'Henry Fool': American Film Favoritism or Worthy Picture?

American independents get special attention at the Cannes filmfest, where audiences hope the next "English Patient" or "sex, lies & videotape" may surface. Hence the advance interest in "Henry Fool," a pitch-dark comedy by Hal Hartley, opens in US theaters June 19.

Cannes encouraged the buzz by bending its own rules, screening the movie in the Official Competition even though it had unspooled earlier at the Toronto filmfest. On closing night it won the prestigious Best Screenplay award, puzzling some critics who found it one of Hartley's less-enticing works.

This touched off speculation that the jury's American members - actresses Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, and director Martin Scorsese, who chaired the panel - may have persuaded the seven additional members to honor Hartley in return for top-level prizes to European productions.

Overlooked in this ruckus was the possibility that Hartley's picture actually deserved the kudos it received. A vocal minority of Cannes critics saw it as a bold, sometimes breathtaking story that may prove too unsettling for multiplex appeal - especially in its treatment of child abuse and other disturbing issues - but could take its place as an indie classic once the initial fuss dies down.

The title character is a mysterious stranger who drifts into the life of Simon, a young garbage collector. Henry hints at an exotic past that he's memorializing in his "Confession," an autobiography that will stun the world if he ever gets around to finishing it.

Spurred by his example, Simon writes a book-length poem of his own, greeted by his neighbors with very different responses. A mute woman bursts into poignant song after reading a few lines, yet others find it sick and disgusting. Henry and Simon pursue their literary destinies to expected conclusions, also intertwining their personal lives as Henry marries Simon's sister.

Detractors of "Henry Fool" find it long, slow, intermittently offensive, and evasive in its refusal to let us know what the characters' writing is actually like. Defenders note that its stylized treatment of offbeat material shows the influence of master filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, a longtime Hartley favorite who has also explored unsettling material in movies closer to moral allegories than conventional stories.

"Henry Fool" finds Hartley assimilating Godard's ideas with far more assurance than in previous pictures like "Amateur" and "Flirt," which marked a downturn in his career.

It also has more emotional depth than his other movies, particularly in its candid treatment of child abuse, an evil also probed in Todd Solondz's new "Happiness," the best-received American film at Cannes this year. Both films suggest that sublime and sickening impulses may exist side by side in our all-too-human natures, and "Henry Fool" indicates that making art is one of the few means we have for sorting these out.

The cast includes Thomas Jay Ryan as the title character, James Urbaniak as his odd companion, Parker Posey as his sister, and Maria Porter as their mother. Hartley himself wrote the prizewinning screenplay.

* Rated R; contains sex, scatological humor, and a subplot about sexual abuse of children.

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