Rich menu includes Loach pic, Nicholson perf

CANNES — A few nights before the 55th edition of the Cannes Film Festival was due to wrap, fest artistic director Thierry Fremaux sighed, “You just can’t win. A prominent French critic just came up to me and said, ‘Thierry, you have to stop programming so many good films. It’s impossible to digest them all.’”

And so it’s been at Cannes 2002, a fest that started modestly over the first few days and then reached a crescendo of one very good film after another from well-known directors working at or near their top form, plus a number of nice surprises popping up from unexpected sources.

A forecast of the Palms at this moment, with four competition titles yet to be shown, might yield something like this: Golden Palm, Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”; Grand Jury Prize, Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Man Without a Past”; director, Elia Souleiman, “Divine Intervention”; actor, Jack Nicholson, “About Schmidt”; actress, Miranda Richardson for “Spider”; screenplay, Marco Bellocchio for “The Religion Hour” and Prix Technique for cinematographer/Steadicam operator Tilman Buttner for the single-take “Russian Ark.”

Naturally, it’s impossible to predict what David Lynch and his fellow jurors will prefer in the end, but they should appreciate the fact that they have an unusually wide and rich range of films to choose from, that what looked on paper as a possibly predictable year has actually served up a diet obviously too rich for some stomachs to handle.

In the competition, the above-mentioned films all received a strong measure of critical support, with the usual caveats. Kaurismaki’s Finnish entry beguiled nearly everyone with its deadpan humor and images that summoned up the world of old Technicolor.

With its very different take on the disenfranchised working class, Loach’s look at the incipient criminal career of a 15-year-old is rich in the expected realistic observation, but with dramatic incidents and multi-level nuances that take this film beyond the director’s norm.

Souleiman’s acerbic study of the Palestianian-Israeli conflict laces whimsical comedy with increasing bitterness, and Alexander Sokurov’s panorama of three centuries of local history in “Russian Ark” manages to be both borderline boring and absolutely astonishing, as hundreds of ornately costumed actors and extras in countless rooms and corridors of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage are choreographed in unison with an uninterrupted shot of 90 minutes’ duration.

In the acting department, Nicholson’s protean work as a Midwestern man facing a multi-crisis retirement in Alexander Payne’s comedy-drama faces some strong competition from young Martin Compston in “Sweet Sixteen,” Ralph Fiennes in “Spider” and Sergio Castellitto in Marco Bellocchio’s “The Religion Hour.” Films with actresses in important parts were few and far between, but Richardson’s triple role in “Spider” could presumably be joined in consideration by Lesley Manville in Mike Leigh’s “All or Nothing,” Ariane Ascaride in Robert Guediguian’s “Marie-Jo and Her Two Lovers” and Emily Watson in “Punch-Drunk Love.”

There is a narrowness of focus to some of the well received pictures. Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten” proceeds as a succession of conversations between different combinations of women in a car, the perspective essentially limited to two fixed camera angles; pic is interesting as far as it goes and has strong adherents especially among the Kiarostami faithful, but feels like a highly limited use of cinema’s resources.

“Spider” completely fulfills the possibilities of its material and intentions, but is also quite small and particular. And Amos Gitai’s “Kedma,” for all its implied ambitions concerning a commentary on the formative days of Israel, is too abstract and drained of complexity to satisfy one’s hunger on the subject.

There have been other directors not entirely on top of their game. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Son,” about a man who tries to help rehabilitate the killer of his son, unbeknownst to the young man, seems like more of the same from the directors of “La Promesse” and “Rosetta,” to diminishing returns. Mike Leigh also appeared to be treading water with his latest dip into the London lower depths, “All or Nothing,” although the film is not without its grace notes. Guediguian puts too much faith in the appeal of his characters in “Marie-Jo,” Portuguese vet Manoel De Oliveira satisfied some longstanding admirers but won no converts with “The Principle of Uncertainty,” and Olivier Assayas flew off into murky uncharted high-tech territory in “Demonlover.”

A couple of high-profile American entries produced divides in the critical constituency. The major talking point of the early going was Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” a deliberately provocative docu about American gun worship that stirred up the masses eager to follow his lead but gave pause to the minority suspicious of his methods.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” spurred reactions that were all over the map, from those who dismissed it as misfired frivolity to others who found the Adam Sandler starrer not only stylish and inventive but emotionally devastating.

A very good year for the U.K. was rounded out by Michael Winterbottom’s look at the Manchester music scene, “24 Hour Party People,” that was entertaining enough, while the lone Chinese entry, Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures,” riveted admirers of his previous “Platform” but otherwise proved that there is a big difference between pictures about troubled youth and boring youth.

Out of competition honors would certainly go to Fernando Meirelles Brazilian crime cycle drama “City of God.”

The best film in Cannes this year is Spanish master Victor Erice’s “Lifeline,” an 11-minute episode in the omnibus feature “Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet,” an intensely poetic evocation of a convulsive moment on a farm in 1940. This film, which will be presented on Showtime in the U.S. this summer, was a highlight of the Un Certain Regard sidebar, which included a few other notable titles, including Bahman Ghobadi’s “The Songs of My Homeland” from Iran, Yamina Bachir’s “Rachida” from Algeria, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Heremakono” from Mauritania and Benedicte Lienard’s “A Part of the Sky” from Belgium.

The International Critics’ Week offered a couple of pictures that will continue to be heard from, Emanuele Crialese’s “Respiro” from Italy and Hany Abu-Assad’s Jerusalem-set “Rana’s Wedding.”

By contrast, the Directors Fortnight, rebounding from a slow year in 2001, came up with a number of worthy entries. Italy, which doesn’t produce many indie-style films these days, added to its impressive Cannes with Matteo Garrone’s “The Embalmer” and Roberta Torre’s “Angela.” Carlos Reygadas’ “Japon” served to further boost the rep of the young Mexican cinema, and Lynne Ramsay’s “Movern Callar” from Scotland was carried by another incandescent performance by Samantha Morton. Shane Meadows’ “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands” was a crowd-pleaser, and Catherine Breillat’s slight “Sex Is Comedy” generated defense from the faithful.

In a year when international press attendance was reportedly down by as much as 30%, due to the disappearance of many websites and journalistic cutbacks everywhere, it’s fair to say that Cannes 2002 was worth the trip.

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