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Pan / Sexual

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Tomorrow night the Palme d'Or and Cannes' other prizes will be handed out. The morning line of speculation from the critics had Pedro Almodóvar's Volver and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel holding as the frontrunners, with Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates as an honorable compromise candidate. But we know nothing. All the awards are chosen by the nine-member Jury headed this year by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, and they're not talking.

So we trade rumors. The most piquant, floated by one French insider, had the Palme d'Or going to the Portuguese film Colossal Youth. If so, this would be the upset of the movie millennium. Variety's Justin Chang described the film as "a numbing, nearly three-hour fusion of documentary and dramatic essay that will hold the Portuguese director's coterie of fans in rapt attention while proving a colossal bore to everyone else."

Poor Justin was obliged to stay for the whole thing (actually 2hr.35min.). And truth to tell, a few critics who put themselves through the entire ordeal whispered the word materpiece, if only to annoy the rest of us — because for most reviewers, this static film about the Lisbon lower depths was literally un-sit-throughable, at least after the first hour. If Costa does win, expect a chorus of boos to drown out his acceptance speech.

The other rumor was that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were planning to honor the country where their daughter was born by naming her Branamibia.

For a quick report on the closing ceremony, come on back here around 10p.m. Paris time, 4p.m. EDT, for a quick report on the winners. Meanwhile, we wanted to tell you about two movies: one that's among our favorites at this year's festival, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and another, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, that points, more clearly than any recent film, in a provocative direction the cinema could take.

—Mary Corliss and Richard Corliss

Alice and Malice

Pan's Labyrinth was shown Saturday, the Festival's final day of competition. That's the graveyard slot here. By the 11th day, many of the Cannes conventioneers have departed, and the Jury presumably has a good idea of their award preferences by then. For a last-day film to win the Palme d'Or would be like a public access show at two in the morning copping the top spot in the Nielsen ratings.

Well, who cares? Pan's Labyrinth is terrific. It sets an Alice in Wonderland fantasy in the desperate conflict of fascists and insurgents in Franco's Spain, 1944. An Army officer, the brutal Capt. Vidal (Sergi López), has married and impregnated a young widow (Araidna Gil), bringing her and her 11-year-old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) to a house in the rebel zone he is patrolling. Ofelia, fiercely loyal to her mother and dead father, and rightly suspicious of the Captain, feels the force of strange creatures from the moment she arrives at her new home. While the adults career toward confrontation and tragedy, the girl becomes immersed in the magic world in the surrounding forest.

This sylvan realm is populated by stickbugs that morph into fairies, a toad the size of a Studebaker and, ruling them all, a seven-foot-tall Pan, the goat-god. He knows Ofelia as soon as she enters his underground home, identifying her as the long-lost Princess Moanna. He tells her she will reach her destiny — will "stroll through the seven circular gardens of your palace" — if she can accomplish three difficult tasks. One is to get a key that the toad has swallowed. The second: use that key to unlock a door in the lair of the Pale Man, a child-devourer who has eyeballs in his hands. And the thirdů

Del Toro is known for the horror movies (Cronos, Hellboy) that he has directed in Hollywood and his native Mexico. They're quite sophisticated, but nothing in them prepared viewers for the narrative richness and emotional gravity of Pan's Labyrinth — Lewis Carroll meets Luis Buñuel.

This is a fantasy realm so fully and elegantly realized, it might be the adaptation of a classic novel. Yet the source is Del Toro's own capacious imagination. The inverted logic of a child's dreams rarely has had such a secure equilibrium. And it is brilliantly visualized by Guillermo Navarro's cinematography, a severe symphony of dark shades in the house, more dramatic color contrasts in the labyrinth.

For much of the film, Ofelia's fairy-tale quest is secondary to the power vectors at work in the house. Tensions bubble between the Captain and Ofelia's weak mother, and especially the Captain and the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verd˙). These are two marvelous characters. She has a quiet ferocity to match her cunning, which makes her a splendid revolutionary heroine. He is the real monster of the story, with a sadism bred in him by his own soldier father, and a macho theatricality that makes him a great movie villain. López (who has played memorably creepy types in With a Friend Like Harry and Dirty Pretty Things) and Verd˙ (the sexy "older woman" in Y tu mamá también, but here sinewy and resolute) would both be worthy of Cannes acting prizes.

Del Toro calls Pan's Labyrinth a child's dark fantasy for adults. Certainly it's not for children. Even the grown-up audience in Cannes was jolted by the Captain's acts of violence towards others (he shoots a suspect in cold blood after smashing his face to pulp with a broken bottle) and himself. The scene in which, after having his own cheek cut open, he sutures a pretty severe gash in his mouth, earned the audience's applause.

Most "adult" is Del Toro's belief that the world into which young minds soar or retreat is fragile indeed. The ending should not be revealed, except to say I've never encountered it in a children's book nor movie. While Ofelia burrows into Pan's labyrinth, the world outside — the real one — plays by a harsher, more violent, set of rules. Learning the difference is the beginning of maturity, the end of childhood innocence.

—Mary Corliss

Meet the ****ers

Shortbus is a nice, funny, romantic comedy-drama about relationships among "the gifted and challenged" in post-9/11 New York City. It could slip comfily into any slot at the Sundance Film Festival, except for one thing: it has lots of explicit, hard-core sex.

The movie opens and climaxes, if I can say that, with the cross-cutting of several scenes of vigorous sexual activity. One heterosexual couple rushes through a dozen permutations in a wham-bam-Kama-Sutra fashion. A young man photographs his genitals in his bathtub. Another fellow performs acrobatic onanistic sex; he could start his own Cirque de Solo. A dominatrix whups her client, while he tries to pursue the kind of conversational line other people might have on a first date. (He: "Are you a top or a bottom in real life?" She: "This is real life." He: "Let me put it another way: Do you think we should get out of Iraq?")

Having met these seekers in their most intimate moments, we soon get to know them better. Severin (Lindsay Beamish), the dominatrix, can't get past the idea of sex as a power struggle expressed in theatrical terms. The bathtub guy, Jamie (PJ DeBoy), and the contortionist, James (Paul Dawson), have been a couiple for a few years. Now they want to expand and experiment. As James observes dismissively,"Monogamy is for straight people."

As for Sofia (Soon-yin Lee), half of the heterosexual pair, she feels constrained in her marriage to Rob (Raphael Barker). No wonder there: one day she discovers Rob pleasuring himself while perusing a porn website. "I'm looking for a job," he explains lamely. "What," she asks, "a hand job?" But Sofia has her own problems: she's a sex therapist who gets no ultimate kick from sex. When James and Jamie come to her as patients, she turns the tables by confessing to them: "I'm pre-orgasmic." "Does that mean you're about to have one?" "No. It means I've never had one."

For short-term solutions to their problems, they all go to a sex cabaret called Shortbus. Among the denizens are a courtly older gent, who bears a passing resemblance to a former bachelor mayor of New York, and the cabaret's host, real-life male diva Justin Bond. "It's just like the 60s," he says of the entanglement of bodies in the orgy room, "only with less hope." The search for connection might seem exclusively sexual, but to Justin it's all about style. He quotes one Lotus Weinstein as saying, "I used to want to change the world. Now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity."

There's more sex in the movie, including a three-way gay routine that features a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" sung in very close quarters. (It still sounds better than Rosanne's version.) But Mitchell has little interest in being the avatar of those triple-X pioneers the Mitchell Brothers, of Behind the Green Door infamy.

This Mitchell was the author, lyricist and star of the off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Here, his structuring of the material is less like a hard-core film, more like a musical. There are songs throughout, though Mitchell didn't write them, and the production numbers have a geometrical elegance and absurdity that suggests a porno Busby Berkeley. And when the movie finally ends (it has more tie-up-the-plot scenes than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), everybody's back at the salon, singing the anthemic "We All Get It in the End."

I'm not saying Shortbus is a world-beater; it's mostly clever, sometimes meandering. And I have to say I didn't get excited by all the gay exertions (or the straight ones). But I hail Mitchell for achieving something that was on many a serious director's mind 30 years ago: the coherent integration of explicit sex scenes into a naturalistic story film. Mitchell said that in press interviews here, he was asked over and over, "Why sex?" I wonder: What took so long? Most people laugh and cry; most people have sex, occasionally at the same time. Sex isn't divorced from our own emotional biographies; it's an inextricable part of it. So I applaud Mitchell. And I say to other intrepid filmmakers: Just do it.

The night after the out-of-competition Cannes screening, Shortbus threw itself a party on the Martinez Hotel beach. The press was told there would be performances. I can't imagine what we expected to find. A gamier version of Meet the Fokkers, I guess. But, no. various members of the cast convened for a concert. The vibe was like an American Idol audition on Avenue A. A little raunchy, but essentially convivial. As Mary C. noted, "It's a dorm party, not a porn party." It took place in a bandshell at the end of the pier that stretches into the Mediterranean. As I looked down, I noticed quite a bit of unattractive flotsam in the water. The sea was dirtier than the show.

The host was Justin Bond, backed by the piano stylings of Kenny Melman. He kept the event afloat with his lithe sarcasm. ("If I could love," he told one singer, "I would love you very much.") But the 500 or so attendees standing on that pier really came to life when Mitchell bounded onstage, singing forcefully, dancing with a practiced frenzy, showing the audience and the other performers what stage presence really is.

Around 1 a.m. Mitchell asked the crowd to join in on the final number, and we did. Mary swayed; I swayed. Next to me, there was Sofia Coppola, swaying with a friend and singing along to "We All Get It in the End." It was a lovely, communal moment, for we were moved by a spirit both erotic and innocent. Just like the 60s, you might say, only with less hype.

—Richard Corliss

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