Touch of gray

Old masters outshine young guns at Cannes

When the Cannes Film Festival lineup was announced, considerable skepticism greeted the fact that nearly half of the 21 competition entries were directed by filmmakers who were on the cutting edge and/or in their prime 15 or 20 years ago.

David Cronenberg, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Gus Van Sant, Atom Egoyan, Lars von Trier — these are the same guys we were seeing in Cannes and other festivals back when the first George Bush was president. Last year, festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux even declared an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new policy, famously rejecting Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake,” which went on to triumph in Venice.

The question, then, was whether these graying directors (well, Jarmusch has always been gray) would be able to deliver the goods again after some unencouraging recent efforts.

The answer to that is, better middle-aged masters than none at all, for the implication lying at the heart of Fremaux’s reversal of policy is that there were precious few films by young directors this year that warranted a slot in the competition.

Certainly, the entries on view in Cannes’ second-tier events, Un Certain Regard, the Directors Fortnight and the Critics Week, bore this out. Although there were some agreeable discoveries in those sections, none were of sufficient weight to withstand the scrutiny to which competition titles are subjected.

Since the “Brown Bunny” fiasco two years ago, there is heightened sensitivity to the question of a film being ready for primetime in the Grand Theatre Lumiere; one can always find films in the sidebars that are better than the worst films of the competition, but that doesn’t mean they should have been competing, as their very modesty or newness helps them thrive in a small pond when they might have floundered in the big one.

Time will tell, but at the moment I am willing to believe that there simply aren’t any — or, at any rate, many — other finished first-rate films hidden under rocks around the world that would have transformed Cannes 2005 into a vastly more satisfying festival. I certainly wouldn’t envy anyone the onerous task of sifting through the candidates to find one.

Given the choice, then, of casting his lot with proven auteurs who may have become somewhat less reliable lately, or taking a chance with far less seasoned talents, Fremaux and the selection committee made the conservative, but probably prudent, choice.

Ironically, it was one of the oldest directors, Woody Allen, who delivered arguably the most fully satisfying picture on the Croisette in “Match Point.” Critical reaction to the film broke down strongly along national lines, with most Americans liking it quite well, the French loving it and Brits generally blowing it off for reasons that seemed to begin with the ease with which the Scarlett Johansson character is able to rent a nice flat.

Such was the general astonishment over the Woodman being able to make a film this good after so many stinkers that several rude “explanations” began circulating: “Match Point” was an old script the English partners had lying around that Allen merely revised; Allen paid a “front” to write it, then put his name on it; and/or Allen didn’t actually direct it at all, a theory attributed to the fact that he has never before used a visual metaphor like the indelible one that begins and climaxes this picture.

Say what you will, “Match Point” is clearly not the brainchild of a hotshot young film buff but, rather, the work of a seasoned dramatist who knows his literature and his way around actors. If Allen had broken his longstanding rule of not competing at festivals, he likely would have won something big this year.

What this year’s Cannes unquestionably lacked was a great film or anything close to it. Through Thursday, the competition films that had scored the highest general approval were Michael Haneke’s “Hidden,” a Eurothriller with political undercurrents about the insidious effect of some anonymously sent videotapes on a Parisian family; Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” a charmingly off-center comedy starring Bill Murray in his most minimalist performance yet, and the Dardenne brothers’ “The Child,” about a young man who can’t look after himself, let alone the baby he has sired.

In addition to these notable but scarcely towering achievements — all directed by longtime Cannes veterans — Cronenberg’s story of a family threatened from within and without, “A History of Violence,” boasted more partisans than detractors; von Trier’s provocation about slavery, “Manderlay,” had more of the latter, while Van Sant’s Kurt Cobain film a clef “Last Days” split crix down the middle.

Israeli fest regular Amos Gitai’s “Free Zone” saddles a vivid you-are-there road trip from Israel through Jordan with some very obvious expository dialogue, while in “Don’t Come Knocking,” the “Paris, Texas” team of Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard exposed the difficulties of trying to make lightning strike twice in the New West.

But it was the less experienced filmmakers who generally disappointed the most. The perceived pretensions of “Japon” critical darling Carlos Reygadas kept growing in relation to the achievement of “Battle in Heaven.” Such very small films as Masahiro Koayashi’s “Bashing” from Japan, Hiner Saleem’s “Kilometer Zero” from Iraq and Wang Xiaoshau’s “Shanghai Dreams” simply looked out of place in the competition.

There’s always at least one film so jaw-droppingly ridiculous everyone wonders how it found its way into the festival, and this year it was “To Paint or Make Love,” a French swinging singles doodle by Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu.

If there was a theme, or a running motif, to be found in Cannes this year, it had to do with children — the search for unknown offspring curiously shared by “Broken Flowers” and “Don’t Come Knocking,” the wayward acts of youth that catch up with the leading men of “Hidden” and “A History of Violence,” the inability to grow up and deal with a son in “The Child,” the way in which a pregnancy triggers the climax of “Match Point,” the disastrous child kidnapping that motivates “Battle in Heaven,” the central journey of the son in Marco Tullio Giordana’s “Once You Are Born You Can No Longer Hide” and the struggle of a teenage girl to escape the oppressive oversight of a father in “Shanghai Dreams.”

And let’s not forget two of the most famous children in contemporary cinema, the two that are sired by an especially notorious father in “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

In most of these films, social commentary serves as a backdrop to the personal stories, which was at least a change from the overt politics that sometimes tend to dominate festival entries. Few conclusions can be drawn, but it has been curious to note that, among these largely middleaged auteurs (a number of whom are not known to have kids of their own), children were on their minds.