Slow beginnings

Big misfires, few breakout titles in first days

CANNES — With the exception of a couple of pleasant surprises, the 51st Cannes Film Festival got off to a slow start through its first five days. In warm weather and with crowds noticeably thinner than at last year’s golden anniversary edition, several big-gun international auteurs have landed well short of the bull’s-eye, and festgoers are beginning to become slightly anxious that what looked like an impressive lineup on paper might not pan out that way onscreen.

Of the eight competition titles having unspooled thus far, only two or three have been received with much enthusiasm. The revelation of the fest is a debut, Erick Zonca’s “The Dreamlife of Angels.” The French pic is a sensitively and acutely observed study of the growth and deterioration of a friendship between two young working-class women in Lille.

Ken Loach’s Glasgow-set “My Name Is Joe” was generally embraced, albeit with some restraint. Aussie director Rolf de Heer’s “Dance Me to My Song” was admired by many who could get through the rough initial section of this look at the life of a woman with cerebral palsy.

Mixed reviews

Very much splitting the critics were Patrice Chereau’s flamboyant “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train,” with the French supporting one of their own but foreigners taking a more skeptical view of the antic behavior of a bunch of neurotics on their way to bury an old friend, and Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” a near-vaudeville comedy with a Holocaust theme that delighted the Italian comic’s supporters but heavily turned off a good many others. Also falling into the middle ground was vet French helmer Claude Miller’s “Class Trip,” a well-made study of a boy’s violent fantasy life that proved a bit too convoluted.

At the low end of the spectrum were Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the experience of which was generally likened to being the only sober person in a room full of drunks and acid heads; “The Hole,” a minimalist disappointment from esteemed Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang featuring a thin conceit that might have supported a half-hour short; and Victor Gaviria’s “The Rose Seller” from Colombia, a contrived street kids meller that can’t hold a candle to many similar previous films.

Strong ‘Sale’

The Un Certain Regard sidebar in the official selection has yielded another strong French entry, Laetitia Masson’s “For Sale,” a drama about an independent woman, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s latest TV production, “In the Presence of a Clown,” which was reckoned to be “interesting” by most crix, without coming close to his best work.

Alex van Warmerdam’s “Little Tony” from the Netherlands found support here and there but was widely regarded as a letdown after his earlier work, while two New York indies struck out — Paul Auster’s lackluster “Lulu on the Bridge” and Ken Yunome’s aggravating and ponderous three-hour drama “Island, Alicia.”

Standout of the Directors Fortnight thus far is Todd Solondz’s twisted, darkly comic “Happiness.” In the Critics Week, highlight thus far has been Hur Jin-ho’s “Christmas in August” from South Korea.