The first full day of the Cannes Film Festival revealed a veteran in solid form and an emerging Iranian director with a distinctive style.

The festival loves Woody Allen, and was lucky enough to see him working in solid form in “Match Point,” an existential thriller that looks towards the bleak side of human nature. “Match Point” is one of Allen’s strongest films this decade, although admittedly the current one hasn’t been as good to him as the ’90s. With some recollection of “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” this dark tale of societal comfort combines Allen’s witty writing with the confusion and distress of making major life decisions.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a professional Irish tennis player who wasn’t quite talented enough to compete with the best of them and so quit and went to work at a country club in London. There he becomes friends with one of his students, a wealthy socialite named Tom (Matthew Goode) who invites him to the Opera, then to the country, with his family. There, he works up a romance with Tom‘s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) at the same time he meets and becomes infatuated with Tom’s fiancée, an aspiring American actress named Nola (Scarlett Johansson), whom he meets at a table tennis room in a scene of “Double Indemnity”-style innuendo.

In his first film shot in London, Allen and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin photograph the city beautifully as the story quietly builds up tension. The family likes Chris, and starts grooming him for marriage with Chloe, who can’t wait to start a family. Meanwhile, however, his interest in Nola builds and he has trouble deciding between his two possible lives.

A lot of life depends on luck, Meyers narrates over a beautiful opening shot of balls whirling over a tennis net until one hits the net and freeze frames while Meyers describes how the ball could fall back and you lose, or go over and you win. Chris’s life is just as controlled by his cloudy desires as it is by chance encounters and the sequence of events in his life and those around him. And Allen covers it all with intelligent dialogue and unexpected moments of clever visual storytelling.

Allen never puts his films into competition, but two films, including the excellent “Kilometre Zero,” played today as well. Writer/director Hiner Saleem has created a film full of absurd and surreal visions of war, sometimes hilarious and sometimes sobering. The film takes place in 1988, in the time leading up to the Iraqi army’s massacre of Kurds using chemical weapons.

Ako (Nazmi Kirik), isn’t much of a hero in the traditional sense, as his efforts to survive include an unsuccessful attempt to convince his wife to ditch her old, dying father (who is so deaf that he rarely realizes what’s going on) so that they and their son might get out of the country. Rather than fight with the Kurdish resistance, he ends up pledging allegiance to Hussein and joining the Iraqi army with no belief in anything that he could die for.

One of the funniest scenes involves him in a trench during a bombing raid, desperately sticking his foot in the air in the hopes of getting it blown off so he won’t have to fight anymore. The Kurds in the army have joined mandatorily to survive, and their clueless running around after each explosion demonstrates their will for preservation amongst random death. The soldiers have a series of amusing conversations, one talking about the dream that is Europe—where they stopped fighting years ago and now only go to war when it’s really serious, like 60 million dead people. Plus the women are beautiful.

Saleem’s style is muted, with an eye for memorable imagery and black humor. Jump cuts punctuate awkward silence, most notably in a scene in which a Kurd and an Arab challenge each other to actually talk about why they hate the other group, but neither has the nerve to go first.

The bulk of the film involves the transport of a deceased soldier in a flag-draped coffin tied to the top of a giant van, driven by an Arab and manned by Ako. Their trip hits repeated delays, however, as the soldiers at each village’s check point refuse to let the van pass during daylight because it might depress people, and make them hide behind a wall. At one point, we see a parking lot full of waiting coffin transport vehicles. Meanwhile, a truck with a giant statue of Saddam Hussein haunts the journey.

“Kilometre Zero” isn’t so much a political film as an examination of an oppressed people in terrifying times. In the scenes set in 2003 that bookend the film, the Kurdish people don’t so much care whether or not the United States is imperialist or has ulterior motives in the invasion. They simply welcome the opportunity to be free in their land again.

The other, less impressive competition entry was “Bashing,” a repetitive minimalist slug based on the negative reception Japanese hostages had upon returning to Iraq. Director Masashiro Kobayashi likes to make slow, observant work, but here he doesn’t provide enough to observe. Yuko is a young woman whom everyone treats rudely and who can’t hold a job because the Japanese resent that she went to Iraq as a volunteer for aid and embarrassed the country when kidnappers captured her and held her for ransom.

The issue of why Yuko went isn’t given much attention beyond people telling her that she’s selfish and a monologue about how no one ever liked her at the end. Sure, she’s depressed and everyone is mean to her, but she might garner more sympathy if she said or did anything interesting during the entire film.

There’s no time to linger on this disappointment, however. Two of the major films in competition, Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” and Atom Egoyan’s “Where the Truth Lies,” premier tomorrow, and from there the tone of the competition may begin to take shape.

Keep checking back for further coverage from the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

Take a look at Jeremy’s previous report>>>

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