Greetings from Cannes, where, as in past years, I'm planning to draw attention to some of the festival's off-the-beaten-track titles, which I refer to collectively as "Alterna-Cannes." My colleague Barbara Scharres tends to stick to the official selection, which includes the competition for Palme d'Or and the sidebar known as Un Certain Regard. That's more than enough to keep anyone occupied for a solid month of movie-going, let alone a frenzied, two-week event where getting even half a night's sleep often means skipping an enticing prospect.
Admittedly, this year' s competition (which includes formidable films from Maren Ade, Alain Guiraudie, and Cristi Puiu and still-to-screen movies by Andrea Arnold, Olivier Assayas, the Dardenne brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Paul Verhoeven, among others) is one of the most exciting in recent years. Yet it's my firm belief that hewing to the heavyweights means missing some of the festival’s biggest highlights. In past years, "My Golden Days," "Green Room," "Arabian Nights," "It Follows" and "The Kindergarten Teacher" all played in parallel festivals, run by groups that compete with the main event’s programmers to nab the most noteworthy filmmakers.
One of the these parallel programs is Directors' Fortnight, founded in 1969 in the wake of the May 1968 riots as an edgier alternative to the ostensibly bourgeois programming of Cannes. There's also an older program, Critics' Week, which sticks to first and second features, and ACID (pronounced "ah-seed"), a parallel fest that I would wager most of the press corps doesn't even know about.
So far, the critical favorite from these non-undercard undercard programs appears to be "Neruda," the latest film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, who in 2012 took Cannes by storm with "No," a movie that many critics felt was worthy of competing for the Palme. "Neruda" is another work that draws on historical events. It's based on the hunt for Chilean poet-turned-senator Pablo Neruda, who in the late 1940s went into hiding after being faced with arrest by the repressive government for his membership in the Communist party.
"Neruda" envisions this hunt as a cat-and-mouse pursuit, in which a hedonistic and not exactly low-profile Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is chased by a dogged, Javert-like detective (Gael García Bernal), who gets creative in his methods. Like most of Larrain's films—the director's first appearance in the Fortnight was with "Tony Manero" (2008), a demented and darkly comic allegory in which a man went to obsessive lengths to win a John Travolta impersonation contest—it is structurally sprawling and sometimes seems to be making up its narrative rules as it goes along.
It's suggested that the inspector, who also serves as the film's quasi-reliable narrator, is the man Neruda would have written to chase himself, but these metafictional fillips play as more of a gambit to shake things up than a way of paying homage to Neruda, the writer, whom the movie never really invests with the sort of specificity you expect from a biographical film. (As told, "Neruda" could almost as easily be about any famous figure targeted by political persecution.) Larrain's well-appointed, dynamically shot procedural is a movie of interesting conceits that never coalesce into a satisfying whole. Even so, Larrain did introduce the screening with a statement that could easily be a festival motto (and should serve as a model of economy for directorial introductions everywhere): "This is a movie. Have a great time."