Cannes gets serious

A sober world mood was evident even at the glitzy Cannes Film Festival, as a number of filmmakers focused on serious and challenging material.

Klieg lights pierced the starry sky. Cool waves washed the Mediterranean beach. Stars blew kisses to their fans, and an endless parade of movies – some good, some bad, some ugly – lit up the huge screens of the sprawling Palais des Festivals. It was business as usual at the glittering Cannes International Film Festival. Or was it?

Here as elsewhere, the tensions of Sept. 11, current Middle East turmoil, and other world crises have taken a toll. Seeing a movie at the Palais meant having your credentials double-checked, your clothing scanned with a metal-detecting wand, your handbag rifled by an attendant – all before you were allowed through the door. Security during the 11-day festival, which wrapped up Sunday, was tighter than I've seen it during any of my previous 15 visits.

Many of the movies also had a somber tone. Woody Allen gave the proceedings a laugh-filled opening with his satirical "Hollywood Ending," and entertainers like Adam Sandler and George Clooney helped brighten the mood. Yet a striking number of filmmakers explored dark sides of contemporary experience.

That's typical of Cannes to some extent. Festivals like this aren't international equivalents of Hollywood's self-congratulatory Oscar show. The programmers seek a more or less even balance between movie entertainment and cinematic art – and art-minded filmmakers often gravitate toward sobering, challenging material, just as their counterparts in drama, painting, and literature do.

Still, the seriousness quotient seemed particularly high in 2002. This wasn't directly caused by Sept. 11, which happened after most of these movies were in production. But the selection committees may have been influenced – wittingly or not – by recent world unrest. And they found plenty of dark, thoughtful films to choose from as they scouted for new pictures around the globe.

Mere hours after "Hollywood Ending" left the screen, spectators got their first look at Bowling for Columbine, directed by Michael Moore, today's most widely viewed documentary filmmaker. His hugely popular "Roger & Me" blew the whistle on corporate greed a dozen years ago and remains a video-store staple.

His new movie tackles an issue even more knotty and profound: Why do guns and violence have their claws dug so deeply into American society?

Moore probes many possible answers, including the bloody American past (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War) and the idea that US citizens simply own too many firearms.

He deflates such theories as he goes along, noting that low-homicide countries like Britain and Germany also have violent histories, and that peaceable places like Canada combine low murder rates with gun-owning statistics similar to those of the United States.

In the end, Moore argues, America's love affair with weapons is fed by the profit-driven priorities of TV news programs, reality-TV shows, and other media sources that claim to expose violence but exploit it instead. These foster an insistent feeling that danger lurks everywhere around us – a message often enhanced by racist undertones.

"Bowling for Columbine" drew mixed responses here. Many praised its multifaceted analysis of complex problems that elude easy solutions. Others complained that Moore appears in the movie too often, using his camera-friendly personality as a smokescreen for his lack of definitive answers.

Be that as it may, the independently made movie found a Hollywood distributor right after its Cannes première, and will arrive in American theaters before long.

Another sign of Cannes's mood was the comparative darkness of even the comedies on view.

Welcome to Collinwood, opening in the US this fall, stars Mr. Clooney and William H. Macy in a remake of "Big Deal on Madonna Street," the hilarious Italian farce about bungling burglars whose once-in-a-lifetime heist goes wildly sour. While it has plenty of amusing moments, its portrait of urban America is anything but cheery.

But surely the antic Mr. Sandler provided unleavened laughs? Guess again.

Punch-Drunk Love centers on a businessman (Sandler) who falls for a lonely English immigrant (Emily Watson) while quarreling with his seven sisters, dodging a gang of con artists, and trying to collect a lifetime supply of frequent-flier miles.

It's as absurd as it sounds, mixing farce and romance with sadness and danger.

Many here found it an exhilarating follow-up to director Paul Thomas Anderson's more ambitious movies – "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" – but sheer eccentricity may dampen its prospects at the multiplex.

The same goes for 24 Hour Party People, director Michael Winterbottom's high-energy look at the British rock scene during its punk and new-wave period.

English actor Steve Coogan is brilliant as Antony Wilson, the real-life impresario who saw star potential in the Sex Pistols when their concerts couldn't attract as many as 50 fans.

The film is lively and inventive, but an edgy atmosphere – complete with drugs and gunplay – is built into the pop-culture era it chronicles.

The thoughtful qualities of "24 Hour Party People" continue Britain's long tradition of socially concerned filmmaking.

This also surfaced in Mike Leigh's poignant All or Nothing, about a poor middle-age couple who face a crisis in their marriage when their son becomes ill, and Ken Loach's fierce Sweet Sixteen, about a teenage boy surrounded by morally dubious friends and relatives.

Canada's main entry was Spider, by suspense specialist David Cronenberg, starring Ralph Fiennes as a mentally disturbed man reliving childhood traumas through hallucinations intertwined with his everyday life. Subtle and understated, it takes the director of "Crash" and "Dead Ringers" down a promising new path.

By contrast, some French filmmakers are in a rambunctiously gloomy mood these days. Demonlover, by Olivier Assayas, tells a fantastic tale of corporate greed and Internet pornography. Irréversible, by Gaspar Noé, shocked even this seen-it-all festival with its savage story of a man's quest for revenge on a stranger who raped his wife.

Even the most crowd-pleasing Cannes entries seemed determined to weave dark threads into their overall tapestry.

The movie with the best box-office prospects, Alexander Payne's comedy-drama About Schmidt, stars Jack Nicholson as a recently retired Nebraska widower who fights loneliness by traveling to his daughter's wedding and writing long letters to an African orphan he's never seen.

Festival viewers laughed heartily at Schmidt's comic odyssey, but they were also touched by the deep-down discontent that runs beneath the surface of his life. And they couldn't help noticing the movie's razor-sharp social satire, from the forced merriment of the wedding scene to its criticisms of a society that supports the physical needs of older folks while overlooking their emotional and spiritual well-being.

I wish director Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor had played down sentimentality and pursued the social-satire angles of their story even further, as they did in the excellent "Election" and the sardonic "Citizen Ruth."

Still, the bittersweet tone of "About Schmidt" impressed a large proportion of the festival audience and should surely do the same when the film opens in American theaters.

As should the heartfelt acting of Mr. Nicholson, as much a Cannes favorite today as when he first appeared on screen here in "Easy Rider" 33 years ago. His latest Cannes triumph may prove to be the first step on a journey to yet another Oscar.

The award goes to ...

Major awards given last Sunday at the conclusion of the 55th Cannes Film Festival, selected by a nine-member jury headed by American director David Lynch:

Palme d'Or (Golden Palm):

"The Pianist"

Roman Polanski, Poland–France

Grand Prize:

"The Man Without a Past"

Aki Kaurismaki, Finland

Jury Prize:

"Divine Intervention"

Elia Suleiman, Palestinian

Best Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson "Punch-Drunk Love," United States Im Kwon-taek

"Chihwaseon," South Korea

Special 55th Anniversary Prize:

"Bowling for Columbine"

Michael Moore, United States

Best Actor:

Olivier Gourmet "The Son," Belgium

Best Actress:

Kati Outinen

"The Man Without a Past," Finland

Best Screenplay:

"Sweet Sixteen"

Paul Laverty, Britain

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