Art movies fall into cultural gap

Artistic selection fails to ignite

Sometimes over the past 10 days, it has seemed that there have been two Cannes Film Festivals going on.

In one, film after film has received critical hosannas from the French critics and extended ovations in the Palais; in the other, most of the entries have been found seriously wanting by the English-speaking press and which, as a group, will not earn as much money as “The Matrix Reloaded” does in a day.

No, this is not a political divide — although this exists too — but a cultural one. Everyone, including the Americans, used to be able to pretty much agree on who the great directors were and what pictures were important.

Now, prestigious French critics make international incidents over certain Americans’ failure to recognize the latest explosions of genius by Lars von Trier and native sons Gus Van Sant and Vincent Gallo, the latter of whose tiny films would never have made the Competition cut in anything other than the weakest year in recent Cannes memory.

There was certainly a ton of seriousness in the Official Selection this year, but little real weight and even less storytelling skill.

Quite a few pictures sank under the burden of their pretentious self-regard, and few had a sense of humor, which is probably why Denys Arcand’s “The Invasion of the Barbarians” proved so salutary to brow-beaten audiences at mid-week.

In a very troubled world, the grim subject matter was inarguably apt; it just wasn’t very often well-handled.

Van Sant’s “Elephant” poeticizes a fictionalized Columbine incident; Samira Makhmalbaf’s “At Five in the Afternoon” choppily examines women in post-Taliban Afghanistan; Andre Techine’s takes a muted look at a few characters on the run from the Nazis in 1940 France.

Meanwhile Bulge Ceylan’s “Distant” artfully presents men on the brink of the abyss in Turkey; Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru” plunges the viewer into the worst prison in Brazil to less effect than any episode of “Oz,” and Bertrand Bonello’s “Tiresia” made you want to spend time in that prison rather than in his tale of a demented loser who kidnaps a transvestite and pokes her eyes out.

Then there was “Dogville” from the contemporary cinema’s leading provocateur von Trier, who at the pic’s press conference bullied Nicole Kidman into publicly agreeing to star in his next two pictures and made comments about how there now has to be a war to Liberate America.

Bruited to possibly win his second Palme d’Or in a row for his three-hour allegory about how an American town during the Depression is so deceitful to a female fugitive (no angel herself) that the entire population deserves to be wiped out, von Trier has made another picture that is radically conceived, three parts aggravating to one part arresting, deliberately bombastic and implicitly nihilistic toward the U.S.

This, of course, plays right into the sentiments of many on this side of the pond at the moment, so we can surely expect more of the same in the next two installments of his USA trilogy.

Errol Morris’ complex doc about Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War,” and Wim Wenders’ hybrid doc about three blues singers, “The Soul of a Man,” were highlights among the Special Screenings, and Richard Schickel’s comprehensive docu, “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin,” kicked off a coming year-long revival of restored versions of the great comic’s work.

The thin Un Certain Regard section was highlighted by David Mackenzie’s “Young Adam,” a finely-wrought study of an amoral womanizer in early ’50s Scotland, very well played by Ewan McGregor, and Marco Tullio Giordana’s Italian miniseries-turned-six-hour feature, “La Migliore Gioventu.”

The Directors Fortnight, under the directorship of Francois da Silva for the first time, was slow to get going but ultimately yielded some nice finds.

These included Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” from Israel, Lucian Pintilie’s “Niki and Flo” from Romania/France, Sedigh Barmak’s “Osama,” the first Afghan production post-Taliban, Alain Guiraudie’s “No Rest for the Brave” from France, Thomas de Their’s “Feathers in My Head” from Belgium and Constanza Quatriglio’s “The Island” from Italy.

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