Wily circus master Federico Fellini, saluted at this year's Cannes film festival a decade after his death, might have enjoyed the freak-show aesthetics of the event. ''Viva Il Cinema,'' the official festival poster proclaimed, in a domineering word-as-art design by American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. But what kind of cinema are the programmers of the world's most prestigious annual film festival championing? Many of the competition selections in this year's lineup were so unrewarding, and a few of them so cantankerously awful, that for the first time since I began attending this auteurist sun splash, I doubted my hosts' sense of direction.
We can talk about THE BROWN BUNNY -- and I will later on (though it's unlikely that anyone will ever see a frame of Vincent Gallo's infamous folly again). But to make sense of this year's artistic crisis, I bow first to DOGVILLE and then to MYSTIC RIVER -- two very good specimens that form, in their way, the perfect crossroads from which to survey the Cannes topography. The former, by Danish Cannes favorite Lars von Trier, was the most highly anticipated film of the festival. The participation of Nicole Kidman was a draw, of course. But in Cannes, the draw of Dogville was really Nic in a film by Lars, a Brechtian experiment in bare-bones theater-on-video, set in a fictional Depression-era America where the good people of a Rocky Mountain town, having with great righteousness agreed to harbor Kidman as a woman on the run from gangsters, prove themselves to be heartless moral hypocrites. Shot entirely on a Swedish soundstage with no sets and few props and with much of the handheld camera work done by von Trier himself, Dogville is radical, stern, riveting, and troublesome -- a politicized howl against a certain notion of America by a psychologically complicated European filmmaker who has visited America only in his excitable imagination. I was not emotionally moved by its arguments; I was, on the other hand, coldly excited by its very construction. Dogville was the essence of Cannes; people are still arguing about it.
Mystic River, by contrast, is situated a psychic and cinematic continent away from Dogville. Clint Eastwood's mature adaptation of Dennis Lehane's acclaimed 2001 novel, about the adult fates of three lifelong Boston buddies who are linked by the childhood abduction of one of them, moved me by its very absence of handheld jumpiness and its deep respect for words. Director Eastwood metes out long, calm takes of accumulating power, and a strong script by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) elicits concentrated, unmannered performances by Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and Kevin Bacon as the adult friends, and Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney as wives to be reckoned with. The movie is a fine American Hollywood beauty, an auteur production of its own hickory-solid kind.
But if any other good, provocative cinematic experiments in storytelling -- or more classically shaped projects -- applied for a competition slot, they were crowded out by a lineup that skittered from piffly French concoctions to rough-going, audience-unfriendly enterprises. No wonder I liked DISTANT so much: Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's mournfully funny, empathetic story of a country man who impedes his sour city cousin's routine when he comes looking for work in Istanbul wasn't big on talk, but the film was an eloquent sketch of loneliness and disillusion expressed through shots of silent, snowy landscape. Samira Makhmalbaf also used silence effectively in AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON, a sleek, export-ready portrait of post-Taliban Afghanistan that touches ever so noncommittally on issues of feminism, politics, and religion with minimal conversation. The 23-year-old director makes maximal use of her photogenic, nonprofessional star, Agheleh Rezale, playing a woman who dreams of becoming her country's president.
A lot of people also liked the hopped-up Brazilian prison drama CARANDIRU, by Kiss of the Spider Woman's Hector Babenco, though I found it more a flashy TV-size showpiece for its cooped-up violence than a powerful indictment of the Brazilian prison system. (''Haven't you seen Oz on HBO?'' I kept asking my colleagues, and none of them had. Huh?) Then again, some of my confederates found Francois Ozon's SWIMMING POOL too slight, especially after the richness of his 2001 film Under the Sand (which also starred the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, now in her second prime). But I enjoyed its summery eeriness -- an Ozon specialty -- and the way the filmmaker can backlight even the most idyllic settings with a sense of unease, in this case a house in Provence where a brittle English mystery writer -- Rampling -- is distracted on her working holiday by the sexual antics of Ludivine Sagnier as a peachy young woman.
Cannes has always been a forward-looking showcase of Asian cinema. But a stranger might conclude, based on Suzhou River director Lou Ye's confusing and bloody PURPLE BUTTERFLY (set in 1930s Manchuria and starring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi) or Kiyoshi Kurosawa's chopped-up Japan-of-the-21st-century story BRIGHT FUTURE, that smoking has replaced all other forms of activity in Asia. Then again, anyone otherwise unfamiliar with the glories of France's own cinema would be confounded by the strange assortment representing the home team at Cannes this year. Among them, Andre Techine's STRAYED, starring Emmanuelle Beart, is a strained story of sex and mystery grafted onto a World War II setting; Gilles Marchand's WHO KILLED BAMBI? is a trashy direct-to-video-style thriller about a creepy doctor who does bad things to his comatose female patients, shot with a soupcon of cool style; and Bertrand Blier's LES COTELETTES -- the second most universally hated film in competition -- is a bitter, cackling comedy about two tedious old men who fancy the same downtrodden North African housekeeper.
And thus do hate and love -- at least jury love -- bring me back to The Brown Bunny, and to Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning ELEPHANT as well. There is little to analyze about Gallo's staggeringly self-absorbed road-trip fantasy, during which a dull guy (Gallo, oui) drives cross-country to forget the pain of a lost love and finally -- the many who bolted the screening must not have known this was the reward for sticking around -- demands and gets hardcore oral sex from that same love, played (if played is the word) by Chloe Sevigny. I was willing to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, imagining that the road scenes belonged to a fine Iranian filmmaker, until Gallo stopped to wash his van, in real time. There is good reason to worry about a festival that, by implication, claims The Brown Bunny as among the worthiest American submissions of the year.
Cannes 2003 was, after all, a festival that awarded the top prize to an affectless, documentary-style, fictional meditation on the Columbine High School killings that suggests any all-American student is capable of mowing down his schoolmates. Van Sant is a devilish master of photographing slack boyish beauty, and his early scenes of high school kids just being kids -- not the twisted-youth variety of Kids -- are lovely, the antidote to Larry Clark. But the boys who go bad in Elephant -- a movie named for the kind of large problem that no one talks about -- do so with little to explain their murderous anarchy. What are we to make, for instance, of the fact that they shower together before the apocalyptic finish? There's nothing to explain the Cannes 2003 artistic anarchy, either. But at least we talk about it.