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Cannes’ great divide

Critics impressed but split over fest's best

CANNES — Everyone seems to agree that there have been quite a few fine films at the Cannes Film Festival this year. What they entirely can’t agree upon is which films they are.

Entering the 60th anniversary edition’s second and final weekend, the leading contenders for the Palme d’Or would still seem to be two movies from very early in the fest, the Coen brothers’ pungent bloody thriller “No Country for Old Men” and Romanian helmer Cristian Mungiu’s bracing abortion drama set in the late communist days, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”

But as heavyweight art fare bellied up to the bar in the days thereafter, critical opinions, as they are prone to do, started flying in all possible directions. Is Carlos Reygadas, whose “Silent Light” focuses on a Mennonite community in Mexico, the second coming of Carl Dreyer, as a number of American critics suggested, or an “imposter,” as the French paper Les Inrockuptibles insisted? Is Christian Honore, with his French “musical” “Love Songs,” really the new Jacques Demy or a tone-deaf wannabe? On the basis of “My Blueberry Nights” and “Death Proof,” respectively, have Wong Kar Wai and Quentin Tarantino furthered their reputations as ultra-cool stylists or driven off the road?

More clear than ever is the dramatic divide between the views of the French critics and their international (mostly Anglo-American) counterparts. The French not only readily embraced “Love Songs” but also slammed a film generally regarded by English speakers as one of the better competition entries, Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Was the French rejection due to prejudices formed against his earlier work, unspoken bias against an American with the audacity to make a French-language art film based on a French book, or strictly aesthetic matters? No one professed to know.

Going strictly by the critics’ polls here, the top-rated pictures on the Croisette in 2007 are “No Country for Old Men,” “4 Months” and “Zodiac”; reaction to “Zodiac” confirms the view of some industryites that Paramount should have waited to premiere the film in Cannes and waited until September to release it.

The high-art side — that is, films restricted in interest to film buffs and critics and not destined to be seen by ordinary human eyes — was repped by several pics: Ulrich Seidl’s “Import Export,” which belongs to the genre dedicated to the proposition that life is undiluted merde; Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Banishment,” a simple story (from William Saroyan) elaborated and inflated to death by grandiose proportions; “Silent Light,” which to my eyes possessed the most extraordinary visuals in a festival full of exceptional camerawork and seemed sincere in its portrayal of religious devotion in the bargain; and Bella Tarr’s “The Man From London,” which epitomized what is known as a “festival film,” i.e., one made for no known audience apart from the already converted disciples of a cult director. One version of hell for me would consist of being trapped inside the insular world of this film for eternity.

But the inclusion of such films is de rigeur for a festival such as Cannes and helps keep people talking and disputing. On the other side of the equation, the projection of “Death Proof” upon the giant screen of the Palais du Festival seemed audacious. In the old days, a picture devoted to kick-butt fighting chicks and car crashes, complete with scratches on the film, would have been seen only in the back streets of the market.

Somewhere in between all this are Fatih Akin’s “The Edge of Heaven,” the highly anticipated follow-up to “Head-On” that some observers liked but was exceptionally schematic and laborious in its structure; Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park,” a look at a young skateboarder’s denial of moral responsibility for a man’s death that just seems too insistently limited in its view of the subject; “Secret Sunshine,” South Korean helmer Lee Chang-dong’s absorbing, well-acted account of a woman undone by a domestic tragedy; the trifling but attractive “My Blueberry Nights”; and “Persepolis,” Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated version of Satrapi’s graphic novel about her life in Iran and Europe whose promising premise doesn’t build satisfyingly either dramatically or visually.

There were the usual examples of films festgoers felt should have been in the competition rather than Un Certain Regard and vice versa and so on. But in a year fest organizers took particularly seriously, given the big anniversary, 2007 proved to be quite lively, and mostly in a good way.

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