Lesser-known filmmakers brought highlights

On paper, the 2009 Cannes Film Festival looked like a classic year of the auteur; all 20 directors with films in the competition had been to the festival before, and there were four former Palme d’Or winners in the mix. To some, the lineup augured well, while others regarded the cast of Cannes faves all too predictable.

A more realistic view was that some would deliver and others wouldn’t, which turned out to be precisely the case. This begs the eternal question of whether the competition should mostly devote itself to films by major filmmakers based on their longtime track records, or try harder to bring new names into the mix. The aim for the world’s most prestigious film festival, it seems to me, should always be to find and show the most exciting filmmaking happening anywhere on Earth that is available in May, regardless of the director’s identity or origin. But we know that certain directors will always turn up here, simply because they always have.

This year, the discoveries lay outside the competition, in the Official Selection’s special screenings and Un Certain Regard sidebar as well as in the Directors’ Fortnight. But the competition turned up some goodies, with French directors leading the way.

Going into the final weekend, the various critics polls were topped by Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” a mesmerizing tale of a young French-Arab man who enters prison as an illiterate nobody and comes out a smart, savvy operator. Not far behind were Xavier Giannoli’s “In the Beginning,” a tale of our times about a con man who takes advantage of the citizens of an economically depressed French town, and 87-year-old Alain Resnais’ eccentric and admired “Wild Grass.”

It was a year of much blood and long films — my colleague Leslie Felperin declared that 2½ hours is the new 90 minutes. Among the films contributing to both trends were Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited “Inglourious Basterds,” reactions to which ran the gamut; Alejandro Amenabar’s non-competing “Agora,” an unusual epic about the fourth century female scholar Hypatia that, from conversational evidence, may find its commercial key through its appeal to women; Park Chan-wook’s misfired vampire film “Thirst”; and Michael Haneke’s involving and grim investigation of small-town German malice, “The White Ribbon.”

Among the non-French highlights were Jane Campion’s return to form with “Bright Star,” about the doomed romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne; Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces,” a very involving, multi-layered melodrama that is much better than some of the advance suggested; and, to some, Marco Bellocchio’s “Vincere,” an operatic look at the cast-off first wife and son of Benito Mussolini.

Then there was the obligatory scandale, which this year fell to Lars von Trier with “Antichrist.” Steeped with undigested therapeutic nonsense and rife with deliberately shocking imagery that few people would really want to see, the film is ridiculous but I would defend the festival’s decision to show it; fests need outrages from time to time, it can’t all be decorum and masterpieces.

The hilarious news that came out at week’s end is that von Trier has agreed to create a “Catholic” version of the film sans the offending scenes for what the director called the “prude” territories of Europe, Asia and America, where he claims a film can’t show male frontal nudity. Somebody better tell Lars to see some Judd Apatow comedies.

A major success as an Official Selection special screening was Ounie Lecomte’s “A Brand New Life,” a heart-breaker about a Korean girl’s adoption process.

Among the favorites in Un Certain Regard were Mia Hansen-Love’s “The Father of My Children,” about a family’s struggle after the suicide of the film producer father; Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective,” about a cop’s stakeout of a school; Warwick Thornton’s outback romance “Samson and Delilah” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,” which, although overlong, most observers reckoned would have been a better Korean competition entry than “Thirst.”

Finding particular favor in the Directors’ Fortnight were Riad Sattouf’s teen comedy “Les Beaux gosses,” Axelle Ropert’s dysfunctional family tale “The Wohlberg Family” and Kamen Kalev’s violent drama about two brothers, ‘Eastern Plays.”

Maybe not the festival it appeared on paper, but not a bad Cannes either, and one that commendably kept going at full steam all the way to the end; this was not a fest to stay at for just the first long weekend. Other fests should take note.

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