All hail the Cannes Film Festival for putting the late Susan Sontag's two favorite filmmakers—Alexander Sokurov and Béla Tarr—in competition. Though Tarr's stunning if lugubrious "thriller" The Man from London was but an honorable failure, Sokurov more than hit his mark. In Alexandra, the Russian director's premise is impressively surreal: A straight-talking babushka (opera diva Galina Vishnevskaya) takes a solo trip to visit her grandson's unit in Chechnya. Grandma wears combat boots, and Russia weeps.
At press time, neither of these was a favorite to win the Palme d'Or, not with heavy competition coming from the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, a movie unencumbered by ideas or characters save for Javier Bardem's implacable killer; Julian Schnabel's surprisingly restrained and bizarrely chic French-language adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's harrowing post-stroke memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; and German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's connect-the-dots we-are-the-world melodrama The Edge of Heaven. Long shots included South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong's too-sprawling drama of faith found and lost, Secret Sunshine; David Fincher's Zodiac; and Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light.
Working with non-actors in northern Mexico's Mennonite community, the admirably unpredictable Reygadas has made the world's first talking picture in the medieval German Plautdietsch dialect. Even more than the director's previous films, including his 2005 black comedy Battle in Heaven, Silent Light is a behavioral experiment. Everything is monumentally deliberate, from the human interactions to the stolidly bucolic representation of Mennonite domesticity to the extraordinary, widescreen landscape shots that bracket the action. Oscillating between the sacred and the profane, Reygadas's elemental tale of love and betrayal is part ethnographic documentary and part 16th-century psychodrama, with an obvious debt to Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Set in 1987, when abortion was illegal in Romania, Cristian Mungiu's universally admired 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days—the title refers to the length of a particular pregnancy—concerns two female college students as they attempt to have that pregnancy terminated. The young women are naive but sympathetic; late Communism is depicted as a barter economy in which everything is a hassle and male privilege is a given. A movie of unsentimental humanism and long, behavioral takes, 4 Months resembles another terrific, Cannes-launched Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in choreographing a process. The tone, however, is more grim than grimly humorous. Brilliant as it is, Mungiu's film is likely to be a hard sell: It's a movie about abortion that makes Vera Drake look like Mary Poppins.
At the opposite extreme, the epitome of globo-absurdity in Cannes is French director Olivier Assayas's meta-trashy Boarding Gate, which winds up with sullen S&M hooker, hit woman, and festival It-girl Asia Argento wandering drugged through the back alleys and karaoke clubs of mysterious Hong Kong. (Practically a Cannes genre unto herself, Argento also appeared as the eponymous old mistress in Catherine Breillat's highly entertaining adaptation of the 19th-century novel Une vieille maitresse, and as a dog-kissing striptease dancer in Abel Ferrara's degenerate ensemble comedy Go Go Tales.)
The triumph of globo-absurdity, complicated by genius, is Hou Hsiao-hsien's supposed remake of the 1956 kids' film The Red Balloon. Commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay (and supposedly sent back twice for re-editing by the Cannes powers that be), Hou's first non-Asian feature is not so much a film as a film object: The Flight of the Red Balloon is densely edited, conceptually complicated, and enchantingly eccentric. The eponymous balloon is at once a character, a (literally) free-floating metaphor, and the subject of a student movie.
Like Boarding Gate, Flight of the Red Balloon is centered on a spectacular, courageously off-putting performance—namely, Juliette Binoche's turn as a distracted, frowsy single mom whose current job appears to be narrating a Yuan Dynasty puppet play. In subject matter as well as self-reflexivity, the movie is surprisingly close to Hou's masterpiece The Puppetmaster—albeit looser, more lyrical, and much devoted to the problem of orchestrating "nothing" in impossibly tight spaces.
Two other Chinese film-objects: Triangle, in which Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To handle successive chunks of the same crime story, resulting more in subtraction than addition; and Wang Bing's He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, a three-hour, three-set-up documentary wherein an elderly Chinese woman recounts her harrowing experiences during the 1950s anti-Rightist campaign and 1960s Cultural Revolution. Unprompted and unrelenting, this woman delivers not only a devastating critique of Chinese Communism, but, in a way, the festival's most remarkable performance.
The biggest Chinese crowd-pleaser, however, was Li Yang's Blind Mountain. An apt follow-up to Li's corrosive coalmine thriller Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain—in which a college student is abducted and sold as a bride—has a similar documentary subtext and "blind" narrative force. The scene in which rural medics demand payment up front before attending to a dying patient is worthy of Michael Moore's pamphleteering Sicko; the shockingly abrupt ending brought down the house at normally soignée Salle Debussy.
Akin to seeing Wong Kar-wai without his trademark shades, watching My Blueberry Nights, the Hong Kong hipster's first English-language feature, unavoidably inspires two mental exercises. The first: imagining it in subtitled Chinese, recast with Chinese actors (Tony Leung in place of the too-eager-to-please Jude Law). The second: replaying Wong's greatest hits sans Orientalism—were the performances in 2046 as mediocre and the dialogue as trite as in My Blueberry Nights?
Hardly the disaster many feared, but far from the triumph others anticipated, My Blueberry Nights—starring Norah Jones as an itinerant waitress working her way across the country—is a sweet and gooey slice of American pie. Wong's notion of the U.S. as a wild, lonely succession of highways and diners—part Robert Frank, part Edward Hopper—isn't exactly a revelation, but the only truly egregious cliché is the Ry Cooder twang that takes over the soundtrack when Jones arrives in Vegas.
All of the filmmaker's themes—memory, regret, loss, insomnia—are present, along with the misfortune of an American-style happy ending and the benefit of one of the most erotic sequences in any of Wong's films: a fetishistic mega close-up of the sleeping Jones's pie à la mode-flecked lips.