Mike Leigh's boozy singletons move Cannes
A tale of families and hard-drinking singletons by Britain's Mike Leigh impressed critics at the world's top movie festival Saturday as Hollywood heft gave way to a lighter touch in Cannes.
As the rumble faded after Ridley Scott's blockbusters "Robin Hood" and Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel stomped up the red carpet, the acclaimed director presented "Another Year" in competition for the festival's top prize.
The film's story looks undramatic on paper: a year in the life of a happily married, middle-aged, middle-class couple, Tom and Gerri, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen.
But Leigh insisted that the slow-burning family dramas which have made his name were all about finding the fascination and drama in people's so-called "ordinary" or "boring" lives.
"People are not boring -- life is fascinating," he said after the first screening Saturday.
"They're boring if you let them be boring," he added, in an at-times prickly exchange with journalists during which he refused to answer one question due to an unspecified dispute with the reporter who asked it.
"This film is about how we come to terms with life -- how we face ourselves and each other, how we face what we are," he added.
Lesley Manville's compelling performance as Tom and Gerri's insecure single friend Mary puts the actress, along with Leigh's film overall, high in the running for prizes at the Cannes awards on May 23.
As the seasons roll by, Mary drinks her way through Tom and Gerri's wine, clinging to them for comfort and rejecting the advances of their old friend Ken, a fellow lonely heart similarly fond of alcohol.
"She's a rather fragile human being who's not been handed the best destiny, she's not had the best luck, especially with men," Manville said of her character, in an interview with AFP.
She refused to speculate on whether she might get the best actress prize.
"Another Year" faces competition from another acclaimed British director, Ken Loach, as well as 17 other worldwide entries by the likes of US director Doug Liman and Japanese cult screen veteran Takeshi Kitano.
Loach is also known for dramas of "ordinary" British people, but his stories typically have a harder, sometimes political edge. His latecomer entry for Cannes this year is "Route Irish", about security contractors in the Iraq war.
Several critics poured warm praise on Leigh at a news conference after the initial screening, ahead of Saturday night's red-carpet premiere at the Riviera town's waterfront festival hall.
Leigh, 67, has already won the awards at Cannes twice -- the top Palme d'Or prize for "Secrets and Lies" in 1996 and the best director trophy for "Naked" in 1993 -- and has been nominated for several Oscars.
Manville described the unusual method Leigh uses to create simple stories that draw their power not from special effects or fancy editing, but from powerful, truthful performances.
The director and cast spend months improvising to build the characters before the cameras start rolling.
"I haven't made any big blockbuster films with lots of equipment," Manville said. "What I'm best at and what I'm happiest doing is this kind of work."
Saturday also sees the screening of "A Screaming Man", a competition offering by Chadian director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, about a swimming pool attendant at a Chad hotel which gets taken over by Chinese owners.
In the race for the Palme award on May 23, Asia has a strong showing, with two entries from South Korea -- "Poetry" by Lee Chang-dong and Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid". China and Thailand are also represented.
The festival also features premieres of films by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard, 79.
© 2010 AFP