The Americans Make a Return To High Profile At Cannes

Virtually absent last year, they stage a strong comeback with two movies about family life

A big issue at last year's Cannes Film Festival was the surprisingly low profile of American entries. This was due partly to timing problems, since big summer attractions weren't completed when the scheduling deadline arrived. Another reason was Hollywood's reluctance to unveil major films in an overseas setting, where studio control over marketing and promotional matters is less complete than it is back home.

But that was then, this is now. American and British productions are in full bloom this year, filling the many screens of the Palais des Festivals with unusual vigor. Some are old news in the United States, where pictures like ''Jefferson in Paris'' and ''Ed Wood'' have already opened. Others are having their first public screenings here, and curiosity about them couldn't be higher. Pictures attracting the most buzz range from ''The Neon Bible,'' a small-town drama starring the superb Gena Rowlands, to ''Beyond Rangoon,'' a look at Burma's troubled political situation with Patricia Arquette in the leading role.

Interestingly, the most exciting American productions to show up early in the festival aren't part of the Official Competition -- where the movies have been mostly disappointing, as of this writing -- but belong to the sidebar series called ''Un Certain Regard,'' dedicated to slightly offbeat films with ''a certain look'' about them. This program opened with two movies about family relations, one directed by actress Diane Keaton and the other by Ulu Grosbard, a stage director who makes occasional forays into film. Both were enthusiastically received, and should be appearing on American screens in the near future.

The engrossing 'Georgia'

Grosbard's picture is ''Georgia,'' starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in the kind of performance that filmfests dream of discovering. Its main characters are two sisters who live and work in the Seattle area. Georgia, played by Mare Winningham, is a country singer who's never cared much about success but has achieved it anyway, becoming a star at the expense of shaky relations with her husband and other family members. Sadie, played by Leigh, is a Janis Joplin-like rock singer who cares deeply about success, but has short-circuited her career with drug and alcohol abuse.

Caught in a complex relationship combining love, rivalry, and occasional blunt hostility, these talented women make a fascinating pair. Georgia refuses to feel any of the pain she comes in contact with, and has the polite, prettified music style you'd expect from such a personality. Sadie not only feels emotional pain but cultivates it with her self-destructive behaviors, and her singing is an excruciating reflection of this pattern, expressing her hopes and fears with an intensity bordering on desperation.

Rarely does music contribute to story development as powerfully as it does in ''Georgia,'' which reaches its climax in an astonishing concert scene featuring a Van Morrison number sung by Sadie with an urgency that seems to reveal the innermost layers of her deeply tormented yet unquenchably resilient self. Much of the credit for this moment and for the entire film's impact goes to Leigh, whose acting here far surpasses her work in such movies as ''The Hudsucker Proxy'' and ''Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,'' where she made a strong start only to settle into a single groove that became monotonous after a while.

But to celebrate Leigh's excellence in ''Georgia'' is not to overlook the contributions of Grosbard's thoughtful directing, Barbara Turner's intelligent screenplay, and fine performances by Winningham as the title character, Max Perlich as Sadie's nice yet nondescript husband, and an excellent supporting cast. Together they have crafted one of the most engrossing movies in recent memory.

'Unstrung Heroes' Gets Laughs

Family life also plays a central role in ''Unstrung Heroes,'' a movie with more pathos than its whimsical title might lead one to expect, and also a lot of very good laughs.

The main character is Steven, a junior-high student with an unusual collection of relatives: a mother who's seriously ill, a father who spends his days taking home movies and dreaming up kooky inventions, and two uncles whose eccentricity verges on outright craziness. The story reaches its comic peak when Steven goes to live with his uncles, who proceed to change his name to Franz, wise him up to the conspiracy they think is stalking them, and teach him to sing the socialist ''Internationale'' when the other kids are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

''Unstrung Heroes'' has moments that are silly, sentimental, or both; its credibility slips when Andie MacDowell manages to look as attractive as ever while her character is supposed to be dying. The movie is always appealing and often quite clever, though, and it's great fun watching Maury Chaykin and Michael Richards bounce off each other as the nutty uncles.

In all, ''Unstrung Heroes'' marks a big step forward in Keaton's hitherto undistinguished directing career, and a pleasant surprise at a festival where American movies have made an impressive comeback.

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