For a critic, the Cannes experience is a marathon of intensely personal movie-watching adventures interrupted by noisy hallway convocations. And the bursting world of cinema that Cannes encapsulates, with a leonine pride and peacock pomp, looks different depending on where one parks one’s derriere: In the two biggest screening venues, colleagues tend to sort themselves in their seats instinctively, almost organically, by nationality. In those same hallways, the word goes forth about this film or that: The French hated it! The Americans loved it! The Americans hated it! The Germans/Greeks/ Sri Lankans ate it up!
By way of an example: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was, for me, one of the fest’s peak experiences — a confluence of excitement and intellectual stimulation. There’s no woozy disintegration of identity that the Canadian director of Dead Ringers doesn’t love, of course. But in this formally handsome semi-Western and demi-noir story about a small-town family man (played with perfect pitch by Viggo Mortensen) whose life changes when he thwarts a robbery, Cronenberg expands his scope: He teases out a depth of understanding about American character with an economy and mastery of form that took my breath away.
The North Americans loved it. But the Europeans, I hear, not so much. Instead, ”they” — by way of the Euro-based jury — gave not one but two awards to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a heavy-handed and ornately sadistic tale of justice and mummy love directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. In this Tex-Mex fist of support for illegal aliens, Jones plays a Texas cowboy who is, apparently, the last good gringo: While fulfilling the burial wishes of his best buddy, an undocumented Mexican worker wrongfully shot dead by a mean border patrolman (Barry Pepper), the righteous Jones also lays a world of punitive hurt on the miserable Pepper, his bruised face a sampler of special-effects makeup.
In other words, even without Michael Moore as a rally organizer, the leftist non vote was effectively registered. And for emphasis, Lars von Trier came to town to present Manderlay, the follow-up to 2003’s divisive entry Dogville. The second part of the director’s planned American trilogy is a stern, Lars-centric lecture on slavery, with Bryce Dallas Howard ably taking the lead role vacated by Nicole Kidman. Needless to say, certain Americans were suitably vexed. But so what? I wanted to punch von Trier in his Danish schnozz for his somber sermonizing, yet I’m still impressed and engaged by his biting artistic daring.
My fellow citizens were divided on Gus Van Sant’s Last Days: I thought it was a rambling mumble that conveyed much less (about the last days of Kurt Cobain? About the lure of scrawny, shirtless young drug addicts and their homoerotic scent?) than meets an eye impressed by fine cinematography. Still, word went out that ”the Europeans” liked it, as they also supposedly did Don’t Come Knocking, Wim Wenders’ inauthentic drama about the contrast between ”real,” lost America and the America of Hollywood’s Westerns. Sam Shepard plays a broken-down movie star who goes AWOL from a movie set, visits his estranged mother in Nevada, and learns from her that he’s got a grown kid in Montana.
The alienated, unevolved adult who is stunned to learn that he’s a father as a metaphor for a certain American condition of moral irresponsibility is a thesis I’m not prepared to advance while jet-lagged. But I do know that Jim Jarmusch handles the same material beautifully — with charm, generosity, and with a bull’s-eye Bill Murray — in his prizewinner Broken Flowers, about a commitmentphobic womanizer who learns that he, too, may have an unacknowledged son rattling around. No wonder everyone loved it, as we did the miracle of a reinvigorated Woody Allen with his Match Point, a thoughtful, adult, psychologically astute non-ha-ha novel of a movie about class and striving, set in London.
I know that there’s not a world traveler around who wasn’t moved by The Child, yet another low-to-the-ground, simply made, ardently observed documentary-like drama about underclass everyday miseries by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who won a previous Palme d’Or for Rosetta. Or astonished, at the very least, by Carlos Reygadas’ political/religious/sexual Mexican circus act Battle in Heaven, if only because the notion of full frontal has never looked quite so…frontal. I certainly know there’s not a colleague I’d care to schmooze with who didn’t think the Palme might just as rightfully have gone to Hidden, Michael Haneke’s menacing thriller in which the ghost of racism menaces the bourgeoisie.
And this I know, too, of Cannes: that my profound pleasure while watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times — a distillation of breathtaking sensibility from the Taiwanese filmmaker whom many consider to be the best in the world — was personal. Yet universally shared by the citizens of Cannes nation.