CANNES -- Monument Valley goes to Kazakhstan in this neo-Western from, of course, a former German New Wave director, Volker Schlondorff. Chock full of striking visual imagery and propelled by an engrossing personal story, "Ulzhan" should win success on the festival circuit and could enthrall serious cineastes on cable outlets.

With the wildcat rigs and denuded plains, "Ulzhan" looks like it's set smack dab in oil-country Oklahoma, where an enigmatic Frenchman, Charles, careens along on some sort of personal quest. There's more than a fanatical desperation to his trek: Charles is not concerned when his passport is stolen, and he seems unmoved by either threats or good fortune. Essentially, he seems a man in shock, and we're never quite sure what he is running from or, perhaps, what he is running toward. Charles' trip, while not into a heart of darkness, is just as surreal: Camels, peasants with cell phones, lingerie models and the specter of Halliburton loom. It's truly an odd and captivating odyssey.

In this peculiar picaresque story, Schlondorff jars our sensibilities with his hellacious and surreal imagery: The region's ultra-modern capital city, blasted up from the sand by petro-dollars, is as dauntingly unreal as, well, Gotham City itself; indeed, "Ulzhan" is a visual knockout.

There's also a wistful sorrow and tenderness that permeates the narrative's weird and smart trajectory. In particular, there's a wonderful tug-of-war romance when Charles stumbles upon a steppe-child schoolteacher, Ulzhan, who embraces him and tries to help him. Fittingly, the burgeoning love story on the hard, rocky terrain is, indeed, a slippery circumstance. Atop their horses and riding against the towering cliffs of the desert, Charles and Ulzhan are akin to those old studio players who struggled in the shadow of Monument Valley; like them, they are, perhaps, chasing fool's gold, but in this case, it's riches of the heart.

"Ulzhan" is engagingly propelled by the lead performances: Philippe Torreton is mesmeric as the conflicted Charles, while Avanat Ksenbai is endearing as the loving Ulzhan.

With "Ulzhan," Schlondorff has scoped a fascinating and endearing personal story, in large part because of the smart scripting of Jean-Claude Carriere and the majestic lensing of Thomas Faehrmann.

Fly Times Pictures
Director: Volker Schlondorff
Screenwriters: Jean-Claude Carriere
Director of photography: Thomas Faehrmann
Production designer: Aleksandr Rorokin
Music: Brunco Coulais, Kuat Shildebayev
Editor: Peter Adam

Shakuni: David Bennent
Charles: Philippe Torreton
Ulzhan: Ayanat Ksenbai
Running time -- 109 minutes
No MPAA rating

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