CANNES, France — Regulars are beginning to murmur cautiously that this may be one of the best Cannes Film Festivals in recent years. Even Lars von Trier’s sequel to “Dogville” is a success. One strong film has followed another, and every day the buzz about possible festival winners gets revised.
The big audience success on Sunday was “A History of Violence,” by David Cronenberg, the Canadian who sometimes makes oblique studies of madness like “Spider” (2002) and sometimes makes inspired audience thrillers like this one. Not that it’s only a thriller; it’s more of a family drama in which violence is an unwelcome guest.
Viggo Mortensen stars in one of the best performances of his career, as a man named Tom Stall, who runs a diner in an Indiana town and lives peacefully with his wife (Maria Bello), teenage son (Ashton Holmes) and tiny daughter. One day two serial killers walk into the diner, thinking to kill and steal, and Tom hurls a pot of coffee, jumps over the counter, grabs a gun and kills them both. He becomes a media hero, which attracts unwelcome attention, and three tough guys in a big black car arrive in town. One of them, played by Ed Harris, has a horribly scarred face. Somebody blinded him with some barbed wire. Who could that have been?
How the movie unfolds I will leave for you to discover, along with a brief but indelible performance by William Hurt. None of the violence in the film is gratuitous, and all of it is necessary from Tom’s point of view and even from our own.
There may be an acting award for Mortensen from this film, but then again, Daniel Auteuil could win that prize for his work in Michael Haneke’s “Hidden,” which is also being mentioned for the Palme d’Or. He plays a Paris TV host whose happy family (his wife is played by Juliette Binoche) is also disturbed by unwelcome visitors — in this case, videos indicating the family is under surveillance. Who is sending these, and why? Answering the mystery has become a festival obsession, and Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes brilliantly: “My guess is that the videotapes were not shot or sent by anyone; rather, they simply exist, ontologically, as evidence.” Yes, but if they were not shot or sent by anyone, how do they exist? Is ontological evidence visible to physical characters? In this movie, maybe.
The mystery leads eventually to the disintegration of Auteuil’s personality and his marriage, and to an onscreen death as surprising as any I have ever seen. Throughout the movie, many shots back off to regard the action objectively from a distance. That’s also the strategy of the videos.
Then comes the film’s last shot, also from a distance. It is composed in such a way that our attention is drawn to a character who turns out to be unimportant. Only observant audience members (such as myself) noticed that on the left side of the screen, a conversation is taking place between two people who should have no way of knowing each other. What does it mean that they do, and does that explain anything?