Cannes's Killer Movies

Competition was brutal at the world's most cutthroat film festival

Cannes, France--

A British movie producer stands in front of an empty screen to introduce his latest merchandise and flatter its potential buyers: "The film is young, sexy, dangerous, and beautiful," he says, "like so many of you here tonight."

Oui, monsieur: It's Cannes, swankiest film fest in the world--so of course we look hot. What's vastly more surprising is not only that this huckster would be correct in his description of the movie he's trying to sell, but that said movie--young, sexy, dangerous, and beautiful, indeed--would have been written and directed by a man in his 70s. More surprising still: The septuagenarian's name is Woody Allen--maker of Anything Goes and at least a dozen other embarrassments in the decades since his last great film.

The searing intelligence of Allen's Match Point--about a young and sexy tennis instructor (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who turns dangerous after falling for a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) who's not his wife (Emily Mortimer)--is easily the most unexpected thing I've encountered in eight years of attending this essential but not often astounding festival. Frankly, I chose sleep over the press screening of Allen's latest, his first film shot and funded outside the US, and would have gladly skipped it entirely had a trusted colleague not told me it was a masterpiece. Essentially An American Tragedy in London (or Woody Does Dreiser?), the movie has little to do with the writer-director's massive oeuvre unless you believe that Isaac Davis, Allen's jealous lover in Manhattan, really did try to run his ex's girlfriend over with the car. Match Point's wicked serve at the start of the third set isn't just a violent repudiation of Allen's "heart wants what it wants" apologia, but a well-timed allegory--his first ever, by my count--of what the fest's hardworking security officials referred to as the "international situation."

Signs of that situation and the resulting angst were everywhere at Cannes this year, least strikingly in the "bomb scare" (i.e., an unattended satchel) that brought sniffing dogs to the Palais des Festivals, or the regularly long lines of festival pass holders impatiently awaiting metal detection. Where the real unease accrued was onscreen. At fest's end, whereupon the Palme d'Or went to a film about a Belgian teen who sells his infant son like a bag of weed, I made a list of the elements that more than half the movies I'd seen had in common. Here it is: guilt, fear, envy, anger, infidelity, greed, depression, suicide, and murder. Now that's entertainment.

The least political of these wartime dirges is episode III, after Gerry and Elephant, of Gus Van Sant's young-death trilogy. Once again, the doom generation does a lot of walking and little else in advance of leaving the proverbial good-looking corpse: What matters in Last Days--all that matters, really--is that the wayward youth played by Michael Pitt is a cardigan-wearing, stringy-haired Pacific Northwest grunge rocker whom Jesus doesn't want for a sunbeam. (Or does he?) Clinging to what little he knows for sure, Van Sant climactically arranges Kurt Cobain's lifeless, sneaker-clad foot and splayed left leg with the same morbid fastidiousness of his Psycho remake; the beautiful "nothing" of the movie's other 90 minutes becomes absurdly monumental. Did Kurt make mac 'n' cheese in his last days? Did he maybe happen to catch the Boyz II Men video that was in heavy rotation at the time? Did Courtney, failing to reach her husband when she telephoned, resort to screaming at one of several groupies camped out in their old dark house? (Did she later venture to shut down Van Sant's production? Does a Pacific Northwest grunge rocker shit in the woods?)

Poor Frances Bean fails to earn even a name drop in Last Days, though matters related to paternity seemed to play a part in every third movie here (including Match Point and the new Star Wars). Lodge Kerrigan's brooding Keane--the Vertigo of missing-kid melodramas--personifies adult-guardian guilt in the sweaty face of its title character, a neglectful dad whose clinical insanity appears, in context, weirdly rational. What kind of fucked-up world are we handing our children, wherever they are? Addressing this burden and finessing it, too, conscientious hipsters Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch send middle-aged heroes on reluctant searches for kids they could've unwittingly sired. Alas, Wenders's Don't Come Knocking is totally irrelevant save for a Jessica Lange performance feisty enough to critique not just the evasive father (Sam Shepard) but the director who'd pardon him. At least Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, driven by Oscar hopeful Bill Murray in eye-rolling mode, hits on a unique articulation of male birth envy: Look around, you hetero Don Juans and sperm donors; relish the thought that any kid you pass on the street could literally be yours.

The Child, the aforementioned Palme-winner from the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta), complicates these deadbeat dad issues considerably by pushing our sympathies in unexpected, even undesired directions. How to measure the helplessness of a barely adult two-bit hustler against that of the weeks-old baby he can't help but trade for a wad of euros? Where the Dardennes pose provocative questions about the vicious cycle of immorality, Lars von Trier and David Cronenberg give lectures. Von Trier's stage-bound Manderlay asserts that his Grace learned nothing in Dogville to prevent her from sanctioning still more American-style cruelty, this time toward newly freed black slaves who--get this!--are more responsible than she is for their continued servitude. (The predictable acclaim of white liberal Europeans rang particularly hollow amid the scarcity of feedback from black people--at least those not employed by von Trier.) Much as it pains me to say it, Cronenberg's A History of Violence (the title tells the story) is the shockingly tragic sight of a genius straining in a tough economy to be M. Night Shyamalan.

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