Ultimate Test at Cannes: Claps, Boos, or 'Seat Slams'

Critics' reactions are barometer of reviews to come

You don't have to wait for newspapers and magazines to hit the stands if you're at Cannes and want to know how critics liked a movie here. Just go to the special press screening, stay until the last scene of the picture, and listen to the response, which tends to be as vocal as it is opinionated.

Using that theory, it's easy to predict the general tone of reviews that will greet some of this summer's major releases.

One is The Sunchaser, among the few Hollywood haymakers to appear on this year's mostly art-oriented program. Journalists viewed it with special interest since it was directed by Michael Cimino, best known for the infamous "Heaven's Gate," perhaps the biggest financial disaster in film history. The new picture stars Woody Harrelson as a doctor taken hostage by a seriously ill prisoner who wants to escape the law and seek enlightenment from an Indian wise man.

Hordes of reviewers showed up for the movie's early-morning screening, and there weren't many walkouts before the grand finale, a high-speed blend of chase-scene clichs and "new age" malarkey.

But the closing credits were accompanied by applause that could only be called tepid, and reviews will probably be the same when the adventure opens in commercial theaters.

Another eagerly awaited item was Stealing Beauty, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian master known for controversial dramas like "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor."

Centering on a 19-year-old American who comes of age while visiting family friends in a rural villa, it combines exquisite views of the Italian countryside with appealing performances by Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack, and Liv Tyler, who plays the heroine.

Unfortunately, it also has an empty-headed story with little new to say about either life or love. Cannes critics received it with a 50-50 mix of cheers and boos, and it's hard to quarrel with that so-so verdict.

Less ambiguous was the response to Crash, adapted by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg from J.G. Ballard's nerve-jangling novel about a group of weirdos who find car accidents erotic.

Cronenberg pitched it as a bold look at technology's effect on conceptions of the human body, but members of the press-screening audience didn't buy his argument. After punctuating supposedly serious scenes with sarcastic laughter, they accompanied the closing credits with howls of derision that virtually drowned out a few lonely hurrays. And when "Crash" won a special award "for originality, for daring and for audacity" at the closing-night ceremony, the boos returned.

Critical enthusiasm isn't likely to be any greater when the picture opens on US screens. Holly Hunter and James Spader head the cast.

If there's one movie on the festival lineup that appears to have charmed everyone in sight, it's the superb Secrets & Lies, written and directed by Mike Leigh, whose explosive "Naked" won the festival's best-actor prize for David Thewlis three years ago.

More sensitive and delicate than its title suggests, "Secrets & Lies" focuses on a young woman who decides to find the biological mother who gave her up for adoption as an infant, and ends up with a whole new set of complicated family relations. Making things more interesting is the fact that she's black, educated, and middle class while her mother's household is white, working-class, and not very happy with its lot in life.

From these ingredients, Leigh spins an engrossing tale that expresses his dedicated social conscience - a mainspring of his filmmaking career - while showing a spirited love for even the weakest and most flawed of his characters. The result is a warm, moving, and life-affirming film that deserves as much acclaim from moviegoers as the jury gave it here by awarding it the Golden Palm.

While the clapping and booing of Cannes journalists provides a rough index of how movies will be received after leaving the festival circuit, there's another barometer that's even more reliable: the slamming-seat syndrome, measured by the number of theater seats that pop noisily into an upright position when a fed-up reviewer decides to walk out - or "ankle," as the trade paper Variety likes to say. Of the pictures I've attended as of this writing, the champion seat-slammer was Schizopolis, an offbeat comedy directed by Steven Soderbergh, once a leading light of American independent film.

Although he's a bright, talented, and personable artist, his career has not gone well since "sex, lies, and videotape" rocketed him to fame eight years ago.

Box-office disappointments like "Kafka" and "The Underground" have led Soderbergh to turn in a new direction, shooting "Schizopolis" as a sort of expanded home movie with a tiny budget and a little-known cast. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a young dentist, a discontented wife, and a silly self-help guru.

I always like to encourage seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that relies on nerve and imagination rather than money and star-power, but Soderbergh's effort is so minor and murky that there's little to say in its favor. Seats slammed, critics ankled, and while I stayed until the end, it was only to show support for a filmmaker who's capable of much better work.

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