CANNES, France -- Films are booed at Cannes for two reasons: Because they are bad, or because they are infuriating. Those in the second category are likely to be quite good, although they make you so mad, you have to step back and cool off to appreciate their qualities.
Consider "Dancer In The Dark," the new film by Danish rebel Lars Von Trier. It is the most debated film at Cannes this year, and it was roundly booed at its first screening Wednesday morning. Does that make it bad? No. Will it drive you nuts? Without question.
The film is set in America and filmed in English, on locations suggesting a Southern factory town in the 1950s. But two of the leading characters are Europeans; rock singer Bjork plays the lead, a young mother who operates a punch press, even though she is going blind. Catherine Deneuve, usually seen in elegant roles, plays her best friend, and is quite effective, albeit as the most beautiful punch-press operator in movie history.
Von Trier is one of the authors of Dogma 95, the cinematic vow of chastity. True to its tenets, "Dancer in the Dark" includes vertiginous photography with a hand-held camera that swishes back and forth from one actor to another like a home movie. Then the drab video look is replaced on several occasions by a more saturated film look, as the movie bursts into song with musical numbers set on a railroad bridge, the factory floor and even Death Row.
Yes, the Bjork character goes to prison, in a plot which seems lifted directly from the broadest silent melodrama. She saves money to pay for an operation that will prevent her son from also going blind, and after many complications, there is the first trial sequence I have ever seen in which the defense attorney says not one word.
Scarcely a moment in the movie is believable on a realistic level, but it contains great emotional truth. Scarcely a shot does not distract from its content, and yet somehow the content gathers force. The style is maddening, and yet a conventional "well made" movie could not have the same effect. I wanted to applaud and boo at the same time. That is a compliment.
It also is a compliment to his film that "Dancer In The Dark" kept me awake every single second, since I had attended the 12:30 a.m. screening of Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," got to sleep at 3 a.m. and had to get up again at 7 to attend the von Trier. (The festival is a sleep-deprivation marathon that turns into a requiem for everyone's dreams.)
The Aronofsky film is a favorite of the midnight-screening crowd, although I found it less challenging than his brilliant first work, "Pi." It stars Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans as young heroin addicts, and has one of the festival's best performances by Ellen Burstyn, as Leto's mother. The downward spiral into addiction has been seen before, but the movie's style is riveting.
Willem Dafoe creates another of the festival's most memorable performances in "Shadow of a Vampire," a film by E. Elias Merhige about the making of F.W. Murnau's silent classic "Nosferatu" (1923). That film, which essentially gave birth to the vampire film genre, was centered on a profoundly creepy performance by Max Schreck as the vampire. In the new film, we learn that Schreck was not a Method actor but, in fact, actually a vampire.
"Tabou," by the Japanese master Nagisa Oshima, is set in 1865, inside the camp of a samurai militia unit thrown into upheaval by the recruitment of an extraordinarily beautiful boy as a new warrior. The samurai chief of staff (played by Japanese director Takeshi Kitano) observes that even his superior is stirred by the boy's appearance, and muses "he does not lean that way." Many of the samurai do, but this is not a "gay film." Instead, it's an unfolding mystery with suspense and dry wit. (The festival joke is that the U.S. title should be "Not to Ask, Not to Tell.")