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Cannes' foreign emphasis

Cannes’ foreign emphasis — From the Danish ”Dancer in the Dark” to the Tunisian ”The Season of Men,” this year’s films came from all over the map

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Don’t believe anyone who insists otherwise: The right film won the Palme d’Or. Dancer in the Dark is astonishing — the most exhilarating and original work of cinema in Cannes. It’s a triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity for Danish director Lars von Trier; it’s a benchmark for the creative possibilities of digital video. And it divided audiences, I think, because it’s as new and big a vision as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Don’t believe anyone, either, who carps that Bjork shouldn’t have won her best-actress prize because she’s not a trained actress and tut-tut-tut isn’t it terrible that this is the second year in a row for such an upset. The Icelandic pop star is Selma, a sad Czech immigrant who temporarily forgets her imminent blindness by daydreaming herself into the kind of sentimental American movie musical she loves so much. We believe her, effortlessly. (Lena Andre produced a rainbow of emotional colors as the adulterous wife in Liv Ullmann’s Faithless, but she worked exceedingly hard.)

I jump in combatively because Cannes is a place of tough love and tumultuous argument. Hang back cautiously and all there is to murmur about is how purty The Golden Bowl looks. Yes, it’s filled to the brim with decorating tips, but no light reflects off Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s dully brassy, middlebrow adaptation of Henry James’ last novel; indeed, the inert Bowl represents everything machine-made and faux in art-lit pix.

In Cannes, one doesn’t go to see, say, Nurse Betty, Bread and Roses, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or Requiem for a Dream; one queues up instead for ”the LaBute,” ”the Loach,” ”the Coen,” and ”the Aronofsky.” The talk is all about a filmmaker’s oeuvre — anticipation for, say, the newest from the psychologically astute Edward Yang, who rightly took home the directing prize for his involving Chinese family drama A One and a Two. And to forget that is to decry the stubborn ”marginality” and ”anti-Americanism” of the festival but to miss the real party.

To embrace that is to exult in a cinematic world bazaar. With a new directorial lightness, In the Company of Men‘s Neil LaBute tells the mordantly funny tale of a traumatized waitress (Renee Zellweger, acquitting herself well) who can’t distinguish — who can? — between real life and TV soap operas. In an agitprop drama of gratingly pedantic preachiness, Ken Loach (My Name Is Joe) comes down bravely on the side of dignity — who’s arguing otherwise? — for immigrant office cleaners in Los Angeles. Joel and Ethan Coen get some energetic playfulness from George Clooney as an escaped convict amok in Depression-era America, but are way too pleased with their own smarty-boy references to Homer and Sullivan’s Travels. And with harrowing imagery, [Pi]’s Darren Aronofsky invigorates an unexceptional chronicle of the fleeting ups and terrible downs caused by drugs.

On the other hand, with no help from a Miramaxishly Hollywood-indie cast including James Caan, Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, and Charlize Theron, American director James Gray inextricably mires his cops-and-corruption thriller, The Yards, in air-sucking cliches, squandering the interest he banked six years ago with Little Odessa.