Cannes' red carpet is blood-soaked

Gore quotient giving even festival veterans pause

CANNES -- The 62nd Festival de Cannes is turning into a bloodbath.

Festivalgoers file solemnly out of the Palais, huddling in groups to seek the comfort of fellow viewers or heading for the nearest cafe for a stiff drink. They are enduring an onslaught of blood and gore from a lineup that has many questioning what point general director Thierry Fremaux and his programmers are trying to make.

In such cases as a razor-blade murder in Jacques Audiard's finely wrought French prison drama "A Prophet" and the bullet-ridden bodies in Johnnie To's enjoyable Hong Kong actioner "Vengeance," the violence falls well within the expected parameters of genre filmmaking. Even the blood-soaked ghoulishness of Park Chan-wook's Korean vampire movie "Thirst" is more campy than disturbing.

But cinema is a realistic medium no matter how much one manipulates the imagery. Luis Bunuel's 1929 "An Andalusian Dog" might be a masterpiece of surrealism, but that sliced eyeball at the beginning is not for the faint-hearted even today. So no matter how symbolic or socially conscious or deep-dish artistic, sadism by any other name is still sadism.

Brillante Mendoza's "Kinatay" indulges in rape, countless knife wounds and dismemberment. Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" savors genital mutilation by rusty scissors, a drill grinding through a leg, an ejaculation of blood and strangulation.

Lou Ye's "Spring Fever" goes in for suicide and disfigurement by sharp objects. Even Bong Joon-ho's "Mother" in Un Certain Regard sees the title character beat an old man to death with a shovel and set him on fire. And those filmmakers known for a love of violence -- Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Gaspar Noe -- haven't even screened their pictures yet! The red carpet is earning its color this year.

What is curious is that not only has the graphic violence been unrelenting in the Competition but in the cases of "Kinatay" and "Antichrist" it comes with strong misogynistic overtones. And yet the jury this year is predominantly female. What must those jury discussions be like?

Individually, each violent film save one has it merits. For all the graphic gore in its final act -- and disturbing imagery and mental malpractice leading up to it -- von Trier's film is brimming with ideas and literary references. This is vigorous, fearless filmmaking -- it just doesn't work. The writer-director never pulls all his symbols and conceits into a coherent whole. It is, at once, his most ambitious and least successful film.

There is only one film whose selection for Competition is unconscionable, and that is Mendoza's "Kinatay." This marks the Filipino director's second Competition entry in as many years, having brought "Serbis" to Cannes last year. The polarizing filmmaker works in a gritty, neo-realistic realm that explores the sordid underbelly of Manila, where life is cheap, sex a commodity and corruption endemic.

In "Kinatay," a prostitute behind on her drug payments is kidnapped by thugs at night and driven out of town to be beaten, raped, repeatedly stabbed, then slowly dismembered, a procedure that takes up most of the movie.

The dilemma here is not that of ultra-violence -- cheap horror films show worse -- but of the undoubted pleasure the director takes in rubbing your face in this attack. Mendoza's social protest against police corruption is simply a cover for a pornographic indulgence in misogynistic violence.

The strongest Competition works so far are Andrea Arnold's "Fish Tank" and Audiard's "Prophet." In her second trip to Cannes following the considerable "Red Road" in 2006, the English director achieves a terrific central performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis as a disaffected 15-year-old and a naturalistic style that ideally suits her look at a tough urban environment. The film suffers, though, from predictability and a sense that she is channeling Ken Loach's social realism.

Audiard's film is a lengthy yet fascinating portrayal of a six-year prison sentence that turns into an education in crime for an Arab youth, an education that sees him emerge from a French prison a crime boss. The film is a straightforward genre piece, brilliantly made in all aspects -- from the terrific acting (especially by newcomer Tahar Rahim) to the sense of claustrophobia induced by the shooting and editing.

What's been lacking in Competition to this point is innovation. Jane Campion's "Bright Star" works fine as a Merchant Ivory production, a well-upholstered period piece brimming with poetic recitations. But this is the woman who gave us "The Piano," a much more challenging period piece with its haunting themes of sexual desire and restraint.

Ang Lee too presented an entertaining film in "Taking Woodstock." But the man who made "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Lust, Caution" clearly took a holiday with this one. The characters are too stereotypical and the investigation of the late 1960s counter-culture too superficial to stay in the mind much longer than it takes to descend the red carpet.

Park's "Thirst" provoked mixed reactions, but the view from here is that camp overwhelmed whatever serious themes he hoped to develop concerning the eroticism of violence. And its lengthy running time certainly drained whatever enthusiasm one has for vampires.

Lou's "Spring Fever" looked to shock, but gay sex scenes aren't the way to go anymore. For that matter, the ones here are far too tame compared with other Asian homo-erotica. And the ease with which male characters slide back and forth across the gay/straight divide is close to risible given that the Chinese director does nothing to lay the psychological groundwork for these ambiguous attractions.

As sometimes happens, Un Certain Regard section has displayed some of the innovation the main Competition lacks. Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's "Nobody Knows About Persian Cats" explores the underground music scene in Tehran within the framework of an often comical but ultimately tragic story about two musicians, and Corneliu Porumboiu's "Police, Adjective" from Romania is a comic meditation, somewhat reminiscent of, yes, Samuel Beckett. It might be the most surprising film so far at the festival.