'Carlos' gives Cannes a jolt

Quelle difference a film makes.

Early last week, it looked as though Cannes 2010 would be remembered as the year of the volcano and not much more, so uninspiring were most of the films in competition. Now, at least, it will be remembered for “Carlos.”

For many who attended its single screening on May 19, Olivier Assayas’ propulsive three-part miniseries about Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez immediately became the film of the festival — an experience that, in one exhilarating, exhausting six-hour swoop, justified the expense and the ash-induced travel delays, and reminded sleepy festgoers why the French Riviera remains an essential destination each May.

For scope, ambition and narrative excitement, “Carlos” put much of the competition to shame, leading some to grumble over why it wasn’t a contender for the Palme d’Or, especially in a year when it would have been virtually guaranteed a major prize. French TV productions aren’t allowed to compete for film festival awards, in much the same way that an American broadcast program isn’t allowed to compete for Oscars — a ruling that seems somewhat misguided, given how bright “Carlos” burns on the bigscreen. (Fortunately, Stateside audiences will have the chance to see the IFC release in a full version and a 2 1/2-hour cut this fall.)

Also making its premiere last week was a considerably less ambitious account of recent history, Doug Liman’s “Fair Game.” Though it represents a too tidily streamlined account of the Valerie Plame saga, the sole American title in competition was welcome for a number of reasons: As a well-made piece of mainstream cinema devoted to grappling with real-world issues, “Fair Game” was at least as good as Oliver Stone’s glibly entertaining “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” and as a vehicle for Naomi Watts, it was certainly preferable to Woody Allen’s irritatingly self-satisfied “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.”

Especially noteworthy are “Fair Game’s” scenes of domestic turmoil, well played indeed by Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson, who find their marriage unfavorably thrust into the spotlight and nearly destroyed as a consequence. The notion of the family coming under threat, or trying desperately to heal itself after the fact, wound up finding a resonant echo in a number of titles in the official selection.

Themes of infidelity and betrayal popped up in films as disparate as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Biutiful,” in which Javier Bardem plays a father of two trying to set his affairs in order before his imminent death, meanwhile keeping his unfaithful, mentally unstable wife at bay; Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Chongqing Blues,” the story of a man trying to glean information about the dead son he never knew; Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid,” a lurid tale of servant sex in an upper-class Korean household; Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man,” about a father who turns his back on his son in war-torn Chad; and, in Un Certain Regard, Radu Muntean’s naturalistic adultery drama “Tuesday, After Christmas.”

Domestic issues of a somewhat more comical nature were on display in Mike Leigh’s marvelous ensembler “Another Year,” which played early in the fest and remained a critics’ poll favorite throughout, and Abbas Kiarostami’s utterly beguiling, unfairly booed “Certified Copy.”

Both competition standouts, the two films have virtually nothing in common except for the fact that both showcase exceptional performances by actresses: Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen in “Another Year,” and this year’s Cannes poster girl, Juliette Binoche, in “Certified Copy.”

Continuing that trend, a sublime performance by Korean vet Yun Jung-hee anchored one of the competition’s late highlights, Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry.” A quietly haunting film about aging, Alzheimer’s and the ability to appreciate beauty in life, yet with none of the cloying sentiment or manipulation that description implies, it proved a worthy follow-up to his 2007 Cannes prize-winner, “Secret Sunshine.”

Heading into the final weekend other well-received Palme contenders included Xavier Beauvois’ hushed, visually immaculate docudrama “Of Gods and Men,” a critics’ hit almost across the board, and the sole debut feature in the program, Ukrainian helmer Sergei Loznitsa’s bleak, violent “My Joy.”

While no “Antichrist”-style scandale surfaced to trigger festgoers’ fight-or-flight instincts, the most divisive film in competition may have been “Biutiful,” embraced by some critics but savaged by others (this one included) as a grimly overdetermined, self-important melodrama. Also splitting audiences, though to far less contentious degrees, were Bertrand Tavernier’s historical costumer “The Princess of Montpensier”; Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza thriller “Outrage”; and Mathieu Amalric’s burlesque romp “On Tour.”

The generally strong Un Certain Regard sidebar succeeded in upstaging the competition this year in the minds of many festgoers — not least due to the presence of Jean-Luc Godard’s fascinating if impenetrable HD experiment “Film Socialism,” reportedly the French auteur’s final feature. Then there was the conspicuous absence of Godard himself, who canceled his scheduled appearance at the last minute, as if to sum up the pic’s final title card: “No comment.”

Offering further evidence of Romania’s cinematic renaissance were Muntean’s superbly played “Tuesday, After Christmas” and Cristi Puiu’s slow-burning killer chiller “Aurora.”

Other fine Regard entries included Oliver Schmitz’s stirring South Africa-set drama “Life, Above All”; Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats,” a ravishing riff on “Jules and Jim”; and the exquisite ghost story “The Strange Case of Angelica,” the latest example of the strange case of helmer Manoel de Oliveira, who is 101 and shows no signs of slowing down.

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