Cannes Diary VII: Out of the Past

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Like a baseball manager, Cannes programmer Thierry Fremeaux likes to pack his heavy hitters in the middle of his lineup. So in the fat of the Festival, days five through seven of the 11-day film binge, the Cannes Competition slate has star-laden movies from David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch and Lars Von Trier.

It may be a whim of the Zeitgeist. It is certainly a boon for critics looking for (or inventing) common threads in important films. But all three directors —and British director James Marsh, who has a much-noted feature shown out of competition —are investigating the pull of the raucous past on the calmer present. The films ask: What is identity? Are we the people we were or the ones we become? Can we ever escape our past, or can we only learn to live with it?

In Cronenberg's A History of Violence, a quiet Midwestern family man (Viggo Mortsensen) is accused by some visiting gangsters of having been a hit man in Philly. In Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, a retired computer mogul (Bill Murray) learns that 20 years ago he fathered a child who is now trying to find him. In Marsh's The King, a preacher (William Hurt) who a generation earlier fathered and abandoned a child out of wedlock must pay for his age-old sin when the son (Gael Garcia Bernal) shows up. And in Von Trier's Manderlay, set in Alabama in the 1930s, an idealistic young woman (Bruce Dallas Howard) tries to confront and cure the lingering disease of slavery

The mysteries in these films are revealed slowly —in one case, not at all. But there is no suspense in this Cannes Diary. I have no reluctance in revealing that the Cronenberg is the best of the lot, a fine return to form by the distinctive Canadian director and one of the very strongest films in the Competition.

Tom Stall runs both his Millbrook, Ind., luncheonette and his family —wife Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son and kindergartenish daughter —with a gentle authority. Tom is the quiet, good-humored sort of fellow small-towners are proud to call one of their own, especially after he thwarts an armed robbery of his business by two vicious thugs. Thanks to his surprisingly adroit gunplay, they're dead and he's a hero, with a sudden fame that makes him uncomfortable. His unease escalates when some other toughs, led by one-eyed Fogerty (Ed Harris), drop in, declaring that Tom is one Joey Cusack, notorious gunslinger in a Philadelphia mob, and insisting that he go back East with them to clear up some unfinished business. Despite Tom's earnest protests, the local sheriff and even Edie wonder whether he really is the man they've respected and loved for 20 years.

I will honor the pleas of the film's press agents and not reveal who's who and what happens. Suffice to say that this adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner has four outbreaks of jolting violence to give some kick to a penetrating character study; and that the real Joey Cusack has a savory showdown with his mob-boss brother Richie (played by William Hurt with a rich pleasure in menace). Mortensen, whose Tom is as stalwart as his Middle-Earth Aragorn, is completely convincing and utterly hunky —a man worth loving, no matter who he is.

Broken Flowers held promise of being a breakthrough comedy for Jarmusch. Murray, lately the go-to actor for independent-minded directors, has established an amusingly dour screen personality that twins nicely with Jarmusch's. The writer-director shows his understanding of the Murray persona by casting him as Don Johnston, a man who searches for the mother of his son less out of a passion for knowledge than because he lacks the resolve to say no to his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who had eagerly proposed the trip. The presence of Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton as the four women in Don's long-ago love life offer hope for a quartet of comic or romantic playlets leading to a satisfying emotional resolution.

All of which proves that the Cannes audience had more in common with Winston, who is hooked on detective stories, than with Don, who sits alone in his upscale home, placidly depressed and expecting nothing. The film is structured as a series of diminishing returns. His first encounter, with Stone and her flirtatious daughter Lolita (Alexis Dziena), has pretty swatches of uncomfortable humor and a touching grace note, when Stone impulsively bows to kiss Tom's hand. The second episode also has its moments, as Conroy and her Babbitty husband (Christopher McDonald) leave Don more flummoxed than ever. But each meeting is increasingly shorter, with the third (Lange) perfuntory and the fourth (Swinton, looking great in a dark wig and a defiant rage) last only long enough for Don to get punched out.

The hallmark of any commercial film is that it resolves the plot. More and more, as this year's Cannes selections demonstrate, art films shrink from happy endings; sad ones, endings of any certainty. Michael Haneke's Hidden, the critics' current favorite to win the Palme d'Or, refused to unravel its central enigma. So does Broken Flowers, though Don need only ask a question or two of a few people he meets to find what he was ostensibly searching for. The mystery and the answer, Jarmusch says, is in Murray's face, whose contours and conundrums are always worth studying. A brief glance upward earns as big a laugh as any Will Ferrell pratfall; a tear welling in his left eye has the impact of a Niagara from some soap opera star. But, here at least, he's not handing out clues to the mystery of character, let alone to the film's unsolved plot.

The King takes the Jarmusch film's premise and sees it from the point of view of the abandoned son. Elvis (Garcia Bernal), just out of the Navy, tracks down his father (Hurt), now a Texas preacher with a wife and two kids, like Tom in A History of Violence. The father tells Elvis to stay away from his deeply religious family, but the lad begins furtively wooing the daughter (Pell James) —presumably, his half-sister! And that is just the beginning of his machinations. By the end of the film, when Elvis comes to his father and, like a well-intentioned penitent, says, "I need to get right with God," he has much to atone for.

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