America Cannes

Art imitates life as U.S. directors command this year's fest, with only China rivaling for celluloid domination.

CANNES, France—The world's preeminent film festival celebrated its 60th birthday party — the opening banquet catered by the world's hippest, or is that once-hippest? — filmmaker.

Hardly the disaster many feared, but far from the triumph others anticipated, Wong Kar-wai's first English-language feature, 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.

Minor, if not without its privileged moments, My Blueberry Nights does include one of the most erotic sequences in any of Wong's films: a fetishistic mega-close-up of the sleeping Jones' pie-à-la-mode-flecked lips. But akin to seeing Wong without his trademark shades, the movie 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? Well, we'd still have the melancholy and the visual style (as is true here, even if the cinematography is too glam and the dessert colors a shade too rich). All of the filmmaker's themes — memory, regret, loss, insomnia — are present, along with the misfortune of an American-style happy ending.

Norah Jones saves room for pie in My Blueberry Nights.
Norah Jones saves room for pie in My Blueberry Nights.

Blueberry Nights set the tone for Cannes' first week, characterized by a wistful globalism and dominated by Chinese and American movies. The official section boasts four American Palm d'Or-eates — the Coens, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, and Michael Moore — along with Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen and David Fincher's Zodiac. Sicko and Zodiac were particularly well received, as was the Coens' lean gothic western No Country for Old Men — a movie unencumbered by ideas or characters, save for Javier Bardem's implacable killer, and an early favorite for a top prize.

The epitome of globo-absurdity, however, has been Olivier Assayas' meta-trashy, mainly English Boarding Gate, which winds up with sullen S&M hooker hit-girl and festival it-girl Asia Argento wandering, drugged, through the back alleys and karaoke clubs of mysterious Hong Kong; the triumph of globo-absurdity, complicated by genius, is thus far Hou Hsiao-hsien's supposed remake of the 1956 kids' film, The Red Balloon. Both were included in the festival's more experimental "Un Certain Regard" section, with Hou's Flight of the Red Balloon the opening attraction.

Commissioned by the Musée d'Orsay and supposedly sent back twice for reediting by the Cannes powers-that-be, Hou's first non-Asian feature is not so much a film as a film-object: It's 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 being produced by the movie's lone Chinese character.

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.

The official section includes two other Chinese film-objects: Triangle, in which Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and Johnny To play the surrealist "exquisite corpse" game of extending doodles, each director handling a successive chunk of the same crime story. The result is more subtraction than addition; a more productive instance of less-as-more is Wang Bing's three-hour, three-setup documentary Fengming: A Chinese Memoir. Unprompted and unrelenting, an elderly Chinese woman recounts her harrowing experiences during the 1950s anti-Rightist campaign and 1960s cultural revolution in a torrent of words that is not only a devastating critique of Chinese communism but, in some respects, the festival's most remarkable performance.

The biggest Chinese crowd-pleaser, however, has been Li Yang's Blind Mountain. An apt follow-up to Li's corrosive coal-mine 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. Indeed, the shockingly abrupt ending brought down the house at normally soignée Salle Debussy. The scene in which rural medics demand payment up front before attending a dying patient was worthy of Michael Moore's pamphleteering Sicko, a scattershot evisceration of the American health system that's most effective when identifying said system as a raging capitalist symptom.


Speaking of social ills, it's pretty darn amazing that each of the last three Cannes Film Festivals has featured a terrific Romanian movie. There was The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in 2005, 12:08 East of Bucharest (soon to open in New York) in 2006, and this year, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. The title refers to the length of a particular pregnancy, and the movie concerns two college students as they attempt to have it terminated.

Set in 1987, when abortion was illegal in Romania, 4 Months depicts late communism as a barter economy in which everything is a hassle and male privilege is a given; it unfolds in a sustained sense of dread. The young women are foolish and naive, but never less than sympathetic. The movie's unsentimental humanism was all the more impressive in the light of Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment, a Christian allegory on an unwanted pregnancy that's also in competition. Zvyagintsev won first prize at Venice his first time out with The Return; The Banishment is even more accomplished, but while it is in essence the imitation of art, 4 Months is the imitation of life.

A movie of long, behavioral takes, 4 Months resembles Lazarescu — which was shot by the same DP — in choreographing a process. The tone, however, is more grim than grimly humorous. Brilliant as it is, 4 Months is likely to be a harder sell: It's a movie about abortion that makes Vera Drake look like Mary Poppins.

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