Cannes turns up its nose at the Americans

As far as the competition films go, this has been a very non-American affair, with strong contenders from France, Iran and an outstanding movie from Turkey — surely a Palme d’Or contender, and one of the best films I have seen here.Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon, for all its baffling and disconcerting qualities, really does mark her as a remarkable filmmaker. True, she had the guidance of her distinguished father Mohsen as producer, editor and co-writer, but to have directed such a substantial piece of work shows more than promise. The movie is set in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where a 20-year-old woman, Noqreh (Agheleh Rezaie), dreams of being the first woman president of her country.The first half is a humorous, accessible and stimulatingly optimistic account of Noqreh’s attempts to impress on her teachers and schoolfriends the seriousness of this ambition.
But then Makhmalbaf changes her note to tragic. Noqreh’s stern father decrees that she and her sister must leave the city with him; obediently, Noqreh agrees. The shift is managed with a weird impassivity. But this is a confident and beautiful work, shot in deep focus in stunning Afghan locations.Of the two French films on offer, I found Raoul Ruiz’s Ce Jour-Là (That Day) disappointing. It is a satirical drama of Swiss bourgeois life with hints of Claude Chabrol and Luis Buñuel, tremendously performed and replete with formal elegance, but bafflingly devoid of any real tension. Elsa Zylberstein plays Livia, a gentle soul who, through a quirk of fate, finds herself the sole inheritor of the rights to a vastly profitable table sauce that could save her father (Michel Piccoli) from ruin. Andre Téchiné‘s Les Egarés (The Strayed) is a period drama set in 1940: French civilians form a wretched line of refugees streaming desperately south as the Nazis invade. To avoid being strafed by the sadistic Stuka pilots, schoolteacher Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) hustles her two children away from the road into the woods, where they meet a mysterious teenage boy (Gaspard Ulliel) who agrees to help them.This is a handsomely mounted, sturdily constructed picture, based on Gilles Perrault’s novel Le Garçon aux Yeux Gris; it has the classic values of old-fashioned storytelling, and a terrifically confident sense of time and place. For some, this yarn might come a little close to sentimentality, but it is a charming and shrewd story about the adventure of childhood.Easily the best film in competition so far has been Uzak (Distant), written and directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan: a profoundly beautiful and moving meditation on loneliness whose essential seriousness does not preclude some tender comic moments. Muzaffer Ozdemir plays Mahmut, a prosperous and successful photographer in Istanbul. Now divorced, he has cultivated fastidious bachelor habits that fall apart when his country cousin Yusuf (Emin Toprak) comes to stay while looking for work.Calling Uzak an odd-couple comedy does not quite convey the melancholia that drifts through the movie like a cloud, with unapologetically long single takes and wistful silences. But it really is funny, with a humour rooted in compassion for unhappiness, absurdity and the encroachment of old age. It is a film of exquisite piquancy: a real masterpiece.In the Un Certain Regard section, American Splendor was a funny and funkily downbeat docudrama about the underground comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, played by the man himself and also by Paul Giamatti, who has a lock on vulnerable nerd roles in the indie-movie world. This is a movie in the spirit of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb — and sure enough, James Urbaniak turns up as Robert Crumb, now nothing less than a tutelary deity to the comic world. — Â

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