Fest split decision

Mid-fest, pics' artistry is debated

In what have to be reckoned a choppy first five days of the Cannes Film Festival that rival the rough seas currently besetting the Mediterrean, there have two or three fairly strong films thus far in the competition. But few people can agree on which films those are.

To be sure, no one’s been caught running around whispering “Palme d’or” about any of the entries. As always, hope lies in the hearts of everyone who travels here from distant points and spends up to 12 days watching films that at least one or two brilliant titles will reward the investment. If they exist this year, they have yet to be sprung.

After recovering from “The Da Vinci Code,” which has receded into festgoers’ memories with the speed of yesterday’s bad croissant, some followers of the competition found their equilibrium restored by what they found to be rich and rewarding work by fest regulars Ken Loach with “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Pedro Almodovar with “Volver” and Nuri Bilge Ceylan with “Climates.”

Others were not convinced, however, and preferred the bracing revelation of new talent in director Andrea Arnold’s first film, the tense and surprising “Red Road” from Scotland. Those who responded at all to Lou Ye’s romantic panorama of recent Chinese history, “Summer Palace,” did so strongly to its first hour, but there was general agreement that it falls apart in the second half. Richard Linklater’s Altmanesque ensembler “Fast Food Nation” generated generally mixed reactions, although there were isolated ardent voices pro and con, while Nicole Garcia’s equally Altman-influenced “Charlie Says” appealed to the French far more than to Anglo and American samplers.

Then there was Richard Kelly’s enormous flat pancake “Southland Tales,” a would-be visionary tale about the dire near-term future that had industryites wondering about how it got made without anyone hoisting warning signs, how it got selected for the competition, who on Earth will distribute it in the United States and what it means for Kelly’s future.

A second feature with a happier ending (indeed, many of them) was John Cameron Mitchell’s out of competition midnighter “Shortbus,” a riot of erotic delights that’s best when it remains content with surface pleasures rather than struggling for depth.

Modest but pleasing nuggets have popped up in the various sidebars. In the main selection’s Un Certain Regard, pics having emerged from the pack included two French films: “Paris je t’aime,” an anthology with a few cloying entries but a few more of notable style and humor, with the best one, from Alexander Payne, saved for last; and Denis Dercourt’s low-boil revenge drama “La tourneuse de pages,” featuring an arresting title-role turn by Deborah Francois.

Also receiving general nods of approval were Rolf de Heer’s distinctive Australian Aboriginal tale “Ten Canoes,” Marco Bellocchio’s ruminative “The Wedding Director” and Garin Nugroho’s “Serambi,” a sobering docu about Aceh, Indonesia, in the wake of the devastating tsunami.

Notables thus far in the Directors Fortnight have been Emmanuel Mouret’s droll “Change of Address” from France; an unexpected comedy from Germany, Stefan Krohmer’s “Summer ’04 on the Banks of the Schlei”; and Albert Serra’s serenely understated variation on “Don Quixote,” “Honor de Cavalleria.”

In the Critics Week, most talk has been generated by Emmanuel Bourdieu’s insidiously entertaining “Poison Friends.”

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