Films stir up critics’ favor at Cannes

Highlights include 'Prophet,' 'Bright Star,' 'Fish'

An intense French drama about an inmate whose term in prison makes him stronger and a British-Australian biopic of a doomed romantic poet lead the field of competition entries as the Cannes Film Festival rounded out its first four days.

Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” a galvanizing account of how an essentially illiterate young French-Arab uses his association with a Corsican gangster to further himself in and out of the pen, hit the Croisette like a thunderbolt Saturday, achieving a virtual consensus among critics of all stripes as the top film to have unspooled at the fest thus far.

Close behind, however, was Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” an intellectually rigorous, artistically exquisite account of the short life of John Keats through the eyes of his great love Fanny Brawne, that was widely seen to mark a return to form for the only woman to have thus far won Cannes’ Palme d’Or.

One of the two other women in this year’s competition, Britain’s Andrea Arnold, scored a comparative success with “Fish Tank,” a tart look at dismally constricted lives that plays like a plausible modern update of kitchen sink dramas by way of the Dardenne brothers. Tempering the moderate approval was the view that the film’s dim, critical take on contempo England suffers from a certain sameness and predictability, with strong performances taking up some of the slack.

Also generating generally upbeat responses was Hong Kong helmer Johnnie To’s hitman action drama “Vengeance,” although an over-familiarity to the filmmaker’s previous work was unmistakable here as well.

Other pics in the competition thus far have provoked so-so reactions at best and derision at worst. South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s modern vampire tale “Thirst” proved largely unsatisfying, and numerous observers were puzzled over its place in the competition instead of countryman Bong Joon-ho’s compellingly odd “Mother,” which showed in the Un Certain Regard section to much better response.

Ang Lee’s hippie reverie “Taking Woodstock” is mild nostalgia at most, a curiously unambitious misfire by the talented director. Maverick Chinese helmer Lou Ye sex-driven drama “Spring Fever” is an off-putting melodrama with flashes of flair, and “Kinatay,” a Filipino low-budgeter with a centerpiece scene devoted to the butchery of a woman, may have enthused some of director Brillante Mendoza’s hardcore fans but appalled most others; surely Un Certain Regard would have provided a more appropriate home for this than did the competition.