Despite critical acclaim, American directors like David Lynch, Tim Robbins, Kevin Smith, and others fail to bring the d'Or home

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated June 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

In Cannes, something always thrills, something always disappoints, something always irks, and something always surprises. At some point, too, something always leads moviegoers — purists and nonpurists alike — to ask the critical question ”What were they thinking?” And this year, with an efficiency exceptional in a culture that incorporates a shrug even into a hamburger delivery at the Croisette McDonald’s, the question arose on opening night: What ever possessed programmers to take the ”fete” out of the festival with The Barber of Siberia? This bowl of gruel from Russian sentimentalist and ever-ready presidential candidate Nikita Mikhalkov (best known for Burnt by the Sun) went on for three hours — three hours of expensive, costume-drama farce; three hours of close-ups of Julia Ormond’s fetching teeth (she plays a spunky adventuress who falls in love with a spunky Slavic army cadet); three hours during which the director himself plays Czar Alexander III.

Many of the films that followed in the first few days were equally underspiced. Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai grimly condemned the sexism of Orthodox Jewish men in Kadosh. Catatonia-oriented Alexander Sokurov (Mother and Son) fantasized a sepulchral dinner party chez Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in Moloch. Lynne Ramsay, a prodigiously gifted Scottish filmmaker (her short film Gasman is a knockout), showed marvelous storytelling ability with a limited story in her first feature, Ratcatcher, about a poor kid in the slums of Glasgow. Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) mixed aspects of Playing by Heart with Happiness, pasted on the handheld, low-lit aesthetic of a Dogma 95 production, and came up with Wonderland, a diagrammatic drama about a family of lovelorn Londoners.

But with Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother, the skies of Cannes suddenly got bluer. The Spanish auteur’s brilliantly inventive, ravishing-looking drama about mother love, with its references to All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire, its characteristically strong Almodovarian women, and its fabulous home decor, is also his most bighearted, most mature creation yet. (No women, gay or hetero men, or transvestites are mocked in the telling of this humanistic tale.)

Many directors who’d swung their swords dangerously in previous films chose to carve out pictures that were cautious, audience-friendly, and sometimes downright kitschy. Takeshi Kitano moved from the bloody originality of Sonatine and Fireworks to Kikujiro, a droll crusty-guy-and-little-kid trifle. Jim Jarmusch gently reclaimed his audience with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a mellow mix of samurai wisdom and nostalgia for old-mobster values, featuring a lovable performance by Forest Whitaker backed by a bunch of gangster-faced character actors. The Sweet Hereafter‘s Atom Egoyan curled inward with Felicia’s Journey, about a middle-aged man (Bob Hoskins) with a predatory relationship to needy young women, that offers religious overtones but not enough undertones. David Lynch proffered the moistest, most morning-in-America film imaginable with The Straight Story, based on a true tale of an old oak of a fellow (Richard Farnsworth, in the role of his 78-year lifetime) who drives his lawn mower across tarnation to see his estranged brother. Among such tender vittles, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam made a lot of noise but shed no light on the passions and paranoia burning up the streets in 1977, when ”Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz terrified New Yorkers.