Cannes Diary II: Killing With Comedy

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The mendicants, standing outside the door to the Cannes press offices held hand-crafted signs that begged for tickets to the opening night attraction. "S.V.P. Une Invitation pour Lemming," one read. Another had a drawing of the rodent in question. That's Cannes, or any film festival. People will kill to get into the kind of movie they wouldn't be caught dead seeing back home.

We had no spare tickets—the press corps attends earlier screenings that do not require evening wear— but could have done the beseechers a favor if we'd scribbled a sign that said, "Not Worth the Trouble."

Even Dominik Moll, the director of Lemming, was surprised that his film had been chosen to inaugurate Cannes 2005. "Not commercial enough," he told one of the half-dozen daily film magazines published here during the Festival. Nor quite suspenseful or eventful enough either. It's the story of an amiable young inventor (Laurent Lucas) and his loving wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose suburban stability is upended by the incursion of an older couple (Andre Dussollier and Charlotte Rampling) and a Finnish rodent. Lemming amasses yards of unease—violent death, talking ghosts, infestation of pests, both animal and human, and that peculiarly French crime, rude dinner-party behavior—but it has neither the finesse to be a comedy of bad manners in the Claude Chabrol style nor the remorseless craft to be a full-out Hitchcockian thriller.

Death is as natural as breathing in the Kurdistan of 1988, the setting for Hiner Saleem's Kilometre Zero, a comedy about the systematic brutality of Saddam Hussein's army toward the perpetually persecuted Kurds. Though some supporting roles are taken by men who lost arms or legs in the barbarity, the tone is grimly, sometimes playfully ironic in a landscape of blinding sun and sand. The hero, Ako (Nazmi Kirik), a Kurd villager conscripted into the Iraqi Army, will do anything to get back to his wife (the improbably chic Belcim Bilgin) and child; the anything includes sticking his leg up to get it blown off in a free-fire zone. When Saleem isn't invoking Fellini's La Dolce Vita (with references to Anita Ekberg's Trevi Fountain dip and to the statue of Christ hauled across Rome, here replaced by a statue of Saddam), it has Ako indulging in base-camp horseplay with two pals. They might be Moe, Larry and Kurdy. (That's Richard's joke, not mine. —Mary)

The film has the attitude if not the consistency of tone and efficacy of filmmaking of the Bosnian No Man's Land. It's also daringly (for a French-backed project) grateful to the U.S. for invading Iraq and freeing Kurdistan. "Yes, we know American is imperialistic," a Kurd says at the beginning. "We would have preferred liberation by France or Switzerland or Sweden. But no one else came." At the end, in 2003, Ako and Selma can rejoice, but they are too wise to think their troubles are over. As the Kurdish saying goes: "The past is sad. The present is a tragedy. Luckily we have no future."

The threat of violence clouds a blithe Brit upper-class family in tonight's gala film, Match Point, which marks Woody Allen's belated and welcome return to championship form. Chris, a tennis pro instructor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), insinuates himself into the Hewitt family by befriending its smooth son Tom (Hugh Grant-ish Matthew Goode) and wooing the gawky daughter Chloe (Emily Mortimer). He finds a soul- and bed-mate in Tom's American fiancee Nola (Scarlett Johansson) when they first collide for a quick spot of table tennis. "Did anyone ever tell you you play an extremely aggressive game?" Nola asks. She knows the lure she poses for men but doesn't know the half of Chris' aggressive strategy. Will he let Nola derail his plan to marry Chloe? Or will he try to juggle his ambition and his lust?

Connoisseurs of malicious English comedy — we think of Kind Hearts and Coronets and Nothing But the Best — will happily follow the increasingly malevolent arc of Allen's plot. Translating his obsession with the genteel moneyed class from Manhattan to London hasn't encouraged the writer-director to fill his script with epigrams; the dialogue is merely functional. But the scheme is devious and engrossing.

Another nice change for an Allen film: the actors don't feel obliged to mimic Woody's halting cadences or bury themselves in neurotic doubt. They speak the lines and sell the emotions. Johansson, just 19 when the film was shot, is quickly blooming into one of the modern screen's rare womanly women. (Allen thinks so. He's already written his next film around her.) Rhys Meyers—who played a similar character, George Minafer, in a 2002 A&E version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and was a convincing Elvis this week on CBS—carries himself with Jude Law's silky creepiness and an Irish charisma all his own. He also carries the film, lending a fascination to all of Chris' machinations. The screen comes alive whenever Rhys Meyers radiates his cunning magnetism.

So, good news, ticket-seekers. In its second day, Cannes has a film worth begging to see.