CANNES, France—Midway through the 63rd Cannes Film Festival it's clear that, although the competition oozes glamour and Wall Street never sleeps, the action this year (even more than in the past) is to be found in its less prestigious shadow, the section with the untranslatable moniker, "Un Certain Regard."
The main competition thus far has been a haven for familiarity, mediocrity, and what the French critics disparagingly call "qualité." The most warmly received films have been Mike Leigh's middling, unfortunately titled Another Year and Bertrand Tavernier's old-fashioned costume drama The Princess of Montpensier. Although not without their pleasures, Mathieu Amalric's faux-Cassavetes burlesque pageant Tournée and Takeshi Kitano's yakuza slapstick Outrage are lightweights. That the competition's surprise late addition, Route Irish, is a new film by Ken Loach—about Iraq—does little to raise one's hopes, although Irish bookies immediately installed it as the 3:1 favorite to win the Palme d'Or.
That the "Regard" is to be taken seriously was signaled by its opening movie, Manoel de Oliveira's latest, The Strange Case of Angelica. The most existential of filmmakers, as well as the oldest at 101, Oliveira has been making his last film for 20 years. At once avant and retro, as funny and peculiar as its title promises, Angelica is yet another unique sign-off—a serene and sublime meditation on the essence of the motion-picture medium and the nature of eternity. Like Vertigo and Solaris, it's a variation of the Orpheus myth: A young Jewish photographer is taken with a beautiful Portuguese maiden whose beatifically smiling corpse he is hired to shoot. Falling in love, he imagines that his camera brings her back to life. Ultimately, the increasingly obsessed photographer joins his subject in death.
The Strange Case of Angelica is a comedy in the droll, intentionally stilted, highly deliberate yet anecdotal manner de Oliveira has perfected over the past several decades. The meaning of the story is the pleasure of the tale—a story told for its own sake, its narrative advanced with the expertise of a chess master pushing his pawns. Like most great avant-garde movies, Angelica is programmatically anachronistic—the special effects would have seemed primitive to Georges Méliès back in 1901.
Other gems in the "Regard": the two Romanian films, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas and Cristi Puiu's Aurora. The new Romanian cinema (one hesitates to call it "new wave" because so many of its aesthetic premises can be traced back to Italian neo-realism and its successors) is a cinema founded on long takes, real time, and the primacy of actors. Technical virtuosity aside, the triumph of movies like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Police, Adjective has been the application of these devices to create a new sort of narrative tension.
Tuesday, After Christmas—a movie about a man who is only interesting in his desire to leave his wife and child for a younger woman—is a succession of scenes in which, almost always living a lie, the hero interacts at length with each of the women in turn. The movie's turning point brings all three together (in a dentist's office, no less, where the child is being fitted for braces) with one member of the triangle still oblivious to the triangle's existence. This sequence is topped by the subsequent 10-minute take, in which the husband drops the bomb on his wife and the truth is revealed, just in time for Christmas. (Were the movie in competition, the jury might well have handed Mirela Oprisor the Best Actress Award at the end of the screening.)
If Tuesday, After Christmas synthesizes the gains of previous Romanian films, imbuing an ordinary story with extraordinary dramatic tension, Aurora pushes the Romanian style into new territory. A test for admirers of Puiu's now canonical Death of Mr. Lazarescu (discovered five years in the "Regard"), Aurora is a murder mystery in which the killer's identity is known but his motives are enigmatic. Béla Tarr did something similar with his epic, opaque Georges Simenon adaptation, The Man From London, but Puiu's observational style does not offer the same visual pleasure as Tarr's sumptuous hyper-realism; here, the movie is a continuous search for meaning with the viewer under constant pressure to puzzle out just what the heck is going on.
The movie's premise is absurdist, although only occasionally (and unexpectedly) humorous. For Aurora's first hour, a lanky, unhappy-looking fellow haunts the outskirts of Bucharest, making cryptic phone calls, spying on children, getting medicine from a woman who seems to be his girlfriend, crossing and re-crossing railroad tracks, and moving his belongings from his mother's flat to an apartment he claims to be renovating (and vice versa). The compositions are typically underlit or obstructed; the movie's characteristic shot has the action glimpsed through (or hidden by) a half-open door.
Abruptly, this distractive, furtive fellow purchases a gun. Have we been watching a madman, an assassin, a Romanian Travis Bickle? That Puiu stays resolutely outside his protagonist is all the more fascinating in that he plays the role himself. The protag's thought processes are unknowable although it is possible to sense his feelings. Alternately restless or listless, he is blank but watchful, and seems increasingly dangerous even as the viewer's own mood shifts from baffled frustration to intense anxiety. That Aurora's various murders are never explained until the shooter turns himself in to the police and, as that information is obscured by a fog of bureaucratic inertia and police chitchat, not completely, means one would have to watch this three-hour movie twice, if one were going to understand it—or not.
On a single viewing, Aurora seems an impressively ambitious experiment—something the competition has in short supply. As always, however, the Cannes schedule is back loaded. Still to come are movies by Alejandro González Iñárritu, former Palme d'Or laureate Abbas Kiarostami, and Nikita Mikhalkov, although the only ones I anticipate with any excitement are Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Doug Liman's Valerie Plame drama Fair Game, and, precisely because it's a first feature by a virtually unknown filmmaker, Ukrainian documentarian Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy. The "Regard," by contrast, has a number of potential discoveries, plus new movies by festival veterans Hong Sangsoo, Jia Zhangke, Lodge Kerrigan, and, of course, Jean-Luc Godard. They say that some performances are bad enough to win an Oscar; Cannes '10 would seem to be stocked with movies that are too good for the competition.