Cannes surges into top gear

Coen brothers take poll position in the race for the Palme d’Or

In James Toback's frisky documentary Seduced and Abandoned , presented for the press yesterday morning, one contributor describes the Cannes Film Festival as having "a split personality". Many attendees are just here to discuss deals. A few more are here to celebrate the best in world cinema.

The event surged into top gear over the weekend with a cracking array of first-class pictures. In the Directors' Fortnight, the semi-official sidebar, Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant , a harsh, neo-realist reinvention of Oscar Wilde's fairy story, attracted some of the best reviews of the festival. In that same strand, old-school cineastes welcomed the return of Chilean master Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain , with a bizarre head-spinning "imaginary autobiography" entitled The Dance of Reality .

But what is out front in the official competition? Premiered on Saturday night, Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Like Father, Like Son is certain to remain in the running for the Palme d'Or, the festival's top prize.

The Japanese director, known for slippery pieces such as Still Walking and I Wish , moves into more mainstream territory with the story of two couples who discover that their sons, now set to enter elementary school, were swapped in the hospital shortly after birth.


Gorgeous fable
Ryota and Midori are well-off, buttoned-up and blinkered in their ambitions. Yukari and Yudai are free-spirited, lower middle-class and generous with emotion. That binary split could have proved indigestible in less skilled hands, but Kore-Eda constructs a gorgeously balanced fable that manages to convince the compliant viewer that human beings are capable of meaningful change.

Sadly, the first English language film from Arnaud Desplechin, director of Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale , seems unlikely to propel that French director towards the Palme. The picture follows the efforts of a French doctor to psychoanalyse a Native American, suffering from post-traumatic stress after the second World War. The film is static, clunky and surprisingly poorly acted by two very talented stars. Benicio del Toro is affected as the patient. Mathieu Amalric chews scenery as the analyst. Move on. There's nothing to see here.

Yesterday, Alex van Warmerdam's impressively nasty Borgman , a dark thriller that owes debts to Pier Paul Paolo Pasolini's Theorem , received praise for its black humour and brilliantly sinister imagery.

But, as the weekend drew to a close, two former winners of the Palme d'Or scared up the loudest applause to date and installed themselves as favourites.

Hear, hear
Joel and Ethan Coen, who triumphed here in 1991 with Barton Fink , have excelled themselves yet again with Inside Llewyn Davis . At a press conference, Ethan told how the film, set in Greenwich Village on the eve of the folk boom, sprang from a notion about journeyman troubadour Dave Van Ronk. "Joel had this notion about Dave Van Ronk being beaten up outside Gerdes Folk City," he said. "That was such an absurd notion that it took a while to get from there to why he was beaten up."

The festival continues until next Sunday. Today, Last Days on Mars, the debut feature from Irish director Ruairí Robinson, premieres in the Directors' Fortnight.