This place is a respite from the formulas of certain types of narrative moviemaking and the boxes of genre. Ideally, there are no rules. But when the movie that purports to be about life or behavior or ideas disappoints, it's easy to throw up your hands and say, "Nothing happened!" That could mean anything from nothing happened up there on the screen to nothing happened to me.
Either way, in a good movie, something always happens, whether you see it, feel it, or both. But I can honestly say that in David Verbeek's, "R U There?", nothing happened. A champion Dutch gamer, Jitze (Stijn Koomen), competes in a first-person shooter tournament in Taipei. He goes to the gym, develops a shoulder ailment, finds a local massage girl named Min Min (Huan-Ru Ke), whom it seems inaccurate to call a masseuse, develops a Second Life relationship with her online (he's a soldier; she's an Anglicized punk-fairy), then offers a lot of money for the pleasure of riding a bus to the country with her (she seems only mildly interested).
More than once, it threatens to go right -- the young Dutchman's need to make a tactile, earthy connection feels true. But the ideas about gamers' desensitization to the world around them go to only the most expected places. Verbeek has a good eye, but where is his imagination taking us? Jirst and Min Min's virtual relationship is presented as a computer game with the slow pace of some realism. It's just that the movie's second life is blander than the first.
Jia Zhangke is a master at taking his non-narrative time. "I Wish I Knew" continues, more or less, where last year's "24 City" left off, contemplating the personal side effects of modern China. The new film considers Cultural Revolution-era Shanghai -- its survivors and devastated diaspora. The movie is lush and, at times, moving, catching up with filmmakers (hey, its Hou Hsiao-hsien!) and offspring of assassinated officials, collapsing fiction and documentary, although with less mesmerizing flair than in "24 City."
It's unclear whether Jia intends to create a cycle of films, while employing this style, explicitly profiling children of the revolution (when he's through he could have an immense achievement of oral-visual history). It works for him -- he's officially one of those directors who can do little wrong while seem to doing do nothing. And yet -- and yet -- this is a filmmaker whose movies ("The World" and "Platform," for starters) have the power to wow. He's not operating at the height of his skill here, but I'll take him even at reduced strength. The robust applause for him at the end of the film was touching. He has a boyishness that makes it easy to imagine the people in his nonfiction spilling themselves to him so easily.
Shorter but no less poetic is Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "A Screaming Man," in which a champion swimmer turned hotel pool attendant, Adam (Youssouf Djaoro), is forced to find a way to avoid donating his son, Abdel (Diouc Koma), to fight in modern Chad's civil war effort. It's borderline extortion, and it compounds the humiliation of Adam's having been forced out of his job so that the less prideful Abdel can have it. Haroun more than fulfills the Aimé Césaire quote that gives the movie its title, and there are traces of Yasujiro Ozu in the film's stillness. The "nothing happening" here is keenly emotional -- the camera sits near the feet of the hotel's freshly sacked cook (Marius Yelolo) as he goes mournfully on about how he loves preparing food.
In every shot, Haroun puts his camera to quiet but grand use -- a combination of the dramatic, the lyrical, and the journalistic. Mostly, he contrasts the rich faces of his actors with the vastness of the landscape. It's a formidable, unexpectedly tragic juxtaposition. The people's stress rhymes with the atmosphere's strife. Djoaro, who had a part in Haroun's superb 2002 film "Abouna," has a commanding authority even when his heart is breaking. The film debuted last night in the main competition, and you have to wonder whether Tim Burton's jury will notice it. The Spanish director Victor Erice is one of Burton's jurors. The movie seems up his alley. If he likes it, maybe he can persuade his fellow jurists to follow him.
I was willing to make a case for Takeishi Kitano's "Outrage," which premiered today and is also in the main competition. Oh well. For an hour, Kitano's latest handsome-looking Yakuza bloodbath doubles as comedy -- don't they all? -- pitting various superbly well-dressed crime families against each other. But what happens is treated as nothing. The violence is the sort that makes even a strong man squeamish. My notebook flew into a neighbor's lap during one scene of vengeful dental work. Kitano's script constitutes a series of double-crossings. Before long, however, he's just Xeroxing past performances in pursuit of fresh ideas for hurting people. He runs out of gas well before he runs out of bullets.
By the way, sometimes nothing happens outside the Palais, too. Today, I accepted an invitation to a cocktail reception for "Winnie," the as-yet-unfilmed movie about Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard. (They know that woman led a capital-c complicated life, don't they?) In any case, I made my way down the insanely crowded Croisette to a beachfront tent and proceeded to wait to speak to the person manning the Winnie Mandela point of entry and not the one for any of the three or four events in adjacent tents ("Um, this party is for Variety. Like, the magazine.")
Apparently, I waited so long that the co-guest of honor had had enough. Howard emerged from the tent below, wearing sky-blue pinstripes and a big white ascot. He was trailing the sort of photo-shoot-ready woman you would expect Terrence Howard to be seen with. Who can say where he was going or why he was leaving, but my guess, based on that suit, is the tent for a Billy Dee Williams movie.