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The last of the auteurs

Ingmar Bergman wasn't in Cannes to receive his gong. But would young film-goers really know who he (and others of his generation) were anyway, asks Geoffrey Macnab
"Forgive an old man for not being here tonight... Life has finally caught up with me and made me shy and silent." This was the message that Ingmar Bergman wrote to the Cannes Festival, explaining his failure to turn up in person this week to receive his Palme Des Palmes - a special reward for a director who had never before been awarded a prize at Cannes. (Bergman's daughter, Linn Ullmann, collected it in his stead.)

Seventy-eight years old, Bergman has been doing a fair impersonation of Prospero for the past decade. He still occasionally directs plays and has recently given a long interview to Swedish television but, in the 15 years since Fanny and Alexander (1982), he has largely vanished from the film-making scene. Old cinephiles used to swear by him, but a new generation of film-goers scarcely knows his name. Nobody insults him any more. Gone are the days when his name was a by-word for Scandinavian angst. Even jokes about chess games with deathly figures on the beach no longer carry much resonance. His influence is felt, if at all, second-hand: for instance, in Woody Allen films such as A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (a pastiche or a rip-off of Smiles of a Summer Night).

At a special conference in Cannes earlier this week, prominent critics and directors bemoaned what they described as "the amnesia" of today's cinema audiences. Bergman's relative anonymity (let's not forget he is still revered by his peers) is far from unique. Watching frail old Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni wobble his way up the steps of the Palais Du Cinema, it was impossible not to notice that European auteurs are fast becoming an endangered species.

The reasons for the sea-change are not hard to identify. In the age of the multiplex, relatively few foreign language films receive distribution in the UK. Worse, they're becoming rarer and rarer on terrestrial TV. The young Turks of the 1950s and 1960s, directors such as Bergman in Sweden, Godard and Truffaut in France, and Lindsay Anderson and co in the UK, are either dead or have lapsed into senile mannerism. These days, when young film-makers look to the past for inspiration, they invariably turn to Hollywood. Hollywood film noir, not European art cinema, is the touchstone.

It's possible to feel a measure of sympathy with young film-goers exasperated by the sheer monotony of art-house cinema. Given the choice between Beavis and Butt-Head and the latest movie from Portugal's 89-year-old Manoel De Oliveira (the one living film-maker who can honestly call Eisenstein his contemporary), they tend to plump for the former.

De Oliveira's latest film, Journey to the End of the World, was screened out of competition in Cannes this week, but you'll probably have to go to the end of the world to see it anywhere else. By all accounts, it's like most of his other films: awesomely beautiful, but narcoleptic to sit through. De Oliveira's aesthetic is the antithesis of the MTV generation's. He likes leisurely takes with his characters safely framed in the middle distance, not huge close-ups in the viewer's face or frenetic jump cuts.

The relative success of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves proves that difficult, art-house movies can still reach an audience. But Von Trier v. the world is an uneven fight: one idiosyncratic Dane is hardly an adequate replacement for an entire school of European cinema.

Of course, there's a measure of false nostalgia in the jeremiads wailed out by film-makers and critics during the endless symposia on "Cinema, The Dying Art". In the early 1950s, let's not forget, Truffaut and co were railing against Le Cinema du Papa. It's an injustice to them now to label them as representatives of a glorious but fast-vanishing tradition. Each new generation of film-makers rails against its predecessors: to do so is only natural.

Tomorrow, the results of the great British lottery scramble will be announced. With the prospects for British film-makers currently more rosy than they've been in years, US independent cinema in robust health, and all sorts of new European initiatives being hatched, millennial gloom seems just a trifle self-indulgent. Even Bergman himself hasn't yet gone the way of the Dodo - he wrote the script for Liv (mother of Linn) Ullmann's new film, Private Confessions, which screened in Cannes earlier this week.