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Cannes #5: Luster & its lack

CANNES, France – There are entries that have been liked and even loved, but the 2006 Cannes Film Festival reaches its halfway mark looking like a fairly lackluster year. Only Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” a high-spirited memory inspired by his childhood in La Mancha, has been embraced by critics and audiences. “Volver” means “to return,” and resembles in its exuberant nostalgia Fellini’s “Amarcord” (“I Remember”).

Other warmly received films have included Ken Loach’s "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," a story of the Troubles in Ireland that centers on the ruthless finality with which the IRA enforced its codes, Nicole Garcia’s “Charlie Says,” a French film in which a young boy is the witness and connection between several interlocking stories, and Andrea Arnold’s “Red Road,” unseen by me, a British film about a woman whose job, watching public surveillance cameras, leads her to an unexpected discovery. Every year there is a film that everyone tells me I should not have missed, and in 2006 “Red Road” is apparently that film.

Outside the official competition, enormous enthusiasm has been generated by “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary with Al Gore citing alarming facts and terrifying trends about global warming. No, it doesn’t sound thrilling. Take my word for it: It is. The director Davis Guggenheim, who has worked mostly in TV and is not particularly political, finds a way to present Gore, his information, and some sensational graphics on a 100-foot screen in a way that begins with a lecture and gives it the impact of a concert of ideas. “An Inconvenient Truth” opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and a week later in Chicago and other major markets. I’ll write more about it later.

Another sensation here is “Shortbus,” the long-awaited, much-rumored explicit erotic film from John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”). It’s an official selection, playing out of competition. Yes, there’s hard-core sex in this film (gay, straight, solo, amateur, professional and all of the above). But you couldn’t call it a hard-core film.

It just doesn’t feel like one, and despite all the genitals on the screen it doesn’t try to be one; it’s not about sex but about sexuality, not about scoring but about living, and at its center is a remarkable performance by Sook-Yin Lee as Sofia, a sex therapist (“I prefer the term Couples Counselor”) whose search for her own first orgasm leads her into the gay, bi, trans and S&M underworld of New York. It is a world that seems so gentle and friendly in this film that I overheard a strange comment afterwards, “This is the first time New York has seemed Canadian.”

Surveying the festival on its sixth day, Cannes veteran Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, told me, “This is the first year I can remember when there seem to be more interesting films in the marketplace than in the competition.”

Although he prudently didn’t name names, one of those (according to me) is “Look Both Ways,” an Australian film that already playing in America. Sarah Watt’s film involved interlocking stories about victims and survivors, locked together in guilt and hopeful romance.

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is set in Ireland in the early 1900s, during the Irish Republican Army’s war against British occupation. Cillian Murphy stars, as a young doctor who abandons his career to join the IRA, becomes involved in the merciless struggle with brutal British troops, and is forced into agonizing decisions and actions when the IRA enforces discipline by executing some of its members; friends are required to shoot friends. The film leads up to a historic truce negotiated by the IRA and the British, and its rejection by the IRA rank and file, who consider it a sell-out. That turning point may have lead to violence that continued until very recent years. For Ken Loach, who often deals with working-class people and political issues, this is an unblinking, involving, sad story of heroism that no one feels very good about. Murphy “Breakfast on Pluto”) could be a candidate for a best actor award.

Nicole Garcia’s French entry “Charlie Says” stars Jean-Pierre Bacri, an actor who usually embodies middle-aged machismo (as in “Look at Me”). Here he plays the lonely and clueless mayor of a small town on the French Atlantic coast. He’s having an affair with a young local municipal worker; a onetime anthropologist (Benoit Magimel) has left that career to hide out as a local science teacher; his alienated Finnish wife (Minna Haapkyla) is having an affair; his famous mentor (Patrick Pineau) discovers him and challenges him to return to his former life; and there are subplots involving a tennis champion in crisis and an incompetent small-time thief. All of these stories are drawn together by young Charlie (Ferdinand Martin), who knows his father is having an affair with the wife of his teacher. Interlocking plots have become increasingly popular in recent years; sometimes they’re simply a tricky gimmick, but sometimes they work, and in “Charlie Says” the connections do pay off in insights about the characters.

The greatest disappointment so far this year is an easy choice: “Southland Tales,” the much-anticipated new film by Richard Kelly, whose “Donnie Darko” inspired much enthusiasm. This one is a “fiasco,” writes Variety’s Todd McCarthy, and he is not being unkind, only truthful.

Running an unendurable 161 minutes, it’s an apocalyptic mess set in Los Angeles of the near future, where “neomarxists” and other neos, all of whom seem like retro retreads from the 1960s, stage an incomprehensible revolution. There’s an all-star cast, headed by The Rock, Sarah Michelle Geller, Mandy Moore, Wallace Shawn, Justin Timberlake, and Janeane Garofolo, who plays a uniformed general who stands inside a bookstore on Venice Beach and has inexplicable telephone conversations for obscure purposes with unestablished characters she never seems to meet.

Another disappointment, but on a higher level, was Nanni Moretti’s official entry “Il Caimano,” in which a onetime horror film director (Silvio Orlando) attempts a comeback with a first-time writer director (Jasmine Trinca). He hasn’t quite read or understood her screenplay, which is an unconcealed attack on the controversial Italian political figure and sometime government leader Silvio Berlusconi. The movie begins as a comedy about making movies, meanders, and ends uncertainly with scenes from the angry indictment they end up making.

Still ahead, I guess or hope, are most of the films that (in addition to “Volver” and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley") will be among the winners on closing night.

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