Cannes doing splits to entertain crix

Deep Focus by Todd McCarthy

After stalling in the gate the first couple of days, the Cannes Film Festival began gaining a little traction over the weekend with some competition titles that at least gave festgoers something to grapple with.

The selection of films has initially swung between two extremes, from the minimalist artiness of Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days,” Masahiro Kobayashi’s “Bashing” and Hiner Saleem’s “Kilometer Zero” to the suspense genre orientation of Dominik Moll’s opening nighter “Lemming,” Atom Egoyan’s “Where the Truth Lies” and Johnnie To’s “Election.”

It was bracing, then, to see art and suspense merged in Michael Haneke’s “Hidden,” a sort of Euro intellectual “The Ring” in which an upscale Parisian family is terrorized by a series of mysterious videotapes. Although flawed in some modest ways, this is one of the Austrian writer-director’s most mainstream efforts, and is satisfyingly charged with political currents and disturbing ambiguities.

Following that was a film sure to cut every which way critically. Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle In Heaven” has everything a festival audience could want: grand cinematic gestures, overweening pretension, hardcore sex, a distinctive observational sense and a nagging narrative obscurity. Within apparent reach of pulling together its numerous virtues, pic squanders them in the final stretch. But it’s still the sort of film that will stay in the mind and provoke endless debate among cinephiles.

This is something that can’t be said of several early competition titles. The various influences of Chantal Ackerman, the Dardenne Brothers and Bela Tarr have moved numerous filmmakers to abandon the shaping and dramatizing of events in favor of recording mundane daily activity and presenting repetitive behavior ad nauseum. “Bashing,” which has as its promising premise the shunning of a released hostage from Iraq by her Japanese compatriots, offers the viewer absolutely no insight either into the young woman’s psychology or the (to Westerners) impenetrable national mindset that considers her desire to help Iraqis shameful.

The other film to touch upon Iraq, the Kurd-centric “Kilometer Zero,” is set mostly during the 1988 Iran-Iraq conflict and proves simplistic to diminishing returns.

“Last Days,” Van Sant’s idiosyncratic take on the final daze of a Kurt Cobain-like musician, in spots provides a more disciplined focus than his last two pictures, “Gerry” and “Elephant,” but the uncommunicative central character and nonsensical natterings of those around him provide little edification and left more than one observer hoping the director is ready to move on to a new career phase.

The genre pictures have had shortcomings too, even if lack of energy is not one of them. Moll’s “Lemming” has its moments, but is too long and will always exist in the shadow of its predecessor, “With A Friend Like Harry….” “Where the Truth Lies,” Egoyan’s most commercially intended film, intrigues with its investigation of the breakup of a Martin & Lewis-like performing team bolstered by some nice work by Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, but is stymied by the poor conception of the female character exposing them and by Alison Lohman’s miscasting. “Election” features some expert set-pieces and a sustained tone, but its manner of examining the transfer of power within a Triad society is narrowly one-dimensional.

Then there is Marco Tullio Giordana’s “Once You Are Born You Can No Longer Hide.” Italian helmer vaulted to international prominence in Cannes two years ago with his epic “The Best of Youth,” but this follow-up is a completely emotional take on Europe’s illegal immigration problem that trivializes an important subject in part by focusing on two refugees who are movie star glamorous.

Journalists are madly speculating about imagined jury battles with pugnacious president Emir Kusturica on one side and the tenacious Agnes Varda on the other. Scribes have also speculated that, had Woody Allen for once deigned to allow one of his films to be placed in competition, he likely would have won something for his largely well-received “Match Point.”

Out of competition, Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” entertained as an adrenaline-fueled antidote to fest artiness, while the feature version of Adam Curtis’s BBC docu “The Power of Nightmares” edified with its provocative paralleling of Islamic fundamentalists and American neocons.

The Directors Fortnight had a major success with Bent Hamer’s Charles Bukowski tale “Factotum,” starring Matt Dillon, and also scored with Im Sang-soo’s dark South Korean political comedy “The President’s Last Bang” and Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane.” Miranda July’s Sundance hit “Me and You and Everyone We Know” proved a popular opener for the Critics Week.