turgid monologues to memory -- well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it...your looking puts you right to sleep. So you can't know the reality of what happened onscreen -- or what would've happened if you'd been able to keep your goddamn eyelids open. Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny entertainment-obsessed minds. They call it the Uncertainty Principle. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Ebert says the guy's onto something.

Olivier Assayas | France | Competition | 69
"Bravo!" one person shouted as the closing credits began to roll. "Piece of shit!" another opined, louder still. Thing is, they're both right. At once impossibly cool and utterly moronic, Assayas' lurid tale of corporate espionage in the world of anime and cyberporn practically has Cult Movie tattooed on its ass, but at the same time tosses in just enough credible detail about global mergers and violent entertainment to give the alt-weekly crowd a credible hook for their think-pieces. The director's elegantly restless camera style carries the film past the first few ludicrous plot twists, and indeed much of the deliberate absurdity is cherishable; there's a scene in a parking garage worthy of early Don Siegel, and Sevigny sets the screen on fire even in tentative French. Ultimately, though, Assayas is just too smart to fully commit himself to such high-class sleaze; each reel's a little less compelling than the last, and anyone who doesn't predict the shocking conclusion by the halfway point isn't paying very close attention. But you will be paying close attention, no matter how exasperated you may become. A movie like this is just too singular to ignore.

Sun 19

Punch-Drunk Love
Paul Thomas Anderson | USA | Competition | 68
Slender absurdist romantic comedy gets the full force of P.T.'s visual imagination, with every moment so spectacularly heightened that the picture's nearly over before you notice how empty and impersonal it is. Might have been more effective with an actor in the lead role; I'd hoped Anderson would reveal some hitherto unknown aspect of the Sandler psyche, but he remains one of the least expressive, least soulful, least charismatic movie stars in cinema history -- a dead-eyed, bullet-headed emotional vacuum. Doesn't much matter, though, since the comedy here emerges not from personality but from aesthetics: the precise framing, the bravura camera movements, Jon Brion's insistently percussive score, Sandler's ridiculous blue suit. Every cut a winner, and I could happily look at production stills for hours; frequently hilarious, too, albeit largely in an incredulous, how-the-hell-did-this-get-studio-funding kind of way. Think of it as P.T.'s Buffalo '66, except made by somebody who'd only seen that movie instead of somebody who'd lived it.

Ten Minutes Older -- The Trumpet
Various artists | Germany | Un Certain Regard | 57
Do these omnibus films ever amount to more than minor curiosities? Allegedly organized around the notion of time as perceptual river (per Marcus Aurelius epigram), the project basically finds seven heavyweights doing whatever the hell they want, confident that the theme is abstract and generic enough to admit any concept imaginable. Spike Lee bitches about the 2000 election; Kaurismäki tries to cram one of his features into ten minutes (doesn't work; duration's crucial); Erice offers a gorgeous but kinda pretentious series of b&w snapshots; Herzog visits a dying tribe in the Brazilian rain forest; Wenders plays with representations of hallucinogenic delirium; Chen Kaige serves up a maudlin sight gag. Only the Jarmusch piece ("Int. Trailer. Night"), in which Chloë Sevigny captures the hectic loneliness of the on-location actor with understated grace (Frederick Elmes' shimmering b&w photography doesn't hurt either), truly soars. Funny and poignant in equal measure, it's one of the most effective uses of real time since Akerman's Jeanne Dielman; don't be surprised if I declare it the festival's single finest work come next Sunday.

Divine Intervention
Elia Suleiman | France/Morocco/Germany | Competition | 67
Works beautifully as a series of deadpan, near-silent blackout sketches, but Suleiman isn't content to make his point obliquely, resorting in the second half to an increasingly risible series of dopey fantasy set pieces and sledgehammer metaphors. (The final shot -- this spoils nothing, believe me -- finds the Palestinian protagonist seated impassively before an honest-to-goodness pressure cooker.) Funny as hell, though, making its lapses into didacticism eminently forgivable; many bits seem inspired by Jacques Tati, whose Play Time I saw in glorious 70mm just prior to this screening. Mighty canny, these festival programmers...

Morvern Callar
Lynne Ramsay | UK | Directors' Fortnight | 70
Yeah, I know, 'B' is for 'Borrrrrring.' [I hadn't switched to the 100-point scale yet; the original grade for many of these films was a flat 'B'.] But is it my fault that none of the good films to date has fully lived up to its considerable promise? Thought I had at least a B+ here, what with Ramsay adding such niggling hues as joy, hope and sensuality to the palette o' despair she employed in Ratcatcher and her celebrated shorts; even the grimmer moments evince a few glints of wry humor, and long stretches of the movie are downright buoyant, capturing the carefree insouciance of a woman liberated as well as devastated by her loss. Ultimately, though, something seems to be missing -- Morvern's interior monologue, I'd wager, which apparently dominates Alan Warner's source novel. Samantha Morton's typically vivacious performance makes for captivating spackle, however, and Ramsay's confidence as a filmmaker continues to grow. Masterpiece no more than three films away, I reckon. Now accepting wagers.

Mon 20

Atom Egoyan | Canada | Out of Competition | 54
Listen carefully and you can almost hear Egoyan's labored breathing as he struggles to cram a mountain of historical exposition into his convoluted narrative framework. Of the half-dozen balls he tosses into the air at the outset, only one remains aloft throughout, viz. the rich and compelling (and to the best of my knowledge previously unexplored) subject of actors uneasy with their roles in a politically sensitive production. (Koteas and Greenwood get one magnificent scene each.) But this is Atom's Armenian picture, and by cracky it's going to address every conceivable issue surrounding contemporary Armenian-Canadians and the tyranny of history, meaning innumerable lethargic subplots and Christopher Plummer as the world's most conveniently inquisitive customs inspector. ("In order for me to determine whether these film canisters contain drugs, I'll need you to narrate the complete history of the 1915 Armenian massacre.") Being neither Turkish nor especially familiar with the event in question, I can't say whether the film qualifies as offensive or insensitive; it does seem a little thoughtless, though, for Egoyan to have used his camera as a lectern.

Waiting for Happiness
Abderrahmane Sissako | Mauritania | Un Certain Regard | 28
Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for something to happen. To be honest, my impatience with African cinema becomes more worrisome with each new film I see and can't wait to get the hell out of. Is it unconscious racism that makes these characters' lives so profoundly uninteresting to me, or are these leisurely rural fables the equivalent of the American farm pictures that also bore this unrepentant urbanite silly? I don't know, and right now I can't seem to summon the energy to think about it very hard, having OD'd on shots of colorful blankets flapping in the wind and old men trudging across endless sand dunes.

Abbas Kiarostami | France/Iran | Competition | 43
Longing to see an entire movie as shot from the viewpoint of the mini-camera installed in Truman Burbank's dashboard? Rejoice, for the digital revolution is here, destroying the careers of once-great filmmakers...not that anybody seems to have noticed. Guess all that precise framing and evocative landscape-as-psyche stuff wasn't really necessary; if you're The Great Kiarostami, all you have to do is pick two undistinguished INT. VEHICLE. [TIME] setups, gather a few non-pros and get 'em yappin' about the mundane details of their lives -- hey presto, instant masterpiece! At least A.B.C Africa included one inspired visual trope; this is just blah blah women blah suffering blah hardship blah enduring blah blah blah blah blah, captured with all the panache of a security videotape. Spontaneity between the actors makes for a handful of engaging moments (hence the passing grade), but if this kind of monotony represents the medium's future, I may be applying to the New York Review of Books before long.

David Cronenberg | Canada/UK/France | Competition | 13
When Cronenberg films go wrong, it's generally because they're too audacious or idiosyncratic for their own good, so it's startling to see his byline on a movie this incredibly...fucking...lame. One-note sub-Oedipal nonsense gets no help from Ralph Fiennes' tediously mannered performance, all incoherent mutters and Method shambling; easy to peg where it's going, too, so after a while there's nothing to do but drum your fingers on the railing (you're sitting in the front row of the Debussy balcony, for the record) and wait for the thing to plod its way to its inane conclusion. Phony and obvious from the very first shot -- it's like some film student's mediocre short padded out to feature length and basted in Production Values. How the hell did this crapfest wind up in Competition? On the whole, I think I preferred Blackwoods. [Second viewing: Not quite as exasperating this time, and I was better able to appreciate Cronenberg's formal dexterity; "one-note sub-Oedipal nonsense" still applies, however. New rating: 34]

Tue 21

Sweet Sixteen
Ken Loach | UK | Competition | 71
Interesting how these Loach/Laverty pictures can be so spontaneous from moment to moment and yet at the same time so programmatic in their overall narrative structure. Here, as in My Name Is Joe, behavioral nuance ultimately trumps sociological message-mongering, thanks largely to another superb central performance (this time by newcomer Martin Compston, who's like a grittier, less narcissistic Josh Hartnett) and to the sense of relaxed naturalism Loach brings to movies set in (or at least within easy hitchhiking distance of) his own backyard. Too clunky to fully embrace -- the dull irony of the title finds an echo in several case-you-missed-the-point bits, and the general feeling of dire inevitability is more numbing than gripping -- but also too lively and accurate to casually dismiss; it's the rare movie (Joe was another) where I found myself wishing the characters could somehow shake the plot's yoke from their grimy necks and gallivant wherever they chose.

The Last Letter
Frederick Wiseman | France | Out of Competition | 35
Wiseman does Straub/Huillet: Oh....boy. Terrific if you're up for an hour-long, utterly humorless Holocaust monologue shot in ultra-artsy black-and-white (Wiseman seems to have belatedly discovered the twin concepts of "light" and "shadow"); if not, not. That said, Catherine Samie possesses both a beautiful, time-ravaged face and (more crucially) a magnificent, full-throttle voice; if you don't share my particular set of aesthetic blinders, and are open to theater-as-film, this is probably quite moving. And at least it's short.

Glowing Eyes
Jacques Nolot | France | Un Certain Regard | W/O
Two reels of anonymous dudes having sex in a rundown porn theater was more than enough for me, thank you kindly. If your sexual orientation makes that description sound enticing, you'll probably make it to the part where the plot kicks in (there apparently is one); let me know what happens if you get a chance.

El Bonaerense
Pablo Trapero | Argentina | Un Certain Regard | 37
Mundane, molasses-paced tale of police corruption retroactively confirms the seductive power of Training Day and inspires unexpected nostalgia for the grainy plotlessness of Trapero's Crane World. Doesn't help that the lead actor's so anti-charismatic that his character's gradual metamorphosis from naïve bumpkin to apathetic bully barely registers. Title refers to the Buenos Aires Police, in case you were wondering and didn't get a press kit in your little mailbox.

About Schmidt
Alexander Payne | USA | Competition | 51
A propos de Schmaltz, more like. Payne and Taylor's forte involves locating the tender within the venal; their latest attempts the inverse, to pretty soggy effect. Some sharp, funny moments early on, most of them involving Schmidt's hilariously clueless, self-pitying correspondence with his Tanzanian foster child; it's also heartening to see the fellas so committed to representing the bland bonhomie of Omaha and other flyover towns -- there's a brief scene set in a Dairy Queen that seems to exist solely to remind us of what the people who work at Dairy Queen look like. Flip side of that coin, however, is condescension, and the movie more or less falls apart once Schmidt arrives in Denver -- trotting out ancient waterbed gags, relying more and more on "funny" Nicholson facial expressions, even prompting us to guffaw at Kathy Bates' lumpy naked bod. Reasonably entertaining while it was in front of me, but it's leaving a sour aftertaste -- and it's only been a couple of hours. Not a good sign.

Double Vision
Chen Kuo-fu | Taiwan | Un Certain Regard | W/O
Uninspired but perfectly watchable amalgam of Se7en, "The X-Files" and any number of biracial buddy-cop flicks; I bolted only because it was a midnight screening and I had to be up at 7am. Hope David Morse bought himself a very nice sports sedan with the check.

Wed 22

The Man Without a Past
Aki Kaurismäki | Finland | Competition | 59
Nothing to say about this, really -- if you know Kaurismäki, you know precisely what to expect. Same actors, same deadpan tone, same fetish for American rockabilly...and I still say it comes across like secondhand Jarmusch, mildly amusing but terminally slight. And what's the point of employing a hoary device like amnesia if you're going to neither honor nor subvert its conventions (unless "subvert" = "ignore")? Has a lot of fun moments, but I shrugged, as usual; fans should upgrade accordingly. (That's gonna be today's official catchphrase.)

Only the Strong Survive
Chris Hegedus & D A Pennebaker | USA | Directors' Fortnight | 50
Hagiographic tribute to various aging Motown/Stax recording artists strangely omits the archival footage that would have given the film some much-needed poignance -- maybe they couldn't afford it after blowing their entire wad on the music clearance. Nor do the directors (or the embarrassingly nerdy producer/narrator) think to ask Wilson Pickett or Isaac Hayes or Mary Wilson how they feel about playing to crowds composed almost exclusively -- at least on the evidence presented here -- of middle-aged white yuppies. A few stirring live performances, but that's about it; nobody's likely to mistake this for Let's Get Lost.

Russian Ark
Alexander Sokurov | Russia/Germany | Competition | 53
Surprisingly painless, given that it's basically just a supremely elegant virtual tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, shot on high-def video (looking pretty good, I must admit -- apparently DV was just an errant hiccough, the film industry's equivalent of the 8-track tape) in a single 90-minute take. Technically astonishing, both in terms of the fluidity with which Sokurov and his DP travel from room to room and in terms of the daunting physical choreography involved; occasionally quite funny, too, as the unseen filmmaker and some French marquis (don't ask; it doesn't and needn't make any sense) struggle to determine which era they're currently inhabiting. Nothing to grab hold of emotionally, and there's a longish stretch in the middle that's not appreciably different from what your Uncle Ned would capture if you let him loose in there with the same camera...but it didn't make me want to claw my face off, and when it comes to Sokurov that's pretty darn encouraging. Fans should upgrade accordingly, needless to say.

Unknown Pleasures
Jia ZhangKe | Japan/France/South Korea/China | Competition | 41
Probably not such a good idea bringing Xiao Wu back as a minor supporting character, as his occasional, all-too-brief presence serves mostly to throw the comparative opacity of the two lead dudes into bold relief. Yet another no-hope story of adolescent disaffection, lacking both the wry, understated humor of Xiao Wu and the formal playfulness of Platform; lots of TV-based references to the state of the Chinese economy and various other cultural factors, though, so those who get off on movies that serve primarily as sociological legends will have a field day with it. You hardcore Jia fans know what to do.

Thu 23

The Son
Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne | Belgium/France | Competition | 66
Yet another accomplished but fundamentally timid work, offering minor variations on material that's worked in the past -- in this case, an attenuated amalgam of Rosetta's claustrophobic handheld camerawork and La Promesse's urgent moral quandary. Never less than absorbing, but it's the latest in a disheartening series of competition films -- All or Nothing, Marie-Jo, Unknown Pleasures, Man Without a Past, Sweet Sixteen, Kedma, Divine Intervention, 10, Uncertainty Principle -- that conjure up the mental image of filmmakers clinging grimly to their creative life rafts, unwilling or unable to dogpaddle a few hundred yards and clamber onto uncharted land. (For all their wacko missteps, Demonlover and Punch-Drunk Love are looking more and more impressive in retrospect.) Which is preferable: visionary failure or ho-hum near-excellence? Thought I knew the answer to that one, but after nine days spent largely with the latter, I'm beginning to wonder...

From the Other Side
Chantal Akerman | France/Belgium | Out of Competition | 52
Turns out there are many impoverished Mexicans who would like to live in the United States, and that the United States government has taken steps to prevent them from achieving this goal. Deadly when Akerman interviews sorrowful relatives of the deceased and blandly xenophobic Americans, but the near-abstract images of border walls and fences achieve a certain elemental power. Probably would've worked better as a book of still photographs, though.

Zeki Demirkubuz | Turkey | Un Certain Regard | W/O
Bit of a hole in my schedule today, so on impulse I decided to investigate this Demirkubuz dude, since he's got not one but two pictures in UCR. Hopefully the other one possesses at least a modicum of wit, style or originality, and doesn't imagine that marital infidelity is a subject no other filmmaker has ever dared to address. Zzzzzzzz....

Gaspar Noé | France | Competition | 73
Okay, I'm awake now. Like Demonlover, a triumph of magnificent style over somewhat inane substance: The opening frontal assault could almost stand alone (ahem) as a superlative avant-garde short, but what's truly remarkable is how beautifully controlled the picture remains as its winds its way back toward a downright lyrical conclusion (although the ironies get to be a little much, frankly). Obviously it would have packed a bit more of a punch had Memento not beaten it to same, but Noé's use of the kcimmig is ultimately less like Nolan's than like Campion's in Two Friends -- a means of heightening the poignance of a fairly straightforward downward spiral. Difficult to take (anybody who thinks they could be offended and/or sickened by any fiction-based image whatsoever should stay far, far away -- that means you, Mary), but I'll argue that there's a certain integrity in choosing not to look away, and that whatever enjoyment Noé may derive from pure extremism doesn't necessarily negate said integrity -- those impulses can coexist, I think. (Similarly, it's possible to "appreciate" the movie's most harrowing sequence without "enjoying" it in any conventional sense of that word.) Wish I could mount a better intellectual defense (most people will despise this film), but in truth Noé's concept is pretty facile, if still ultimately rather moving. The picture succeeds entirely on a visceral level, grabbing you by the throat from frame one and never even loosening its grip, much less letting go; I even forgot to keep track of the reel-change marks, which happens maybe twice a year. (It's 95 minutes long, feels like 45...except when it feels like 450, that is.) At any rate, it's quite something, and quite something felt long overdue.

Fri 24

The Pianist
Roman Polanski | Poland | Competition | 44
Now, I understand that this story needs to be told again and again and again -- but really, must it be told in quite so pedestrian a fashion? (And to all those misguided souls who complained that Schindler's List focused on a Gentile rather than a Jew, I have just two deeply sarcastic words: Happy now?) Not a single inspired moment or unexpected fillip emerges from this somber Holocaust primer, directed on Oscar-bait autopilot by Polanski and populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from a contemporary Shoah seminar. "There are only 60,000 of us left," one starving ghetto Jew explains, as his compatriots visibly resist the urge to pull out a ballpoint and start taking notes. "Originally we numbered 500,000." Like, what, did the Nazis have a big McDonald's-style sign on every street corner: "Over 439,000 annihilated"? I mean jesus.

Angel on the Right
Djamshed Usmonov | Tajikistan | Un Certain Regard | 61
Strange, sardonic little flick -- the first I've seen from Tajikistan, so far as I know -- focuses on a minor thug who returns home after ten years in a Moscow prison to find both his family and his debtors eager to see him become a responsible member of the community. Starts off hilariously irreverent, then proceeds to go nowhere in particular; always interesting, though, with a singular comic rhythm and a bevy of memorable supporting characters, plus a reluctant-dad subplot that miraculously didn't make me gag. Promising. (Aside: I sat directly across the aisle from Michael Moore, who chuckled appreciatively throughout; it always cheers me to see American filmmakers behave like die-hard cinéastes, wandering into obscure Tajikistan pictures even when they're not a member of a festival jury. Good job bud. I'm rooting for you to win the Palm Door on account of everybody here hates the movies that are better than yours in my opinion.)

Im Kwon Taek | South Korea | Competition | 34
Lifeless great-man biopic plays like the South Korean Pollock, alternating between scenes of the artist in a creative frenzy and scenes of the artist in a drunken rage or stupor. Sad, too, to see a fine, charismatic actor like Ahn Sung-kee -- he played the villain in Nowhere to Hide (unless you consider the main cop to be the villain, in which case I guess he played the hero or the other villain or just that dude whose name I don't recall) -- anyway, sad to see him reduced to spouting jejune aphorisms while wearing a wispy white beard.

Sat 25

Femme Fatale
Brian De Palma | France | Out of Competition | 52
Typically stylish De Palma nonsense, notable mostly for Romjin-Stamos' audaciously vampish performance in the title role (don't know whether she can act, but the fun she's having here is infectious) and for Banderas' failed attempt to wrest the title for Most Offensive Mincing-Fag Impression from Mel Gibson, still world champion 12 years after Bird on a Wire. Bizarre to see an action set piece unfold in the very theater where you're watching it (though I doubt the Palais ladies' rooms are quite so ridiculously opulent -- translucent stalls?!?); I just wish Ryuichi Sakamoto hadn't opted to score the entire sequence with a piece that deviates just enough from Ravel's "Bolero" to be intensely distracting. Reasonably fun, but utterly hollow -- doesn't De Palma ever yearn to achieve the kind of emotional transcendence of the classics to which he so reverently alludes?

The Adversary
Nicole Garcia | France | Competition | 41
Difficult to say how we all might have responded to this had it been released a year ago, but I suspect that the existence of Cantet's far superior Time Out merely serves to clarify the precise ways in which Garcia's scrupulously fact-based (as opposed to richly imaginative) picture goes wrong. Placing undue, sensationalistic emphasis on the horrific conclusion that Cantet wisely omitted, this version of the tale views its protagonist less as a mystery to be solved (or not) than as a fuse to be lit, with Auteuil's manic depression even less of a window to the man's troubled soul than Recoing's exhausted sense of liberation. Just another true-crime drama disguised as a character study, doubly frustrating because we already know that it could have been so much more.

And Now...Ladies and Gentlemen...
Claude Lelouch | France | Out of Competition | W/O
Partly because I was hungry and tired, and partly because I figured it was all downhill from the scene where Jeremy Irons robs a bank disguised as Quentin Crisp.

Dariush Mehrjui | Iran | Un Certain Regard | 47
It's getting to the point where I want Iranian women to achieve equal rights not out of any kind of humanitarian outrage but in the hope that Iranian filmmakers will find a new subject to tackle.

If I Were the Sole Juror

Palme d'Or: Irréversible
Grand Prix: Sweet Sixteen
Jury Prize: Demonlover
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love
Actor: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves
Actress: Monica Bellucci, Irréversible
Technical Prize: Tilman Büttner, Russian Ark
Screenplay: Elia Suleiman, Divine Intervention
Camera d'Or: Intacto