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Audience reacts with confusion, anger to Lars Von Trier film

CANNES, France--The so-far disappointing 2003 Cannes Film Festival stirred from its torpor over the weekend with sex, violence and dogma. This being Cannes, dogma got the most attention, as Lars Von Trier, a founder of the minimalist Dogma movement, unveiled his three-hour "Dogville." This is one of the most confounding and exasperating films of the festival, and maybe it is brilliant, but I will not be able to determine that until I have recovered from the ordeal of sitting through it.

If it is brilliant, it is the kind of brilliance only the most evolved of filmgoers will want to experience. Imagine "Our Town" as a gangster-Western-feminist avant-garde experiment in which (I think but am not sure) the message is that fascists will win out every time over do-gooder liberals.

At the midpoint of the festival, "Dogville" is probably the front-runner for the Palme d'Or, which says something about the weak level of entries this year. My personal favorite, the Iranian film "At 5 O'Clock in the Afternoon," will probably pick up a prize, and it's possible that Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," inspired by the Columbine massacre, will win something.

"Elephant" received a standing ovation after its official black-tie screening, but also received a scathing review from Variety's Todd McCarthy ("pointless at best and irresponsible at worst"). It is a low-key, uninflected record of two high school students who methodically kill classmates and teachers, in scenes that seem modeled on Columbine news footage. No motives are offered or messages arrived at--and in a way that is appropriate, because to try to "explain" Columbine in the usual screenwriting terms would be pointless at best, if not irresponsible at worst. I think Van Sant simply intends to watch, and invite us to watch with him, this chilling and inexplicable tragedy.

Bertrand Bonello's "Tiresia," an official selection from France, may win no prizes and indeed be denounced as lurid and melodramatic, but it held my attention from beginning to end, as did "Elephant" but as did not "Dogville." It is based on the Greek myth of Tiresia, who (Bonello's notes inform us) was both a man and a woman, blinded but then made clairvoyant.

That is also what happens to the title character, a Brazilian transvestite prostitute picked up in Paris by a man who keeps her locked up for weeks--and then, when the lack of hormones causes her femininity to fade, blinds her and dumps her by a road. Ah, but there is much more, as Tiresia is found by a young girl and nursed back to health, only to inspire another tragedy and what might best be explained as a virgin birth. Bonello makes Tiresia look completely convincing as both a man and a woman, by the admirable logic of casting both a woman and a man in the role.

But back to "Dogville." Imagine an opening shot of a tiny mining town in the Rockies, seen from above as chalk outlines in the floor of a sound stage. The white marks create the "houses" of the characters, who are permitted a few props in their rooms. Sound effects contribute opening doors, ringing bells, barking dogs, etc.

To this town comes a fugitive named Grace (Nicole Kidman), pursued by gangsters (led by James Caan) who drive 1930s cars, wear fedoras and pack machineguns. Tom (Paul Bettany), who is the town Everyman, hides Grace in the abandoned mine shaft (five wooden arches on the stage floor), and later introduces Grace to the town, which is at first suspicious, then accepting, and then, when the gangsters seem about ready to return, disloyal.

A narrator functions uncannily like the Stage Manager in "Our Town," introducing everyone, telling us where they live and commenting on their activities. The large cast is distinguished (Ben Gazzara, Blair Brown, Philip Baker Hall, Stellan Skarsgard, Harriet Andersson, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Jean-Marc Barr, Lauren Bacall), but they speak as if afraid of being overheard, and live in a dim light that makes the whole movie hushed and murky and very, very long.

Tom represents the face of ineffectual liberalism, and if the gangsters represent fascism, then the ending suggests that force and violence will win out over humane ideas, every time.

The ending is brutal, abrupt and cruel. The same unblinking cruelty is seen in "Tiresia" and "Elephant." All three films inspired walkouts right after particularly cruel moments, and while I have seen a lot of violence over the years at Cannes, I cannot remember many films that seemed so pitiless and unredeeming. Is the message that there is no hope?

I've seen 10 other films so far at the festival, but perhaps, after this report of films of woe, I should close with Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool," another official entry, from France but mostly in English. It returns us to the more genteel tradition of the British country house murder, in this case starring Charlotte Rampling as a mystery writer who vacations in her publisher's home in France, there encounters the publisher's oversexed daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) and finds herself in a web of sex and, yes, murder--followed, in the British tradition, with much about gardening tools and the disposal of the body.

There are surprises in "Swimming Pool," enormous ones, with a real doozy at the end. The film sets up apparent paradoxes that had the critics debating it all day; what's refreshing is that it deals with murder in the ancient tradition of Agatha Christie, in which there are plots and clues and stuff like that, while the other three films stare unblinkingly into the face of evil.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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