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Cannes #6: Year of the quiet film

Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and director Jim Jarmusch at the Cannes press conference for their film "Broken Flowers."

CANNES, France -- Although "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" was wall-to-wall action, some of the best films at Cannes this year have been very, very quiet.

Consider "Broken Flowers," by Jim Jarmusch, starring Bill Murray as a man who "made some money in computers" and now finds himself sitting in perfect stillness in the middle of his sofa, listening to music and not really listening to it. His hand reaches out to pick up a glass of white wine, and then he thinks better of it. Better just to sit.

Murray plays Don, and he is well-named; as his latest girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves, she tells him he's a Don Juan, always has been, always will be, is incapable of marriage. Then he receives an anonymous letter. It informs him that about 20 years ago, he had a son he was never told about. Now, the letter says, the son wants to find his father and may come knocking on the door.

Who could the mother be? Don's next-door neighbor is Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who holds down three jobs to support his wife and five kids, but has time to be a Sherlock Holmes on the computer. Starting with a list of every lover Don can recall from 20 years ago, Winston plots out a journey for Don to take: airline tickets, MapQuest directions to his lovers' homes, everything.

Don sets out stoically to visit each of the candidates: a widow (Sharon Stone) whose husband died in a car race "in a wall of flame." A real estate agent (Frances Conroy) who sells prefabricated mid-level luxury. An "animal communicator" (Jessica Lange) who discovered she could hear animals talking. ("Is he saying something?" Don asks about her cat. "He's saying you have a hidden agenda.") And a tough broad (Tilda Swinton) whose lawn is decorated with rusting cars and motorcycles in various stages of repair.

Does he find the mother of his son? Is there a mother? Is there a son? Not really the point. The point is the Bill Murray performance, and the six kinds of counterpoint provided by the women and Winston the neighbor. Murray has often worked by withholding emotion, by inviting us to imagine what he's thinking behind a protective facade. Curiously, his technique can be more emotionally effective than any degree of emoting. In "Lost in Translation," his loneliness and emotional need were communicated in the silences between the words. In "Broken Flowers," he communicates with even less apparent effort, all the more difficult because, as I neglected to mention, the movie is a comedy -- or in any event, a serious personal quest during which the audience finds itself laughing a lot.

Some actors give the kinds of performances where we want to get out of the room, stand on the lawn and watch them through a window. Murray has the uncanny ability to invite us into his performance, into his stillness and sadness. I don't know how he does it. A Bill Murray imitation would be a pitiful sight: Passive immobility, small gestures of the eyes, enigmatic comments, yes, those would be easy, but how does he suggest the low tones of crashing chaotic uncertainty?


More quiet films and journeys: Cyndi Williams is at the center of Kyle Henry's "Room," shown in the Directors' Fortnight, as a dumpy but sweet-faced Houston woman who begins to have blackouts and strange visions of overlit warehouses and abstract patterns. She's a hard worker, always on the run: working at a bingo parlor, delivering Yellow Pages, anything. Money is short, and there are no presents for Christmas. For no reason she can understand, she steals some money, gets on a plane, flies to New York and wanders the streets, an innocent compelled to search for ... what?

Henry describes the movie as "sort of science fiction." Maybe it's about alien abduction, without the aliens or the abduction. Maybe it's about a mental state that causes people to believe they are receiving messages and summonses, even when they're not.What distinguishes the deliberately aimless plot is the performance by Williams, who looks every inch and ounce a real person. She is so earnest, so focused, so worried.


And another quiet film and a journey. Francois Ozon, who made the art-house hit "Swimming Pool" two years ago, is back in the official competition with "The Time That Remains," starring Melvil Poupaud as a gay photographer who discovers he has three months to live. He, too, goes on a solitary quest that involves parents who understand him better than he deserves, a sister he fights with for no good reason and finally the grandmother he feels closer to than anyone else in his life. Jeanne Moreau plays the grandmother, with such tact, depth and tenderness, she distinguishes the whole film by her attention to it.


Two films I've written about from other festivals are having considerable success here. Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," from Sundance 2005, is about Tim Treadwell, a man who spent his summers wandering unarmed among the grizzly bears of Alaska, thinking of them as his friends. All except for the one who ate him. Herzog employs 90 hours of Treadwell's own video footage to create a portrait of a strange and trusting man.

And Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane," from Telluride 2004, stars Damian Lewis as a schizophrenic who is sometimes functional and logical, sometimes torn with anguish. He believes his daughter has been abducted. Perhaps he is right. It is true enough in his own mind. There is one astonishing sequence during which, while he seems rational, he is entrusted with the care of a small girl. He wants to protect her and does not want to harm her, and wages a fearful struggle with the demons who might make him a danger to her.


All of these films have something in common: They are nourishing to the human spirit. They challenge the intelligence, they engage the emotions in a worthy way, they are curious about this business of being alive. When you come to Cannes, you feel like the Animal Communicator. You can hear the movies talking to you.

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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