Cannes unspools more style than content

THE ONLY CONSENSUS I CAN DETECT about the just-concluded Cannes Intl. Film Festival is that there was no consensus this year. Already, in the wake of the awards Sunday, an impression has been fostered that Lars von Trier’s idiosyncratic musical “Dancer in the Dark” was declared the festival’s best film by virtual acclamation. There is no question that “Dancer” was the most hotly debated picture shown in the competition — Derek Elley’s negative Variety review was reprinted in full in Le Figaro and in the Danish press — and its weirdness and borderline risible qualities, including its less-than-informed presentation of the American legal system, definitely make it fun to talk about.

“Dancer” and Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong romance “In the Mood for Love” were perhaps the two films that set many critics’ hearts racing fastest, but while both are clearly the work of very talented directors, they are also among the films at the festival I found the most annoying. In very different ways, they are predominantly stylistic exercises, with far-fetched and virtually nonexistent stories, respectively, decked out in attention-grabbing visual and musical duds. Much was made of the fact that “Dancer” was largely shot on video, with 100 mini digital cameras trained on the dance numbers, but few bothered to mention that the latter are more clunky than captivating, endearing only in the communicated desire of what they are attempting to be.

Tom Luddy of the Telluride Film Festival, who possesses a particularly long and informed view of film history, accurately observed that the basic story in “Dancer” — a young mother losing her eyesight sacrifices herself so that her son won’t have to suffer a similar fate — is so melodramatic that D.W. Griffith would have rejected it as a subject at Biograph in 1912. The reference to Griffith, however, incidentally touches upon the one element in the film that helpfully undercuts von Trier’s heavily arbitrary manner of shooting and cutting — the astonishingly uncensored emotionalism of Bjork’s central performance, which comes closer to evoking one of Lillian Gish’s trusting, eternally hopeful Griffith naifs than anything I’ve seen in decades.

ALTHOUGH “DANCER” WAS NOT SHOT under the rigorous (and rigorously publicized) strictures of Dogma 95, the nonmusical sequences were covered in the same helter-skelter style, the international influence of which was in further evidence at Cannes. Given the technical strides made in the last couple of years, the increase in video-shot features shown in film transfers is not a bad thing at all. What Dogma has wrought, however, is a return to the pre-Steadicam era of hand-held camerawork, most abysmally on view in Russian director Pavel Lounguine’s “The Wedding,” in which the camera operator seems to have been as drunk as the characters.

Even worse, the Dogma aesthetic has essentially eliminated one of the key components of the filmmaking vocabulary: pictorial composition. At one point midfestival, the event seemed divided between films ideologically dedicated to unstable, unframed camerawork and those adhering to the old-fashioned virtue of finding the precisely correct angle, lens and light with which the full value of a shot could be obtained. It was in such a context that one could feel all the more grateful for the exquisite formalism of Edward Yang’s “A One and a Two … ,” Aoyama Shinji’s “Eureka,” Im Kwon-Taek’s “Chunhyang” and the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Perhaps no film at the festival had as many lovely compositions as Wong’s “In the Mood for Love,” but that is all it has. The story of a man and a woman whose respective spouses’ absences bring them slowly — oh, so slowly — together, the film is like a beautifully decorated shell with absolutely nothing inside. The most inane French film review I read at Cannes declared Wong’s picture “the best romantic melodrama since ‘Casablanca.’” But while the work of Douglas Sirk serves as a far more apt reference point — Wong uses walls and door frames as skillfully as Sirk uses mirrors — Sirk’s resonant subtext is sorely missing, as is an ending — the picture merely stops. At this point, Wong is looking increasingly like a brilliant illustrator, someone who can dash off quick sketches with ineffable grace, rather than a filmmaker with anything to say.

AT THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM at Cannes was a curious group of literary adaptations whose makers were seized with the desire to be faithful to the spirit and the letter of their sources. All set about 100 years ago, and expiring from terminal dreariness, these included James Ivory’s stillborn and woefully miscast Henry James adaptation “The Golden Bowl”; Olivier Assayas’ “Les destinees sentimentales,” based on a Proustian-sized Jacques Chardon novel, which feels as though every comma and period has been included; and Arnaud Desplechin’s “Esther Kahn,” a tour of theatrical London so studiously misguided, it never could have been made by a native English speaker.

The film that most successfully applied formal elements to the cause of entertainment was Dominik Moll’s drolly sinister French thriller “Harry, He’s Here to Help,” which Miramax snapped up for domestic release. This previously unknown director displays unerring knack for strong but discreet widescreen imagery, crisp cutting, adroit use of music and mischievous humor. I kept waiting for him to drop the ball as the film pushes to its ironic climax, but he never does, and the conclusion is quietly, and satisfyingly, intimate in a way one would hardly expect to find in an American suspenser.

Finally, there was lots of talk at Cannes this year about the lack of a Hollywood presence, whether due to the festival’s inattention or industry disinterest. American journalists, in particular, were adamant about how “Mission: Impossible 2” ought to have been there for closing night, although now that they’ve seen the film, they may have second thoughts. The problem with the opening and closing slots is that historically, they have been home to losers (this year’s “Vatel” and “Stardom” only underlined the pattern); in addition, many people aren’t yet in town for the opening and even more are gone by the end.

My suggestion, then, is to create a special midfestival gala slot to glamorously spotlight the world premiere of a major new picture. This could take place on, say, Tuesday night, when everyone is there; the idea would be to make the slot so prestigious that producers and studios would fight over being selected for it. The festival might also consider using the day to take a pause from the usual two-a-day competition grind, giving everyone a short break and the chance to take a refreshing deep breath before heading into the fest’s final few days.

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