June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

There was something de rigueur about queuing up two hours early for a new film by Jean-Luc Godard at this year’s Festival International du Film. The prickly 70-year-old surfer of the French New Wave hadn’t shown his work at Cannes in ages; this, then, was a considerable event, made even more tantalizing by the decision to unveil In Praise of Love (Éloge de l’Amour) in one of the festival’s smaller screening rooms. And so, on a sunny Tuesday morning in the south of France, a polyglot scrum of critics panted in a smoky foyer, from excitement and a dearth of personal space, all of us waiting for Godard.

Much to the preening satisfaction of those who managed to pile into the humid Salle Bazin, Éloge was well worth the jostle: It’s a return to 1960s/’70s signature form for the filmmaker — the years of Alphaville and Masculin-Féminin — following recent years of particular inscrutability, a dense but rewardingly penetrable archaeological layering of image and sound that explores history (both personal and global), memory, love, literature, and politics. All the great Godardian obsessions are on rolling boil, all his signature cinematic choices in cunning disorder, with the present filmed in 35mm, the past vividly shot on color DV.

This year’s festival was the usual invigorating circus of passions and foibles, where life is what transpires watching movies in the dark, and everything else is petty logistics and a concatenation of cell phones. Those so disposed may carp and fuss over their tiny cups of bitter café about an underrepresentation of this nationality or that, of new filmmakers versus ”Cannes regulars”; me, I came away from this year’s festival grateful, as I always am at this gallant multicultural hippodrome, that there’s room in our multiplex culture for international pearls as well as for Pearl Harbor.

I’m refreshed by so many strong, artful, auteurist voices — and that’s even when I didn’t care for their individual songs. As I might expect of Michael Haneke, director of the nerve-testing 1998 shocker Funny Games, The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) is a brutal tale of sadomasochism and sexual perversity, yet it’s also queasily riveting thanks to a superb performance by Isabelle Huppert as the title character, whose dowdy demeanor hides extreme desires (she and her costar, Benoit Magimel, won the festival’s acting prizes). After the nowhere-to-hide misery of Happiness, the equal-opportunity misanthropy of Todd Solondz begins to feel claustrophobic, yet there’s no shelter from the dark mischief of Storytelling, a new meditation on the futility of family, creativity, intellectual pursuit, racial understanding, and the entire state of New Jersey, in which the uniquely creative New Jerseyite anticipates every objection to the director’s bilious worldview. In the second of the two stories that comprise this booby-trapped feature, he casts Paul Giamatti as a socially arrested loser who embarks on a mocking documentary about a laughably awful suburban family in hateful compensation for his own shortcomings.

After the old-timey feints of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I feel no need to rush to another hermetic genre piece from Joel and Ethan Coen — I’m frustrated by all the emotions the brothers press under glass in their finely crafted re-creations of dead eras — -but there’s no denying the corpselike beauty of The Man Who Wasn’t There, a noir-style tale of a desiccated barber (Billy Bob Thornton, looking lugubriously handsome in Roger Deakins’ dreamy black-and-white cinematography) who gets involved in blackmail while his wife (Frances McDormand) two-times him with her boss (James Gandolfini).

Meanwhile, David Lynch goes twisty again, after 1999’s The Straight Story, with Mulholland Drive, a kind of Twin Peaks redux full of symbols, mysteries, dream sequences, fetishized objects, and people who turn out to be someone other than who we think they are. (In other words, it’s an apt story about the kind of personality plastic surgery available in L.A., through which the actual Mulholland Drive snakes in the Hollywood Hills.) The bulk of the feature film is footage from a rejected network TV pilot, which may explain some of the unsolved mysteriousness of the story and my sense that, while drenched with Lynchian atmosphere (boosted by a spooky score by Angelo Badalamenti), there’s less, ultimately, than meets the eye. (Finding plenty to ogle, the jury split the directing award between Lynch and Joel Coen.)

As it turned out, many of the voices I loved best belonged to old men who still sing out clear and wise with age. In the erudite romantic comedy Who Knows (Va Savoir), Godard’s 73-year-old contemporary Jacques Rivette captures the inexplicability of relationships and the tug the past exerts on the present; in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Akai Hashi Noshitano Nurui Mizu), 74-year-old Japanese director Shohei Imamura reunites the stars of his 1997 Palme d’Or winner The Eel in a mysterious parable about sexual pleasure and potency; in I’m Going Home (Vou Para Casa), 92-year-old Portuguese treasure Manoel de Oliveira brings to bear nearly a century of wisdom and refinement in an enthralling story of an old actor in Paris (Michel Piccoli — my choice for the top acting prize) measuring out his remaining years. In this director’s case, delicacy and wit glow brighter, not dimmer, with age.

Ah, but this is Cannes. Mystery abounds. Last year, the Palme d’Or went to Dancer in the Dark, one of the most divisive films in competition. This year, the winner is the audience favorite, a touching domestic drama most old-fashioned in its storytelling. The Son’s Room (La Stanza del Figlio) doesn’t so much jerk tears as gently understand the need to weep. Nanni Moretti, who cowrote, directed, and stars in this affecting family drama about the death of an adolescent son, is best known for his politically barbed, autobiographical comedies (Caro Diario). Is he a ”Cannes regular”? Well, oui. And now he’s done something very different and very good. And so he won. May he, and Todd Solondz, and Joel Coen, too, be vigorous and productive well into old age, so that audiences will still clamor for precious Cannes seats at the mention of their names.

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