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Fest visitors take their queue

Times Staff Writer

Cannes begins slowly for me in part because the festival itself seems slower. Between Wednesday and Saturday, I see just 12 movies, walking out of two. I run into nearly everyone I want to run into, except for a Singapore programmer who I’d worried hadn’t made it because of SARS. (We bump into one another on Saturday.) The word in the press is that nothing’s going on, which means, essentially, that there are only a handful of American movies and almost no Hollywood stars. Friday I run to the 8:30 a.m. press screening (that actually starts at 9) of Andre Techine’s “Les Egares” (Strays), starring Emmanuelle Beart, a woman whose pillow-sized lips could serve as air bags. On their way out of Paris in 1940 amid a cordon of refugees whose numbers are being pruned by buzzing Nazi planes, Beart’s character, a young widow, and her two children enter into an idyll with a 17-year-old boy. Lushly photographed, the film traces the emotional and psychological storms brought on by extreme circumstances, and although the main character’s naivete borders on the exasperating (she wants to phone the police) the finale feels like a knife in the heart.

Later that afternoon, a colleague and I walk over to check out the Portuguese film “Vai e Vem,” whose director, Joao Cesar Monteiro, died in February. Just as we’re about to show our badges to enter the theater, the film’s principal cast and crew arrive, throwing the festival’s guards into a paramilitary frenzy. The entrance is blocked, guards start pushing back people trying to enter, and in the confusion the security men mistake a scruffy-looking guy in an ill-fitting suit for a gate crasher. One guard throws a chokehold on the interloper as others fast descend, but happily, the disheveled victim, who turns out to be the film’s producer, is rescued before too much damage is done. I end up leaving the Portuguese film, which comes across as exasperatingly silly (with the late director, a spidery-looking old man, tip-toeing around while besotted with a much younger woman), but go on to a mood-improving two-day run. Friday afternoon there are a pair of Nanni Moretti shorts, the best being “The Last Customer,” about the closing of a New York City pharmacy that had stood on the same corner since 1949. One of the most visible Italian filmmakers on the international scene, Moretti is the director of films such as “Caro Diario” and the 2001 Cannes Golden Palm winner, “The Son’s Room,” which was distributed by Miramax. As unlikely as it sounds, the inspiration for “The Last Customer” arrived during a conference call with the studio.

Addressing the press audience before the screening, Moretti explained that during the call -- which involved some 40 participants and only one person, Harvey Weinstein, actually talking -- he heard someone say, “Don’t cry, Mama.” The voice of comfort turned out to be an executive whose parents had run a pharmacy that, along with the entire Hell’s Kitchen block on which it stood, was going to be demolished to make room for a monster commercial and residential complex. Intrigued, Moretti took a digital video camera to the store and began recording its final few months, up until the moment that the wrecking crew began pulling it down. A touching document of the city’s changing fortunes and the malling of America, the film presents Moretti at his most disciplined.

At the Debussy

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Later that night, I join a friend on line at the Debussy, the second-largest theater in the festival’s headquarters, a slab of concrete incongruously called the Palais. Although I’ve heard good things about the feature from a friend who saw it at the Istanbul film festival, it’s surprising how quickly the gated lines are filled. The French may have beheaded their king and queen several centuries ago, but they are almost as devoted to rigidly hierarchical class differences as the British. The press is allowed to stand in only certain sections of the line, while other festival-goers stand elsewhere -- the gates look remarkably like the corridors to which animals are sent to slaughter.

As it turns out, however, that night I see the best feature I’ve seen so far, a beautifully observed drama called “Uzak,” about two men, one from the city, the other from the country, and the distances between them -- emotional, economic, psychological. Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylon, the film has the sort of meditative pacing and lack of overt action that doesn’t play well in the U.S. anymore.

Shadow of violence

On Saturday, on my way to a screening, I hear of the suicide bombings in Morocco. The news temporarily punctures the festival bubble, but after some nervous conversation, everyone returns to work. I see four features that day, including a very good film from Morocco called “A Thousand Months,” directed by Faouzi Bensaidi, and the latest from Gus Van Sant, “Elephant.” The day’s violence shadows these two films, one of which is about political repression in a Moroccan village, circa 1981, and the other of which is set in the blandest imaginable modern American high school. Shot in Portland, “Elephant” carries the standard fiction disclaimer, but from the ennui to the bloodshed it’s unmistakably Columbine.

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I’m still sorting out what I think about “Elephant,” which is beautifully put together yet also feels too aestheticized. Mostly, though, I’m happy that Van Sant has returned to creative form; between this film and his last, “Gerry,” he seems to have left behind the middlebrow world of “Finding Forrester” for good. “Elephant” was financed by HBO but will have a theatrical release as well.

The cable company is throwing a party on a beach this night and after the screening I walk toward the hotel where it’s being hosted. I can’t shake the film, partly because it’s a long walk and there’s a lot of restless movement in the film, but also because the crowds of beautiful kids showing off for one another on the Croisette remind me of the kids in the film.

Finally, I make it to the party, where I find my friends and shake the film, at least for the night.


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