US films reveal dark visions at Cannes

American studios kicked off the Cannes filmfest with big-ticket items like "Shrek" and "Moulin Rouge," but skeptics wondered if US momentum would fade when smaller-scale productions took the screen.

If anything, the motley crew of mavericks and independents made more imaginative waves than their Hollywood cousins did at the late-May festival - good news for stateside moviegoers, who'll find this fare on theater screens later in the year.

The Man Who Wasn't There comes from Joel and Ethan Coen, festival regulars whose "Barton Fink" won Cannes prizes for best picture, actor, and director in 1991. They've had a rockier path with recent offerings like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Big Lebowski," but their new thriller-comedy-melodrama finds them in excellent form.

Billy Bob Thornton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Ed Crane, a 1940s barber who grows restless with his quiet life in a sleepy California city. He becomes even less happy when he discovers his wife's affair with a local department-store manager.

Ed isn't sure what to think when a smooth-talking entrepreneur comes to town, looking for investors in a modern-day wonder called dry cleaning. He knows this might be a swindle or a scam, but he's desperate for fresh opportunities. So he launches a phony kidnapping scheme to raise ready cash, setting off a string of tragicomic events.

This tale will have a familiar ring for fans of '40s novelists like James M. Cain, a major influence on the Coen brothers, and it will certainly appeal to admirers of "film noir" classics with their dark, sinister stories told in a dark, sinister style.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is drenched in '40s noir mannerisms, from its crisp black-and-white photography to its pitch-dark humor and sardonic story twists.

More a dreamlike mood piece than a full-fledged suspense yarn, the movie benefits from much strong acting - Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini are also on hand - and from Roger Deakins's shadow-filled camera work.

David Lynch, who won the top Cannes prize for "Wild at Heart" in 1990, also returned with a highly original item. Last year he surprised everyone with "The Straight Story," an uncharacteristically gentle tale, but Mulholland Drive marks a return to his unsettling "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway" mode.

The heroine is a clean-cut young woman who comes to Los Angeles with dreams of Hollywood stardom, meets an enigmatic new friend with no memory of the past, and finds herself investigating a mystery that may have no definitive solution.

If you're looking for a straight-ahead story, "Mulholland Drive" may drive you crazy with its narrative detours, surrealistic digressions, and psychological cul de sacs.

But viewers on the lookout for sheer cinematic ingenuity will find the creator of "Twin Peaks" near the peak of his powers.

Todd Solondz portrayed the dark side of junior high school in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and the dark side of everything else in "Happiness," one of the most nightmarish social satires of recent years. He travels the same road in Storytelling, a ferocious comedy in two parts.

The first, "Fiction," centers on a writing student who seeks inspiration in unconventional love affairs.

The second, "Nonfiction," skewers everything from middle-class family life to Sundance-style filmmaking. It does this through the funny-scary tale of a would-be documentary director who decides to chronicle the life of an alienated 12th-grader.

John Goodman and Julie Hagerty are among the gifted actors who bring Solondz's astringent ideas to life. But here, as with the Lynch and Coen pictures, the director's unique vision is what you'll remember as you leave the theater - and since few filmmakers see contemporary existence quite as bleakly as Solondz does, moviegoers should think twice before they run off to see it.

Abel Ferrara reveals a similar cynicism in the title of his new picture, 'R-Xmas, which reduces the words "Our Christmas" to an advertising-type formula. This filmmaker feels everything is treated like a commodity in today's America, and he sounds a grim warning about this through a story of New York drug trafficking in the holiday season. "Sopranos" actress Drea de Matteo and rap singer Ice-T head the cast.

Also on the American slate was No Such Thing, a monster-movie fable by Hal Hartley that I found more diverting than most Cannes critics did. It's no masterpiece, but it's another reminder that independent US filmmaking remains alive and well.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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