Fest tops H'wood, but greatness is elusive

CANNES — Three weeks ago in this space, I bemoaned the staggering awfulness of the films emanating from the Hollywood studios thus far in 2001, with the only genuinely good one, “The Tailor of Panama,” catching its distributor unaware of what it had.

At the time, I was very much looking forward to escaping this wretched state of affairs — where basically anything you could find to do with your time would be more edifying than visiting a multiplex — and coming to the Cannes Film Festival, the lineup for which looked potentially tasty.

At this point, there are two days to go in Cannes No. 54, and the eternal optimist in me is whispering that something great could still be in store. But the bleary-eyed realist in me, who has seen all but one of the competition titles and more than enough in the various sidebars, is saying that if a great film hasn’t turned up by this point, it’s simply not going to happen.

Which begs the question: Does spending a week and a half watching the supposed best that contemporary international cinema has to offer provide relief from the Hollywood stuff most of us usually see?

The answer is yes, but with qualifications. The most obvious difference between international and Hollywood films at the moment is that Hollywood, in its narrow focus on box office, seems to have all but capitulated to the 15-year-old male mentality, while Euro and Asian filmmakers are still likely to address the grownup world in an adult manner and take some risks along the way. The second most notable distinction is that foreign writers and directors, at least those on the serious side, are less prone to overt emotional manipulation and shameless sentimentality than their American counterparts.

But for all the artistic ambition of the films on view in Cannes, very few of them were fully achieved: Ideas have tended to be presented piecemeal, but not fleshed out into richly expressed points of view. Dramatic contexts and motivations have been seriously deficient in numerous films as well, creating unnecessary barriers to audience engagement. There certainly can be a middle ground between the emotional pandering of many American films and the inaccessibility of some international fare, which sometimes seem made with no imaginable audience in mind.

Up to this point, there have been two pictures in the competition that I would describe as very good or better films from start to finish and that I could honestly recommend to film-curious friends who aren’t hard-core buffs or specialists: Danis Tanovic’s mordantly absurdist and entirely accessible look at the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, “No Man’s Land”; and DreamWorks’ massively appealing animated monster, “Shrek.”

And the more I think about it, the more I like David Lynch’s tensely mysterious “Mulholland Drive,” which builds to near-greatness but does an unsettling flip-flop with 45 minutes to go; even so, what seemed dauntingly unfathomable about this film while watching it suddenly seemed perfectly clear two days after the fact, which illustrates one of the perils of instant opinion-making.

Nanni Moretti’s study of a bereaved family, “The Son’s Room,” is dramatically solid and emotionally honest in the human realist tradition. And the best hour of cinema I saw in the competition was the first half of Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” a brilliant psychological portrait of a profoundly masochistic personality with an extraordinary performance by Isabelle Huppert that, far more than the Lynch pic, despoils itself by going way over the top in the second half.

Beyond that, the pleasures have been fragmentary, and very often pictorial. With “In Praise of Love,” Jean-Luc Godard proves considerably easier to take than he has in a feature for years; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar” conjures up the occasional stunning surreal image of poverty and fanatical oppression in contemporary Afghanistan, even as it stubbornly refuses to explain some very basic aspects of its dramatic premise. The Coen brothers’ shallow “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is distinguished by Roger Deakins’ extraordinary black-and-white photography shot on color stock. It doesn’t look like anything that has taken that technical route before.

On the other hand, several films didn’t rate being in the competition in my book: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s dull and disappointing “Distance” from Japan, French helmer Cedric Kahn’s routine true-life serial killer study “Roberto Succo,” Catherine Corsini’s unremarkable twisted femme friendship tale “The Rehearsal,” Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov’s maddeningly unenlightening look at Lenin’s last days in “Taurus” and, much as I hate to say it, former great Ermanno Olmi’s dry and stultifying historical tract “The Profession of Arms.”

Worth seeing but still borderline were Portuguese veteran Manoel de Oliveira’s “I’m Going Home” and “Who Knows?” (“Va Savoir”), which was rapturously received by some here but for me was a just passable romantic-comedy ensembler by New Wave vet Jacques Rivette.

One more significant and healthy difference between Hollywood and the rest of the world is that the much-discussed blight of ageism hasn’t yet spread from North America, at least where directors are concerned. Cannes has come under attack in recent years for sticking by the same old auteur names, but “old” does not necessarily have to be applied in the strictly chronological sense. Rivette may have made the most commercial film of his career at 73, Godard has demonstrated a partial return to form at 70, Oliveira is clearly still artistically alert in his early 90s and Olmi is 70. Japan’s two-time Palme d’Or winner, Shohei Imamura — whose latest, “Lukewarm Water Under the Bridge,” is still to be screened — is in his late 70s.

In the festival’s most public goof, it early on rejected Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie From Montmartre,” a vigorously imaginative and romantic escapade that was almost universally embraced in its numerous market screenings.

Clearly, the pickings were not too abundant this year, as the situation worsened considerably once you looked outside the competition. With Roman Coppola’s flat tire “CQ” and Hal Hartley’s monstrous “No Such Thing,” American Zoetrope could boast it had produced two of the worst films in Cannes as well as the very best: The “Redux” revamp of the 22-year-old “Apocalypse Now.”

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