The Auteurs of Unhappiness

Solondz brings his salt shaker to another open wound; Denis makes Trouble

NEARING THE END of the Cannes Film Festival, there's still nothing to compete with Abbas Kiarostami's documentary ABC Africa, the story of suffering and survival among the orphans of Uganda. The urgency of its subject matter and the eloquence of its style cut through the mental clutter of 50 hours spent staring at a screen. But la vie--and le festival--go on.

Perhaps under the theory that there's not enough suffering in the world already, director Todd Solondz continues to heap abuse on characters and audiences alike. The twist in Solondz's latest, Storytelling, is that the narrative terrorist has finally brought his critics into the frame, and even given them lines of dialogue (deliberately unflattering though they may be). A freakishly misshapen, largely despicable two-part saga of still more suburban New Jersey cretins (played by John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Paul Giamatti, and Selma Blair, among others), this one has a self-reflexive layer that places Solondz squarely in the "evolving" category of auteurs. So while he remains in the company of Neil LaBute, the perpetrator of Happiness here hints at the insufficiency of copping the reality plea--which makes me eager to reopen the case against him.

But the most striking of auteurist adaptations at Cannes have come courtesy of French director Claire Denis (Beau travail), whose Trouble Every Day is this year's Crash--partly for polarizing the Cannes audience more fiercely than anything else, and partly for serving as a classic experiment in Cronenbergian body horror. Not that the movie itself offers much orientation, generic or otherwise. Forcing the viewer to work, as usual, Denis drops us into the middle of a Parisian mystery involving murder, botany, and two of the most bizarre-looking people on the planet (Béatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo). I won't say much to spoil the surprise (shock is a better word), except to say that once Gallo's morose, migraine-suffering creep interrupts coitus with his bride (Tricia Vessey) to masturbate in the bathroom, then goes out and buys a puppy, all bets are off.

 
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