A funny thing happened on the way to the Cannes Film Festival. A few weeks before my departure, I received a phone call from the festival’s Paris headquarters inviting me to serve on the jury for this year’s Camera d’Or — a competitive prize added in 1978 and awarded annually to the best debut feature screened in any of Cannes’ three sections (the Official Selection, the Directors Fortnight and the Critics Week). In the 27 years since it was first presented, the award has evolved from a cash prize to one paid out in goods and services — namely, some 50,000 Euros worth of Kodak film stock and a similarly generous amount in advertising space for the winning filmmaker. Jim Jarmusch (for Stranger Than Paradise), Mira Nair (for Salaam Bombay) and Zacharias Kunuk (for The Fast Runner) have been among the recipients, and following 10 days of screenings, our jury added two names to that list: the American performance artist Miranda July, whose Me and You and Everyone We Know has been amassing accolades ever since Sundance, where it received a Special Jury Prize; and the young Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara, whose The Forsaken Land represents a strikingly original vision from a country whose films rarely cross international borders.

On the surface, the two works have little in common: July’s film is a tragicomic ensemble piece that takes place amid a few blocks of a Los Angeles suburb (where, among other things, a 7-year-old boy employs a false online identity to seduce a much older woman); The Forsaken Land is an unsettling allegory about the oppression of personal freedoms, unfolding against the barren expanses of an unnamed country living under martial law. Yet in both films one senses a gifted young artist powerfully, thoughtfully responding to his or her environment in specific and unfamiliar ways. And both films can be seen as studies of isolation and loneliness in forbidding modern landscapes. At the end of our daylong deliberation, a shared prize seemed the only way to go.

Me and You and The Forsaken Land were among the first movies screened for our jury, and, one week later, the ones that continued to burn brightest in our collective mind. In between, there were other compelling visions from other corners of the world, including a disarmingly sweet fable called Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures, about a German man traveling the Brazilian countryside with a promotional film about Bayer’s wonder drug, and Alice, a Portuguese psychodrama that combines elements of Lewis Carroll and Blow-Up to tell the story of a Lisbon man’s obsessive search for his kidnapped daughter. By and large, however, the debut features of Cannes 2005 were a surprisingly conventional mix that left much to be desired in terms of formal innovation and storytelling imagination. The young directors, the ones you’d expect to be taking the biggest risks, instead relied on shopworn narratives, tired notions of how to impress critics and film-festival directors, and some very naive ideas about shocking the audience into submission (none more so than 26-year-old British director Thomas Clay and his nauseating The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, in which a Droog-like home invasion and rape sequence cuts directly from the image of a champagne bottle being thrust into a vagina, to a montage of WWII combat images).

A measure of relief was afforded in the festival’s main competition, where a host of Cannes regulars (Jarmusch, Haneke, Van Sant, Cronenberg, Von Trier et al.) faced off against a smattering of upstarts, with fortune generally favoring the old masters. Certainly, that was the case at the closing-night awards ceremony, where the Palme d’Or was presented to The Child (L’Enfant), the latest minimalist masterpiece from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who also received the Palme for 1999’s Rosetta, while the Grand Jury Prize went to Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, a deadpan road movie in which Bill Murray’s exquisitely droopy middle-aged bachelor pays impromptu visits to a series of ex-lovers (played by the likes of Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton) after discovering that one may be the mother of his illegitimate child. And though it screened in a special out-of-competition slot, Woody Allen’s social-climbing melodrama Match Point turned out to be his best film in at least a decade.

Both The Child and Broken Flowers are films made with
a directness, a simplicity and an economy of technique that may have seemed a
welcome relief to the competition jury (which consisted of such unlikely bedfellows
as Emir Kusturica and Salma Hayek) following the Sturm und Drang of Robert Rodriguez’s
Sin City and Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven,
the much-hyped, calamitously disappointing second feature from the director
of 2002’s extraordinary Japón. (Its operatic opening blow-job sequence
alone quickly joined ranks with the Robert Carmichael gang bang
and the uninterrupted 10-minute close-up of Natalie Portman that starts Amos Gitai’s
Free Zone among Cannes set pieces so overbearingly pretentious as
to merit their own special prize: the Ego d’Or.) More to the competition jury’s
liking — it took home a Best Director prize, though it had been hotly tipped to
win the Palme d’Or — Michael Haneke’s Hidden (Caché) plays fast and loose
with the architecture of a whodunit thriller (in which a Parisian couple are terrorized
by an anonymous voyeur) to make a devastating commentary on the horrors to which
we routinely turn a blind eye, in our own lives and in society at large, leading,
as in Haneke’s earlier Code Unknown, to a merciless depiction of
casual bourgeois racism. (The failure of the film to win a bigger prize was, in
a way, a testament to Haneke’s stark, uncompromising vision.)

Race relations were also on the mind of Lars von Trier, who, despite losing star Nicole Kidman, nonetheless returned as promised, two years after Dogville, with a sequel, Manderlay, in which the character of Grace (now played by red-haired Bryce Dallas Howard) continues her journey across the land of opportunity, making a pit stop on an Alabama plantation where, circa 1933, a slave economy still flourishes. Drawing its inspiration partly from (of all things) that classic of French erotica The Story of O, the movie met with a moderately less hostile reaction from American critics than did Dogville, perhaps because the new film is nearly an hour shorter than its predecessor, perhaps because Manderlay’s depiction of psychological bondage is more accessible than Dogville’s sweeping indictment of human pettiness. Whatever the case, I personally await Grace’s further adventures with great anticipation.

Absent Michael Moore, Cannes 2005 may have attracted less attention in the U.S. than the 2004 edition though, ironically, there were even more dyspeptic visions of America on display this year than last, particularly in three films that set about engaging in different ways with the iconic landscape of the American West. The most successful of these was also the most classical and nostalgic: Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which collected a Best Actor prize for its director-star as well as a Best Screenplay award for the Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga (who, as in 21 Grams and Amores Perros, continues to prefer broken dashes to straight narrative lines). More ambitious, but also more problematic, David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley trades Monument for the San Fernando, with Edward Norton as a psychologically unstable cowboy riding a range that has long since ceased to exist. Finally, in Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, the once-great German director reteams with his Paris, Texas collaborator Sam Shepard for the story of a Western-movie actor who rides off the set and into a tangle of personal relationships not nearly as tidy as the ones onscreen — a terrific idea, rendered disastrously, with dialogue and performances so wooden that only non-native English speakers risked mistaking them for bearable.

Few movies I saw in Cannes depressed me more, while few were more exhilarating
than David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, another
cowboy tale of sorts, in which a small-town restaurateur’s act of heroism sets
off an unexpected chain reaction exposing the lurid surface lurking beneath the
Norman Rockwell fantasy. Steeped in the supersaturated Americana of movies like
Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life and Hitchcock’s Shadow
of a Doubt (complete with stirring, Aaron Copland–esque
music), this witty, razor-sharp hybrid of genre entertainment and von Trier–ian
moral fable is Cronenberg working both at the top of his form and in a highly
accessible vein. Rarely has the meltdown of the American dream been envisaged
with such diabolical cleverness or given off such giddy pleasure. O Canada!

LA Weekly