EASILY the most exciting American film entry at the Cannes International Film Festival was the oddly titled "Barton Fink," directed by Joel Coen and produced by Ethan Coen. The brothers, who wrote the screenplay jointly, won the prestigious Golden Palm award here Monday night. The movie also picked up the prize for best direction, and its lead, American John Turturro, won the festival's best actor honor. "Barton Fink" marks a major step forward in the Coens's artistic maturity, although the film's weirdness may make it a very hard sell when it leaves the festival circuit and heads for real movie theaters.
The title character is a young Broadway playwright who moves to Hollywood in 1941, hoping to create films that will celebrate the "common man" and other idealistic themes - but finds himself assigned to a Wallace Beery wrestling picture without an ideal or idea in sight. Much of the film is devoted to a biting parody of Hollywood foolishness and vulgarity, but the most astonishing action takes place in Barton's hotel, a hilariously awful place where the only other visible guest is a friendly insurance s a
lesman who's either the nicest guy in the world or the most demented.
This surprising and audacious film eventually turns to offbeat melodrama and outright surrealism (borrowed a bit too broadly from David Lynch) without ever losing its wild-eyed sense of humor. Add superb performances by Mr. Turturro and John Goodman, and you have a package as dazzling as it is bizarre.
This year the festival was unusually rich in French offerings. Some of the most resonant films in the 1991 lineup were the work of French directors, who seem to have a special interest now in movies about art-making.
The Cannes Grand Prix was given to "La Belle Noiseuse," Jacques Rivette's ravishingly photographed four-hour drama (based on a Balzac novella) about an aging painter's desperate attempt to complete a long-abandoned masterpiece; and there is much to praise in Maurice Pialat's three-hour "Van Gogh" which makes up in subtlety and sheer beauty what it lacks in boldness and originality.
Irene Jacob was voted best actress for her role in "The Double Life of Veronique," the deliberately elusive story of two women connected by events and emotions beyond their understanding or control. This film's plot disturbs some who have seen it, and its erotic intensity may put it off limits for others when it reaches theater screens in the US and elsewhere; but the vigor of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's visual style stands out.
Notwithstanding the merits of these and other European productions, though, it was American filmmakers who brought the largest number of top-quality movies to the festival's first-string lineup.
One of the most memorable is the superb "Homicide," a thoughtful thriller written and directed by David Mamet. Joe Mantegna plays Robert Gold, a Chicago police officer who's about to crack a major case being closely watched by the city's black community, but gets sidetracked when an elderly Jewish woman is murdered for no apparent reason. Although he's Jewish himself, Gold wants no part of this seemingly minor investigation until he starts to uncover a connection between the murder and a frightening net w
ork of violent antagonisms between neo-Nazis and Jewish activists.
Beneath its sometimes melodramatic surface, "Homicide" raises a number of questions about religious identity, ethnic and family loyalty, and the difficulty of "taking a stand" on moral issues that defy simple definitions and solutions.
Spike Lee, one of today's most ornery and stimulating American directors, returned to Cannes with "Jungle Fever," which examines black-white relations via a tragicomic story of romance between a black man and an Italian-American woman. Things get predictably complicated, illustrating Mr. Lee's conviction that there are no easy answers to the racial tensions in American life.
"Jungle Fever" is something of a patchwork, rather than a brilliantly integrated mosaic like "Do the Right Thing," and its parts don't all fit smoothly together. It is a film of commendable vigor and imagination, however, reconfirming Lee as an filmmaker of keen importance.
Other films by American directors at Cannes ranged from the intellectually ambitious - such as "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's war epic "Apocalypse Now" - to the ambitiously absurd, such as "Life Stinks," a smarter-than-average Mel Brooks farce about (of all things!) homelessness.
Among the established masters represented, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and French filmmaker Agnes Varda each unveiled pictures that turned out to be earnest but minor works.
Mr. Kurosawa is the most popular of all Japanese directors among Western audiences, and even the disappointing "Dreams" that he brought to Cannes last year went on to succeed in the US. His newest work, "Rhapsody in August," intends to soothe lingering wounds caused by the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Kurosawa has little to offer beside sentimentality and a half-thought-out conviction that today's East and West have more similarities than differences.
There's more to recommend in "Jacquot de Nantes" by Ms. Varda, who pays tribute to her late husband, Jacques Demy, himself a filmmaker of repute.