High art pays low dividends for Cannes auds

“LIVE BY THE AUTEUR, die by the auteur” — this has been the ruling principle of the Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival virtually since its beginning. But in recent years, the validity of this nearly sacred stance, which is French by birth, has been wearing increasingly thin. This year it has moved into an advanced state of decrepitude, as one indulgent film after another has left expectant critics shaking their heads. And if critics are less than enthusiastic, the world public is likely to be utterly indifferent.

As the festival moves into its final weekend, it has become painfully apparent that the gulf between the sort of High Art film that many serious directors want to make (and that is generally sought by fests) and pictures that will hold some sort of interest for audiences is bigger than ever.

Of the 17 competition titles screened as of Thursday, I can imagine only Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” proving genuinely popular with a worldwide public. And it so happens that this richly comic Spanish melodrama is also the best film in the competition by a considerable margin.

Almodovar’s film is the only one in Cannes motivated by the same impulses that drove the best pictures — from Hollywood and elsewhere, from the beginnings of cinema through the mid-1960s — to involve the audience in their stories and characters, to please audience in a way that insults no one’s intelligence, to be unashamed of making a direct emotional connection with viewers, to make them laugh and cry.

IN THIS DAY AND AGE, to create a film that is artistically respectable and accessible to a vast general public is something of a miracle, but Almodovar has done it (only the language barrier can hold the picture back somewhat in the U.S.).

Stated so simply, this could be interpreted as an aesthetically conservative stance, but anyone who has sat through all the competition titles, not to mention most of the films in Cannes’ other sections, is bound to recognize the validity of it.

Film after film has offered so little to connect with, such meager relevance to people’s lives, such thin ideas to hang two hours (or often much more) of drama upon, such esoteric intellectual conceits, that one is forced to reevaluate many aspects of why these films get made; why these instead of other films get accepted by the highest-profile film festival in the world, and why critics fall for some of them, almost as if they have to justify their existence by defending directors for whom they have previously made a stand.

As it happens, this disjuncture between critical approbation and zero potential audience is most apparent in the French competition entries. After Erick Zonca provided the surprise hit of last year’s Cannes fest with the richly developed “The Dreamlife of Angels,” the fest’s host country this year served up a slate so far removed from anything anyone would ever want to see — and so unreservedly indulgent — that one is obliged to say, “Only in France.”

FOR REASONS BEST KNOWN to their producers, Leos Carax with “Pola X,” Bruno Dumont with “Humanity” and Jacques Maillot with “Our Happy Lives” were permitted to follow their muses to the ends of the Earth, which in each case was a dead end.

Clearly, artistic freedom is something everyone covets, but perhaps not everyone deserves. You can have it if you work on very low budgets or raise the money yourself, or you can earn it within the system if your previous work warrants it.

In the cases of this year’s French directors, each was a questionable bet: Carax’s film was his first since a B.O. disaster eight years ago, Dumont had a solid debut to his credit and Maillot was a newcomer, yet all were given the deference that, in an earlier day, was accorded the likes of Akira Kurosawa or David Lean only after their track records were well established.

Even for the greatest talents, unlimited freedom often results in unlimited artistic ex-cess, which played out this year to distinctly diminished returns. Perhaps the French should occasionally recall the words of one of the country’s great literary lights, Andre Gide, who said, “Art is born of constraint and dies of freedom” — clearly a maxim not many directors, French or otherwise, want to hear these days, but one that served many directors very well, whether they appreciated it or not, in decades past.

The point is not that producers and studios should suddenly rein in serious filmmakers and force them to do films against their will or in seriously compromised ways. Aside from the fact that current cinema, as it looks from Cannes, Sundance and just about anywhere else these days, is in more desperate need of good writers than it is of directors, the point is that many filmmakers, given the leeway, quickly gravitate to “personal” projects that send them into an elitist realm where they fantasize they will be recognized as geniuses by some critics — and sometimes are, which only perpetuates the tendency.

The films that are made with this sort of mentality are generally the ones that wind up in festivals such as Cannes, and then often have so much trouble finding an international audience.

MOST OF THE DIRECTORS at Cannes this year seem to have forgotten about the audience. As accomplished and sometimes inspired as they may be, directors from Atom Egoyan (“Felicia’s Journey”), Jim Jarmusch (“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) and Chen Kaige (“The Emperor and the Assassin”) to Arturo Ripstein (“Nobody Writes to the Colonel”), Marco Bellocchio (“The Nanny”) and Raul Ruiz (“Time Regained”) are essentially doing miniaturist work, refined films of varying quality that unfortunately have little to lure viewers who have no pre-existing interest in the directors, and which them-selves would not convert the uninitiated, even if they happened to see them. Far too often, it’s as if no one read the script before the cameras turned.

When the old system of film production worked best, even battling producers and di-rectors were essentially in accord as to what kind of pictures they were striving to make. In the realm of the High Art movie these days, that balance is out of whack, as too many directors are creating work with no regard for the audience, and there’s no one around to remind them of the fact until it’s too late.

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