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By Jeremy Mathews | May 13, 2004

The 57th Cannes Film Festival opened last night with the usual blitz of glamor and style that sustains an Oscar-style red carpet for 10 days. While rain soaked up the Croisette and the blue-suited staff had to make provisions on the carpet, there was no hint that the festival had anything to prove after last year’s heavily panned selection, although the opening gala presented a better film than 2003’S “Fan Fan La Tulipe,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.”

Almodovar’s film juggles three time periods in the lives of two men who went to the same Catholic vocational school for literature in the 1960s. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Angel, formerly known as Ignatio, who visits his old friend and first love Enrique (Fele Martinez), now a film director, in the 1980s. Angel – he insists on being called – wrote a story based on their childhood so Enrique can make it into a film and give him a starring role.

The flashbacks, shot in 1.85:1 in contrast to the main story’s CinemaScope aspect ratio, go first to a fictional erotic encounter between the two friends in the late ’70s, when Ignacio (played here by Francisco Boira) was working as a cross-dressing performer known as Zahara. This meeting leads to Ignacio confronting the priest who molested him at their old school and blackmailing him with the threat of publishing details of his exploits.

This introduces the boys’ childhood, in which the 10-year-olds discover the cinema and love for one another while facing the horror of growing up with adult predators.

Almodovar’s style places his typically colorful palette into a nostalgic work inspired by noir as well as a nod to horror films as the boys hide in the bathroom while the priest hunts them one night. The story (or stories) at times becomes convoluted, but Almodovar maintains control and eventually reveals everything as Enrique discovers it. The film is ultimately about the character’s quest to resolve the emotions that the memory of his old friend creates.

While none of the sex scenes are overly explicit, there are several, and the MPAA’s decisions on other gay-themed films like “Lost and Delirious” could result in distribution problems in the United States. But this is no worry at Cannes, and the film serves as a welcome opening to what will hopefully be a rejuvenating festival.

While some festivals have moved toward the casual feel of Sundance, Cannes continues with the elaborately uniformed police and professionals-only screenings. They wait until Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. to paint the crosswalk a shiny, new white. It isn’t indie-style, but the filmmakers are kings no matter how low their budget was.

Last year’s Cannes was seen as disastrous, with films like Vincent Gallo’s eternally long shots of his dirty windshield in “The Brown Bunny” and Bertrand Blier’s inability to translate meaning or interest from the slick style of “The Cotelettes,” which inspired the audience member next to me to stay through the entire credits and boo every title card.

But when you think about it, the festival also had Elephant, The Barbarian Invasions, Mystic River, “Distant,” “Five O’Clock in the Afternoon,” Swimming Pool and Dogville, as well as out of competition successes like The Triplets of Belleville. While few people like all of these films, each has its share of admirers.

Even if last year’s festival wasn’t as bad as everyone made out, the importance of Cannes is always in question, as more and more small festivals pop up and become potential showcases for the next new thing. Yet Cannes is still the most glamourous film festival in the world, and its awards, especially the Palm d’Or, still coveted and prestigious. All another bad festival will likely do is end Thierry Fremont’s period as the festival’s artistic director. (This is the first year he has been entirely responsible for programming.)

Hopefully his selections for competition, which have stirred mixed reactions, will turn out strong. He only programmed 18 films, opposed to 20 or 22, in an effort to keep the competition exclusive. The resulting competition has excluded several countries, including Russia , India and Canada, as well as director Mike Leigh, whose “Vera Drake” didn’t even receive a screening out of competition. Word is that Leigh’s film is solid, and the festival should be showing it via some venue because he’s an important international director whom the film community keeps an eye on. The omission appears to be an effort on the programmers’ part to show that they aren’t accepting films based on their directors’ reputation.

The choice to limit the competition to 18 films raises its share of questions. Many have criticized the selection on the (somewhat misleading) grounds that half of the films are from either France or the United States. (Half received financing from one of the countries.) The festival is supposed to be a venue for world cinema, but that doesn’t mean that countries should automatically have a spot reserved for them if none of their directors turn out something good. Only time will tell whether or not the method worked.

The most anticipated film of the festival is probably Wong Kar Wai’s “2046”. Wong has marked himself as a Hong Kong director with the same flare for style as his colleagues, but with more attention to emotion and mood than operatic action a la John Woo. His new film is some sort of sci-fi epic that he has been editing and re-shooting for so long that it was thought that he just barely missed the cutoff date last year, though he actually almost missed getting in this year. Of course, such a long production time could result in a masterpiece of perfection or an unfocused mess. Jury president Quentin Tarantino helped Wong’s “Chung King Express” find U.S. distribution, so if he likes this one, it has a good shot at winning an award.

The other film to watch is the new effort by Bosnian director Emir Kusturica, who knows a thing or two about winning the Palm d’Or. He will try to bring his total of top Cannes prizes up to three with “Life is a Miracle!”
The story continues in part two of FILM THREAT IN THE CANNES>>>

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