We love coming here. We've done so for 34 years, tasting the local strawberries and fine wines when we're not testing the films on view. Once again we'll be filing daily dispatches on the movies, press conferences, parties and other events of this, the 60th Cannes Film Festival. When the new works of the Coen brothers, Emir Kusturica, Gus Van Sant, Hou Hsiao-hsien and other world-class directors are shown, we'll report on them. When Brangelina comes calling, for their respective films (Ocean's Thirteen and A Mighty Heart), we'll be in the mob trying to ask them questions. If Michael Moore is arrested by the U.S. government (as we suspect he hopes), we'll let you know. Drop by each day for the latest movie effluvia.
Wong Kar Wai also loves Cannes. The Hong Kong writer-director has been here a half-dozen times, including last year's stint as president of the Festival Jury that awards the Palme d'Or on closing night (a week from Sunday). And the Festival likes Wong enough to have chosen his new film, My Blueberry Nights, as the opening night film at a black-tie ceremony later this evening. He'll be there with his star, Norah Jones, the pop singer making her acting debut in his first American movie a very mixed bag, with some fine scenes and characters to enliven a mostly disappointing endeavor.
For Wong Kar Wai, a film is not one big thing not the Hollywood notion of movies as snowballing sagas of a world in jeopardy and the heroes who save it but many little things, an accretion of textured images and vagrant impulses. He's a master miniaturist, a creator of wistful anecdotes featuring, over and over, the same sort of people: fatalistic men and moody women who, for a poignant, painful, precious few moments, connect. He cocoons these beautiful losers in his distinct visual-emotional style. The mix of cigarette smoke and step-printed slow motion, furtive glances and liquored wisdom, lends ordinary anguish an almost majestic glamour.
Once he finds a character or situation that beguiles him, Wong tends to stick with it, through multiple movies. He conceived the 1994 Chungking Express as three stories but shot only two; the third tale became his next film, Fallen Angels. A few years later he made In the Mood for Love, about a writer (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) falling for a married woman in 60s Hong Kong; that character reappeared, with four other alluring females, in 2046. Wong knows that movies are supposed to run between an hour and a half and two hours, but that's not natural for him. The Hand, a lovely fable about an aging courtesan (Gong Li), seemed just right at 40 mins.
It's no surprise, then, that his first U.S. feature should present two mid-length stories framed by a third. And in tribute to Hollywood cinema, My Blueberry Nights is not confined to a neighborhood (as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels were), or a single hotel (as in In the Mood for Love and 2046). This is a road movie, which begins in Venice, Cal., then flashes back to and ends in New York City, with long detours to Memphis and Nevada. It's an itinerary any foreign filmmaker fascinated with with America would choose to illustrate the country's scope and variety.
Jones plays Elizabeth, a young woman mired in depression over a recently ended affair. She strikes up a friendship with Jeremy (Jude Law), who runs a bar-restaurant in one of the seedier sections of New York. On her frequent visits there, she orders blueberry pie a dish no one else orders and he falls a little in love with her loneliness. She leaves New York for Memphis, where she gets a couple of waitressing jobs and meets a cop (David Strathairn) who's sunk into alcoholism over the departure of his good-time wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz). Elizabeth then goes to Nevada, cocktailing in a casino. There she encounters Leslie (Natalie Portman), a canny gambler who's got a sassy line of patter and is almost, but not quite, as good at cards as she thinks she is.
Jones, a very appealing performer in concerts and interviews, is herself half-Asian (her father is the celebrated Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar), and thus fits snugly into the Wong Kar Wai iconography. We see her, chin on hand, staring sadly into the middle distance; and Wong shows this not-very-much-happening in his patented dreamy slo-mo. Jones also has a similar background to many performers from Wong's Hong Kong films: Leung, Leslie Cheung, Faye Wong, Andy Lau, Leon Lai and dozens of others were Canto-pop stars before they were accomplished actors.
But there's a big difference between movie acting, which is what the Hong Kong stars quickly learned to do, and posing for pictures, which is what Jones does. She has all the right moves, but something is missing inside. (Her unfortunate speaking voice doesn't help.) She's the hole at the center of the movie. Indeed, Blueberry Nights can be seen as a series of acting lessons, by the other members of the cast, which Jones can apply the next time she's in a movie. Their work usually looks natural; hers seems forced and false. They shine, next to her limited screen luster.
Nor do most of the stories spring to movie life. Jeremy's devotion to Elizabeth is more an idea than a felt emotion, though Law pours all his considerable charm into the effort. Strathairn and Weisz have some potent moments in a set piece of domestic regret, but each has to push harder than should be necessary to achieve the rueful feelings. It's not until Portman shows up that you'll find the sort of sizzle and sympathy Wong cooks up with ease in his best films.
Natalie Portman Best Actress? Yup. For once she's not playing a waif or a child princess but a mature, full-bodied woman, probably a decade older than Portman is (25). She looks great, in a blond rinse and come-hither outfits, but she's not coasting on her looks; they are only accoutrements to Leslie's natural salesmanship. She uses her appeal to simultaneously flirt with and taunt the gambler across the table. And when the cards turn against her, Leslie is quick to hit on Elizabeth, who has naively mentioned a $2200 stash of her own. Thus begins a wary comradeship where it's hard to tell who's lying and who's telling the truth.
There are other sweet scenes in the film notably the (perhaps imagined) kiss of a (possibly sleeping) woman. But the memory we'll cherish is that of Portman's vibrancy, grittiness and ache, all performed with a virtuosa's easy assurance. She, not Jones, is the savory dish of movie magic in a mostly bland Blueberry Nights.