Deep Focus: Fremaux's wide-ranging gamble pays off

To anyone who was in Cannes a year ago, the change in mood this year was palpable. Whereas last year everyone seemed testy, sour and bunkered in hostile critical camps, this year people seemed mellow and open, with opinion divided, to be sure, but scattered about in unpredictable patterns.

If Cannes 2003 was a roiling black sun of negativity, both onscreen and among viewers, this year felt like a new star still taking shape, a nebulous formation of elements that has yet to congeal into something definably different.

So it has been a makeover year for the grande dame of film festivals, an occasion when many, but not all, of the old regulars were at least temporarily shown the door to make way for a group of relative newcomers, some of whom delivered the goods. It was a risky strategy on the part of artistic director Thierry Fremaux in his first year in full charge of programming, and while he made some inevitable miscalculations, his bet paid off.

Since the announcement of the lineup, Cannes 2004 was advertised as marking the return of Hollywood, what with the raft of big American films and Quentin Tarantino heading a jury with three other Yanks on it.

But big studio pictures such as “Troy,” “The Ladykillers” and “Dawn of the Dead” just seemed to pass in the night, with attention sticking more to Cannes superstar Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” of course, offbeat noncompeting choice “Bad Santa” (a smash in its international bow, especially with Brits and Aussies), docus such as “Mondovino” and “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” and the three very well received Sundance pics in the Directors Fortnight, “Tarnation,” “Mean Creek” and “The Woodsman.”

Just as dominant, if not more so, were the numerous Asian pictures, even if a couple of the artier ones were arguably worse than “Troy.” Wong Kar-wai’s much-anticipated “2046” was delayed even beyond the point of its scheduled first two showings Thursday (Olivier Assayas had to swap screening times of his “Clean” in order to accommodate Wong’s tardiness, something thought to be unprecedented in fest history). Asiaphiles fixated on Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” a deliriously beautiful martial-arts romantic actioner that many felt would be a big winner if it were in competition, especially with Tarantino heading the jury; tradesters wondered if it was Zhang’s own choice not to compete, given his having been turned down by the selection committee in the past.

There has been plenty of gossip about how the “Kill Bill” meister so loved South Korean helmer’s Park Chan-wook’s ultra-violent gangster meller “Old Boy” that he’s pushing for it to win the Palme d’Or, and there was considerable critical support for Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s observant child-centric Japanese entry “Nobody Knows.”

France was very well represented in the competition by Agnes Jaoui’s second feature, “Look at Me,” an acutely observed look at put-upon, short-tempered members of the Paris artistic class. Opinions were all across the map on Lucrecia Martel’s concentrated, femme-centric drama “The Holy Girl,” just as they were on Assayas’ mother-son drama “Clean.” Fans of high cinematic style gathered around Italian helmer Paolo Sorrentino’s engrossing second feature, “The Consequences of Love.”

Rumors seeping out about jury reactions had the group mightily impressed by Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and there is also reported enthusiasm by more than one member for Thai director Appichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady,” which produced maladies in most critics who saw it.

Two films by old masters that easily could have justified competitive slots were Jean-Luc Godard’s resonant “Our Music,” shown out of competition, and “Moolaade” (Protection), a beautiful and politically engaged film from 81-year-old Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene that was slotted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Some films in this section were downright awful, but another highlight, from another country rarely heard from at fests, was Juan-Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s “Whisky,” a rigorously controlled bit of Kaurismaki-like drollery from Uruguay. Also scoring nicely was Shona Auerbach’s Scottish entry “Dear Frankie.”

Fabrice de Welz’s horror item “Calvaire” and Keren Yedaya’s “Or” were among the surprises in the Critics Week, while the Directors Fortnight, in yet another year of attempted self-reinvention under new stewardship, scored a couple of hits beyond the American indies with the likes of vet Paul Vecchiali’s movie biz comedy “Please Give Generously” (A vot’bon coeur) and Simone Bitton’s “Mur.”

“Fahrenheit 9/11″ to the side, there were fewer political hot button pictures this year, and films featuring hardcore sex, a fixture in recent years, were nowhere to be found in the Official Selection; for this, you had to check out Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs,” running an appropriate 69 minutes, in the market.

So while it hasn’t been a vintage Cannes to rank with the 49th edition, for example, there was enough improvement this year to suggest that the fest leadership took criticism of last year’s difficulties under advisement and made a number of steps in the right direction.

Another year of comparable tweaking and refinements, including moves designed to more smoothly merge the sometimes divergent, sometimes overlapping strands of commercial and art cinema, would offer strong assurance that Cannes is evolving in a sure-headed manner.

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