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The films of Cannes

News, niceties, and noir filled the bill during the film festival’s fiftieth year with films such as ”The Ice Storm” and ”Welcome to Sarajevo”

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There’s something about the air at the Cannes film festival, scented with the briny spice of the Mediterranean and the funk of 4,000 journalists bathing in inverse frequency to the number of cigarettes smoked, that inspires passionate reactions in a moviegoer. Add to Cannes’ usual melange of spectacle and overscheduling the historical resonance of its 50th anniversary, as well as an intensified itch to discover the next Pulp Fiction, and the pressure to strike movie gold hung heavy above the Cote d’Azur this year.

That may be too much pressure. At least that’s one of my theories for why this year’s choice of entries was so schizy. Would you like your cinema muted and sad? Ang Lee’s lyrical production of The Ice Storm (a graceful adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel about the sexual revolution in 1973 suburban America) showcases the director’s refined eye and sturdy commercial instincts. (The interesting cast includes Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, and the steadily fascinating Christina Ricci.) Prefer a dollop of political agitation with your emotionally engaging narrative? Welcome to Sarajevo, directed by Michael Winterbottom, tugs firmly on the heartstrings in dramatizing the real-life story of a British journalist (Stephen Dillane) in Bosnia who struggles to adopt an orphaned Bosnian girl. (Woody Harrelson does nice, restrained work as an American reporter.)

Want to really weep into your lager? British actress Kathy Burke — Patsy’s cockney editor in Absolutely Fabulous — is powerful in her role as a beaten-up working-class wife in Nil by Mouth, a rough Ken Loach-like kitchen-sink drama from Gary Oldman in a creditable directing debut. And you haven’t seen discreditable novice directing until you see The Brave — I hope you don’t — and get a gander at director-cowriter-star Johnny Depp. This pretentious misstep, about a Native American husband and father in a Western slum who decides to sell his body to a sadist (Marlon Brando!) to support his family, is a window on movie-star indulgence gone amok.

Winners in this golden-anniversary year included Western, a gentle French road comedy from Manuel Poirier, and Unagi, a gentle Japanese fish comedy from Shohei Imamura about a paroled wife murderer with a pet eel. However, I’d also commend one of my favorite finds, the funny, inventive Love and Death on Long Island, by British writer-director Richard Kwietniowski, based on Gilbert Adair’s novel. John Hurt does exquisite work as a stuffy writer obsessed with the oeuvre of a dum-dum American teen-dream idol. A canny, endearing Jason Priestley costars as the dreamboat in question.

(Speaking of finds, I think it’s time for a Scandinavian fest, at least judging from the pleasures of the Norwegian comedy Junk Mail, about a skanky postal worker unhampered by manners or morals. I’d also schedule the cool noir police story Insomnia, starring Breaking the Waves‘ Stellan Skarsgard.)

News was made in Cannes: Zhang Yuan’s East Palace West Palace, an artistically unsteady movie about the erotically charged relationship between a gay man picked up for cruising and the cop who interrogates him, landed the director under house arrest in China. Add to that Happy Together, Wong Kar-Wai’s visually stylish portrait of a gay Hong Kong couple in Buenos Aires, and you have a glimpse into a hidden Asian subculture.