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Cannes reviews: Politics and troubled family lives in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Blue Ruin," and "Tip Top"

CANNES, FRANCE — While the red-carpet crowd at Cannes has been toasting the Coen brothers' tuneful "Inside Llewyn Davis" — you can read contributor Barbara Scharres's take here — the parallel programs have also turned a spotlight on American films. David Lowery's Sundance hit "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" showed Saturday and Sunday as a special presentation at Critics' Week, a separate festival that focuses on up-and-coming filmmakers.

The event's main location, the Miramar, is a far cry from the glitz one encounters when viewing the main slate. With creaky entrance doors and a screen that's not quite matted properly, the theater gives off the sense of a makeshift location — creating cognitive dissonance when stars like Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck take the stage.

In France, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is being called "Les Amants du Texas" — an elemental title well-suited to the film's wisp of a plot. Mara and Affleck play lovers on the wrong side of the law who are apprehended in a shootout. He's sent to prison; pregnant with their daughter, she raises the child alone. When he busts out four years later, going on the run, the movie ticks down the clock to their inevitable doomed reunion. Meanwhile, sympathetic lawman Ben Foster struggles to articulate his feelings for Mara's lonely mom.

Padded with shots of sunsets and country roads, the movie relies heavily on a woozy, lyrical style that increasingly plays like an affectation. Mara is a forceful screen presence who seems out of place in the '70s setting, while Affleck's character is little more than a moving target. Lowery, who served as an editor on this year's "Upstream Color," has a good eye, but his Malick-lite approach isn't a great fit. This plot calls for the energy of peak Sam Peckinpah.

Even so, the movie's outlaw portrait bounced pleasingly off of one of yesterday's Fortnight movies, "Blue Ruin," directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Shortly after we meet him, an unshaven vagrant (Macon Blair) knives a just-released convict in a men's room. Over the course of his spectacularly inept getaway, a back story comes into focus. Suffice it to say this is another movie that imagines contemporary America as a new Wild West — or at least the potential setting for a modern Hatfields–McCoys feud. Laced with dark humor (the protagonist struggles to attend to his gushing wounds without visiting a hospital), this mildly glib thriller also has a hot-button point to make. It's quite clear the body count would be lower if these characters had fewer guns.

Mordant comedy and social commentary also make for strange mix in the French comedy "Tip Top," directed by Serge Bozon, a practicing film critic here in Gaul. Art house aficionados may recall his "La France" (2007), an unclassifiable World War I fable that features Sylvie Testud in drag, spontaneous Beatles-like sing-alongs, and the kind of oblique editing one associates with Robert Bresson.

"Tip Top," showing in the Fortnight, is even wackier. Isabelle Huppert plays an internal-affairs detective assigned to uncover which of her fellow police officers ratted out a murdered Algerian informant. The mystery segues into buddy comedy with Huppert's dowdy new partner (Sandrine Kiberlain) and tangents involving their kinky personal lives. While Huppert's bad-cop routine is a hoot, broad jokes involving voyeurism and giant bruises acquired during rough sex coexist uneasily with the movie's ostensibly serious commentary on Algerian life in France.

At the Q&A, Bozon said through a translator that he never wanted the audience to feel too comfortable with the movie's actors or its tone. Still, he said, "My first impulse is not to disconcert the audience. It's to please them." Mission intermittently accomplished.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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