When Subtle Outweighs Strident

Cannes Festival screenings underscore the contrast between English-language films and those made in continental Europe and Asia

MY theory about film festivals is like Leo Tolstoy's theory about wars. The people who organize them like to regard them as models of strategy and order - but the people who actually participate in them often find them more crazy and confused than coherent and comprehensible.

That goes double for a gigantic event like the Cannes International Film Festival, where so many movies and personalities are vying for attention that the hardest part of a critic's day may be shuffling through the latest mound of schedules, invitations, and press releases to figure out which combination of activities will have the most productive results.

Some contenders are easy to reject, of course , since they'd be boring or irrelevant under any circumstances.

Yet there's always a handful of tantalizing films or interviews that just can't be squeezed into my datebook - which is frustrating in itself, and inevitably makes me wonder if I might have spotted the next major cinematic trend if I'd just chosen Item A instead of Item B on that particular occasion.

As of this writing, a week into the 46th annual Cannes extravaganza, my colleagues and I generally agree that no significant new trends have leapt into view despite the enormous amount of material we've been sifting, scrutinizing, and assessing.

What does seem clear is that the traditional dividing line between English-language cinema and films from other parts of the world is firmly in place as the 1990s head toward their midpoint.

Pictures from Hollywood and England have been bursting onto the screen with an energy that's as disconcerting as it is aggressive, while movies from Asia and continental Europe have been enticing audiences with quieter and subtler approaches. This doesn't mean the latter films are better than the former ones, but they do tend to be more dignified and demanding in some ways.

The opening-night movie, Andre Techins romantic My Favorite Season, provided a good example of this. Although it was unveiled with star-studded hoopla amid a crush of cameras, reporters, and stargazers, it turned out to be a comparatively restrained drama that raises the possibility of daring and controversial plot twists only to divert them into a refreshing affirmation of conventional values.

The main characters are members of a French family that has been split by a series of minor quarrels, feuds, and misunderstandings.

When the oldest member's illness brings the others into unusual proximity with one another and a couple of outsiders, the screenplay begins steering toward what might become kinky situations (a homosexual fling, an incestuous relationship) that never materialize, since the people involved are perfectly content to channel their affections into respectable behaviors.

"My Favorite Season" would have more impact if it were filmed more modestly - one wonders why Mr. Techine chose a showy, wide-screen format for such a muted tale - and if a few dull stretches were edited out. Its mellowness is appealing, though, and it serves up expressive performances by such superb stars as Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil.

Mellowness is carried even further in the newest film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, now in his 80s and still vigorously practicing his art. Covering a long period beginning about 50 years ago, Madadayo is the story of a revered teacher as he is seen and remembered by former students whose lives and ideas he profoundly influenced.

Unfortunately, this two-hour-plus drama has enough dull spots - talky speeches, unfunny jokes, painfully slow story developments - to drive unreceptive spectators out of the theater long before it's over; this happened at the Cannes screening I attended, and I was also tempted to make an early exit when the narrative threatened to bog down altogether on a few occasions.

But, in the end, Mr. Kurosawa's blend of sincerity and tenacity kept me in my seat, and I'm glad I witnessed his late-career testament to the qualities of wisdom, humor, and integrity that the hero of his film exemplifies.

No such restraint is visible in the English-language pictures that generated the most talk during the festival's early days. In the starkly titled Naked, renowned British filmmaker Mike Leigh - who received international praise for "High Hopes" and "Life Is Sweet," his two previous movies - serves up a ferociously dark view of contemporary British life, focusing on the adventures of a young drifter who recognizes no kind of love or caring except for violent, voracious sexuality.

The movie would be simply repellent if not for three ingredients.

One is the brilliance of Mr. Leigh's visual style.

Another is the acting of David Thewlis, who gives one of the most virtuosic performances I've seen in years.

The third is Leigh's challenging screenplay, which suggests that the abhorrent traits of the film's characters are results of life in an avaricious society that produces psychological ills and misery along with unequal wealth and repetitive jobs.

These aspects don't make Leigh's film easy to assimilate, but they do make it hard to shake off.

A somewhat similar subtext runs through Abel Ferrara's melodrama Body Snatchers. The story uses a venerable science-fiction notion - that alien invaders are threatening to turn humanity into a herd of zombies with no minds or souls of their own - to indict everything from toxic waste to military training and suburban architecture.

Filmed with impressive control and economy, the movie pitches out its ideas more eagerly than it proves or explores them.

As a thriller, it's as scary as they come, however, and its attack on conformity is as worth pondering today as in 1956 and 1978, when Hollywood turned out earlier versions of the yarn.

"Body Snatchers" is not a subtle movie, but it has captured a much larger share of Cannes's attention than many of its more dignified competitors have managed to do so far.

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