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A letter from Chaz

• Chaz Ebert at Cannes

Dear Roger: "We were once indivisible from every atom in the cosmos," and that is how I feel when I am sitting in the Palais watching movies at Cannes with a screen spread out as wide as the galaxy, the audience circling around like protons and neutrons breathing as one in empathy.

It is so good to be back under the midday sun taking in the ideas of movies from far and wide. But I notice a trend this year: the films in the Competition are more accessible than previous years. Instead of pondering our navels in the transcendental state achieved while watching the gorgeous and meditative "Tree Of Life," we are plunged into a world of gangsters, Sugar Mamas, beatniks, bare knuckle brawlers and Romanian nuns fighting the devil.

My favorite film so far, however, is not in Competition but in Un Certain Regard: "Beasts of the Southern Wild," a magical realism coming-of-age fable set in the bayou. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, it opens on the beautiful face of an androgynous child named Hush Puppy with a sun-bleached afro. The image was so foreign I thought it was Australia, but it's actually Louisiana in a fictional spot called The Bathtub, before Hurricane Katrina opens the levees.

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We are shown a fantasy world of home-schooled children eating crawdaddies straight from the river, and the brave little warrior child gathering the animals to be fed, and of people of all races living together in rusted boats and alcohol-stocked tin houses. They constitute a community that they don't want to abandon, not even after the storm.

One of the most poignant but haunting scenes was the children being cradled by prostitutes on the floating brothel boat, each fulfilling the other's need to be a parent or to be parented. I love this movie, loved meandering with it through every scene. Loved the cadence of Hush Puppy's father's speech as he taught her to navigate the new world a-coming. Loved the narrative, reminiscent of early Terrence Malick. And loved the way I never knew what was coming next.

I also liked Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone,"starring Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer at a Sea Worl- like marineland who loses her legs in an accident. You would think that would be the main thrust of the story, but it doesn't wallow there in self-pity; instead it shows her embarking on a relationship with a bouncer who moonlights as a bare-knuckled boxer. The bouncer, played by Matthias Schoenaerts ("Bullhead"), is mostly unemployed and finds himself trying to raise his 5 year-old son.

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Schoenaerts' character is a brute. He loves his son but doesn't know how to be tender with him. He perhaps loves his sister, but hasn't seen her for many years and doesn't exactly seem overjoyed to be reunited with her. But he has nowhere to go and has to bring his son to live with her. His relationship with Cotillard is also mostly without tenderness, but one suspects that what she needs in her recovery is someone who doesn't pity her, and he doesn't. They also have hot sex, something she did not contemplate after the loss of her limbs.

Audiard's film is muscular and brutal, and the plot points can be about as subtle as Schoenaerts' fists, but I liked this film, and liked watching its characters dance around the improbable details while they found their hearts.

Another film with lots of sex is Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Love." It is the first in a trilogy ("Paradise: Love," "Paradise: Faith," and "Paradise: Hope"), with the beginning film set in Kenya. Middle-aged Austrian women, fat and bored, go on vacation to Kenya and try to duplicate men behaving badly. They hook up with virile young Kenyan men and pay to make them their love-toys. The Kenyans call them "Sugar Mamas."

The lead character starts out a bit turned off by this process. She is looking for companionship rather than sex--for someone who wants her for herself. But as she gets more and more involved in the pragmatic reality of the process you see her venal interests become more deviant and demanding until she is not the same woman who arrived at the resort. She becomes rough and rude, and finds out she is still as much alone as ever.

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This film is still swirling around in my head and I don't know what I think about it. Some of it was offensive, with the women describing the young African men in supposedly complimentary language, but in actuality in terms that were racist and insensitive.

It should be liberating to see women take sexual control for a change. But I found myself cringing at some of the scenes and thinking that it was as degrading here as it would be for men to be taking advantage of young uneducated girls in Thailand. To be sure, the men were not minors and saw this as a hustle and a way to make money for their families. Perhaps it was the seeming inequality in the economic status or the cultural differences, but it just didn't feel right. Whatever that means.

What did feel "right" was watching the liberation of those bodies on the screen. The zaftig ladies, with stretch marks and hanging bellies and all, reveled in their sexuality! They acknowledged that for the first time they were not worrying about how they looked or whether they were good enough. They didn't make love in the dark, or offer excuses for their aging bodies. They presented themselves just they way they were and allowed themselves to be courted as beautiful and desirable. So what if they paid to hear it? On vacation they didn't have to fear rejection or compete with younger, thinner women for affection.

We are so used to our culture of youth and beauty that women constantly beat themselves up over their looks, their weight, their ages, their clothes, their hair, and so forth. Even Aishwarya Rai, the Indian actress who was once voted the most beautiful woman in the world (Miss World), is currently the subject of internet gossip because she dared to gain weight after having a baby. How refreshing to have the actresses exhibit those bodies unselfconsciously, and have Seidl present them almost tauntingly and dare us to look away. So whatever else I may think of the film, on that I am clear.

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This is the 65th birthday of the Cannes Film Festival, and the iconic black and while symbol is a picture of Marilyn Monroe blowing out a candle on a cake. Someone has said that is ironic since she never attended the festival, yet her image appears here over and over.

Ann Curry of the Today Show opened the American Pavilion with a ribbon cutting and acknowledged the Roger Ebert Conference Center where seminars on all aspects of filmmaking are held right here on the beachfront. There is so much here that reminds me of you. I walk around Cannes with your commentary from Two Weeks In The Midday Sun (the best and most enjoyable book about being at the film festival in my objective opinion) running through my head. I can't go near the fish market without looking for the little shop where you had coffee and read your newspaper. Or not think of you when I go to La Pizza.

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Madame Cagnat and her staff at the Hotel Splendid greeted me with a plate of the most artfully arranged strawberries, but they looked sincerely sad that you were not here. However, she sympathized with your hurt back and understood why you could not sit immobilized on the plane for over 10 hours. She says sends her regards and says she will hold our regular room for when you come back next year.

Ken Turan of the Los Angeles Times said Cannes is not the same without you. The economy must be on an upswing because I saw so many of our friends from newspapers and online blogs: There was Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune, and Manohla Dargis from the New York Times; Anne Thompson and Eric Kohn from IndieWire, and Peter Howell, Bruce Kirkland and Brian Johnson from the major Toronto papers, as well as David Poland, visiting for the first time, from Movie City News. There was Dereck Malcolm from the London Standard, no doubt ready to put his system of being a bookie for the Palme D'Or winners to the test, and our buddy Baz Bambogoye from the Daily Mail of London.

I miss the passionate discussions you usually held with your fellow critics as we stumbled out of the darkened theaters into the blare of the midday sun. Who can forget your outrage over the Brown Bunny, and how it sparked a cry that was heard around the world?

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I am wondering what you will think of Christian Mungiu's film, "Beyond The Hills." It is set in the hills in a Romanian convent, where a young novitiate is visited by an old friend from her orphanage. The aggressive and very secular outsider wants to take her friend away with her, but becomes increasingly strident and jealous of God's hold over the nun. They eventually become convinced that the visitor is possessed and needs an exorcism. There is a strong hint of a sexual attraction at the orphanage in the past, and intimations that the outsider's bad behavior may be tinged with a sexual desire that dare not say its name. When the two friends first reunite at the train station, the visitor hugs the nun and hangs on so tight and long that the nun pulls away. Whenever the nun quotes scripture the outsider tries to remind her of how close they once were.

I admired the movie's earnest treatment of the nuns' faith and the respect it accords their sincere belief that someone in their midst is being manipulated by Satan himself. The tragedy of the true story that inspired this movie is that perhaps a soul was saved, but the patient was lost. And there were arrests made. The movie doesn't go as far as arrests. It is very long (it could do without a good half-hour of repetitions), but very well done..Mungiu's previous film was "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," the powerful story about an illegal abortion in Romania.

Five of the 22 official films competing for the Palme D'Or are either by American directors or with American-themed characters. And while we don't have films this year by festival (and my) favorites Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, we do have Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg, Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach.

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Jeff Nichols, the talented director of "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter" is back at Cannes with his third film, "MUD." (His first two films were featured at Ebertfest, where Nichols told us that Michael Shannon, who played intensely dramatic roles in his earlier films, brings comic relief to "Mud.") Shannon plays alongside Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon.

The festival opened with Wes Anderson's quirky and well-received, "Moonrise Kingdom," a sweet coming-of-age story about first love. It stars newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as 12-year-old misfits who fall in love and run away to live together in the forest. Mannered and filmed like scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings, it precisely takes you into the world and emotions of these chastely fevered young lovers and reminds you just how strong and romantic is the first blush of love.

Anderson and his screenwriter, Roman Coppola, joined the cast including Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman on the red carpet and at a press conference. Frances McDormand also anchors the movie but was not able to make it to the conference.

Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman have been in most Wes Anderson movies, starting with "Bottle Rocket," and they said working on a Wes Anderson movie has a feeling of community. There are no trailers on his sets, even for movie stars like Bruce Willis; everyone is together. Tilda Swinton likened it to being invited to a wedding, and Edward Norton said it felt like the Orson Welles Mercury Theatre troupe.

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Another American director in Competiton is Lee Daniels, with "The Paperboy." Daniel's previous film, "Precious" debuted at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. "The Paperboy's" plot involves death row, danger, deceit, seduction and betrayal, the usual Lee Daniels elements. (Remember his pairing of Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "Shadowboxer"? A true guilty pleasure.) "The Paperboy" cast includes Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, and Macy Gray. It will screen soon.

The two American gangster movies in Competiton are, ironically, by foreign directors. "Lawless," by Australian director John Hillcoat, is based on the true story of the infamous bootlegging Bondurant Brothers during prohibition in Virginia. It was inspired by the novel The Wettest County in the World written by Matt Bondurant about his family. Tom Hardy, Jack Clarke and Shia LaBouef play the bootlegging brothers. Hardy plays the older brother who runs the operation, and projects mean like its in his DNA. He played the bulked up kick boxer in "Warrior" and in that role as well there was a feral quality to his character. His pairing with Jack Clarke is inspired.

Shia LaBoeuf plays the younger Bondurant brother who has to find his place in the family over time. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska round out an interesting cast, but they are not given much to do. Still, Jessica Chastain melts into her role as the damaged woman looking for a bit of peace and quiet in the hills. A former feather dancer who leaves Chicago abruptly, she has a line that says it all. When Hardy asks why she wants to come work for them out in the boondocks, she says, "The City has a way of grinding a girl down."

Hillcoat's previous films are "The Proposition," and "The Road." This, like "The Proposition," was written by Nick Cave. The filmmakers did a good job of recreating period details. And Guy Pearce's character, a dandy federal agent from Chicago, is eccentric, but memorable. Pearce is always good and finds a way to make his characters stand out. But this character with his jet black oddly cut hair, absence of eyebrows and wearing of leather gloves in the summer is different, wherever he goes. .. Nick Cave said this period of Prohibition can provide some lessons for us today in the war on drugs.

New Zealand director, Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward John Ford") brings more gangsters to the fest in "Killing Them Softly," starring Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelshohn in a modern, stylized tale of revenge. Two petty criminals rob the poker playing establishment owned by Liotta. But the junkie played by Ben Mendelshohn can't keep his mouth shut and before you know it they are being stalked for the money.

The Hollywood Reporter has a big fun glossy Cannes Issue, and one of the articles in it is Todd McCarthy's interview of you about the wild past of the fest. Today there may not be starlets jumping nude in the ocean, but we are still being given stories of young love and old love and passion and feelings and ideas that make life worth living. Thank you for introducing me to this world. Now I just want you to hurry back to it.      

Photo at top by ABC News Australia.

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