Cannes Film Festival: The 60th anniversary highlights

A homage to film by former Palme D'Or winners was meant to steal the show at Cannes, but it's a home-grown biopic that has won hearts, says Sheila Johnston
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To celebrate its 60th anniversary, Cannes pulled off an extraordinary coup, persuading 35 of the world's top directors to each make a three-minute short for a compilation meditating on the film-going experience. To Each His Own Cinema was a bold, debatable project. While by any standards remarkable, the line-up, which featured many Golden Palm winners, was hardly representative of the current state of cinema: traditional arthouse auteurs ruled the roost, most contributors were on the wrong side of 40 and, disgracefully, only one woman, Jane Campion, was invited to the party.

The festival's desired message: Cannes remains incontestably the place where the top film-makers come to show their work to the world. The film's collective conclusion, give or take a segment or two: cinema isn't what it used to be. Not that it was at all gloomy. The miniature format is naturally suited to pithy jeux d'esprit: Roman Polanski has a gag about a dirty-mac punter at a screening of Emmanuelle; Takeshi Kitano appears in his own segment as a rural projectionist so useless that it takes an entire day for him to screen a film; Walter Salles has a couple of Brazilian musicians fantasising amusingly about what it would be like to go to Cannes. The final piece, by Ken Loach, shows a father and son dithering over which feeble commercial movie to see, before opting for a football match instead. Paradoxically, the compendium format means that To Each His Own Cinema is most likely to be seen hereafter on the small screen.

It's tempting to suggest that such a brisk running time should be mandatory for all contestants in the main competition. Several two hour-plus efforts severely taxed the audience's patience, not to mention its ability to stay awake: I'm thinking of Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light, an austere tale of forbidden love and spiritual crisis set in Mexico's Mennonite community, and The Banishment by Russia's Andrei Zviagintsev, who won the Golden Lion in Venice for his stunning first film, The Return. His new one is a mournful account of the breakdown of a marriage. Both films unquestionably look sumptuous, but their stately pace and thundering metaphysical ambitions left one itching for the fast-forward button. Still, I'd love to see the three-minute versions.

Gus Van Sant, another former Cannes laureate, delivered a disappointment with Paranoid Park, an addition to his cycle about alienated youth, as seen in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. In this flimsy piece, an angelic-looking teenager whose life revolves around skateboarding accidentally kills a security guard, and drifts through the following days struggling - though not very hard - with his responsibility for the act. The filmemploys many of the same stylistic tics used more effectively in Elephant and offers an unsatisfyingly indecisive take on its material.

Local politics dictate that there should be three or four French films in Cannes, and these can usually be counted upon to include a couple of duds: Les Chansons d'Amour, an exasperatingly fey musical by Christophe Honoré, is the current front-runner for the booby prize. However, Catherine Breillat's period drama, An Old Mistress, is yet to come, as is Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's version of her graphic novel about a rebellious girl growing up in Iran.

Meanwhile, the home team's prospects have brightened no end with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a bracingly unsentimental version of the memoir by Jean Dominique Bauby, the playboy-journalist felled in his Forties by a massive stroke that left him the victim of "locked- syndrome", his sharp mind intact but his body paralysed except for his left eyelid. By blinking, he dictated his book letter by letter.

In the director Julian Schnabel's Basquiat and Before Night Falls, he displayed a self-indulgent penchant for victims, but here the humorous performance by Mathieu Amalric makes Diving Bell much more than another glib fable about a heroic struggle against insuperable odds.

There has been much weeping and wailing at the meagre British presence in Cannes, but two films fly the flag with honour. Anton Corbijn's Control, which opened the Directors' Fortnight, tells the story of Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division, who took his own life in 1980 at the age of 23. Shot beautifully in black-and-white, Control does not delve deep into what made the band's music great, or how they created it; it concentrates on Curtis's ill-fated marriage. But Sam Riley delivers an intense, star-making central performance and the mood is lightened by some terrific comic supporting turns.

Michael Winterbottom weighs in with A Mighty Heart, adapted from the memoir of Mariane Pearl, whose husband, The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002. This is an account of the fruitless search for the vanished man, and the controversial casting of Angelina Jolie as the journalist's wife turns out to be vindicated by her portrait of a spirited woman pushed toward the end of her tether.

A highlight of Sicko is one of Michael Moore's signature stunts. A group of Americans suffering from respiratory and nervous ailments after helping as volunteers at Ground Zero set off in a little boat to Guantanamo Bay, where terrorist suspects receive top-notch healthcare. Refused entry, they move on to Cuba for excellent free treatment.

It takes nerve to make a movie ostensibly about this topic. Moore also asks: how is it that America has become a destructively individualist every-man-for-himself society with no community spirit? You have to admire him for raising the big questions while entertaining you along the way. Would that more directors could do it.

The Cannes Film Festival ends on Sunday ( www.festival-cannes.fr)

CANNES ROUND-UP: ONES TO WATCH

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THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY

The artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel and actor Mathieu Amalric pull off the apparently impossible in their poetic dramatisation of the poignant best-selling memoir of the paralysed French journalist Jean Dominique Bauby, who escaped the prison of his own body by sheer will and imagination.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

A drug deal on the Mexican border implodes with dire consequences for all concerned in a blazing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel of crime, punishment and the death of the old codes of honour in the American heartland. It signals a commanding return to form for the Coen Brothers.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS

On paper, this tale of a Romanian student seeking an illegal abortion sounds unappealing. Not so: brilliantly shot and vigorously performed, Cristian Mungiu's compelling account of the daily cuts and bruises to the human soul under Communism invites comparison to The Lives of Others.

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN

Fatih Akin's film is a delicate study of the intertwined fates of three sets of Turks and Germans, and their single parents. A maelstrom of ideas about cultural dislocation, political radicalism, love and death seethe below the surface.

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