Cannes Film Festival Diary: The year of watching unexcitedly

One OF the more curious Cannes phenomena of recent years is the series of "living sculptures" which line the Croisette. How strange that, at an event supposedly devoted to the moving image, these desperate individuals - spray-painted bronze or silver and locked for hours on end in ludicrous poses - expect to be rewarded for the sole accomplishment of being able to stand completely still. Or perhaps not: this festival, generally judged disappointing, shows an art form in a state of temporary stasis.

As the competition draws to an end - the results will be announced tonight - the field remains wide open, though not so much out of an embarras de richesses as because the international film-making community has stubbornly failed to supply a stream of unalloyed masterpieces for the festival's half-centennial.

No single film stands out from the crowd, though there is an array of respectable contenders. Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director of Sense and Sensibility, turns his attention to Watergate-era America in The Ice Storm, a glacially elegant study of emotional paralysis in a Connecticut family coming to grips with the sexual revolution. Also from the frozen North, the Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan's much hyped - but disappointing - The Sweet Hereafter scrutinises the effect of a tragic school bus crash on a small Canadian community.

In Wim Wenders' ambitious arthouse conspiracy thriller The End of Violence, Bill Pullman plays a Tarantino-esque film producer inadvertently drawn into an FBI plot to control street crime by patrolling the city with surveillance cameras. In exploring Wenders' long-standing fascination with voyeurism and visual technology, the film is not altogether free from intellectual pretension, but impresses none the less for the scope of its ambitions, the gorgeous wide-screen cinematography, and immensely sympathetic performances from Pullman and newcomer Traci Lind.

A far more conventional, but enormously enjoyable Hollywood studio picture, LA Confidential flashes back to the 1950s for a cracking adaptation of the James Ellroy novel about police corruption in the City of Angels. Curtis Hanson, hitherto a wholly undistinguished journeyman (his previous credits include the nanny-horror flick The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) wrote and directed what some have been calling the best film noir since Polanski made Chinatown 23 years ago.

A personal favourite was The Eel, by Shohei Imamura, a previous Golden Palm winner for The Ballad of Narayama. It takes a risibly awful- sounding premise - a man is sent to prison for a crime passionnel and retreats from the world to form an obsession with his pet eel - and turns it into an affecting story, of how he regains his faith in humanity.

The film moves between pathos, melodrama and broad farce with complete assurance. One watched it with regret, since its chances of reaching British cinemas are virtually nil: if nothing else, festivals serve the invaluable function of reminding us that there is a cinematic world beyond Liar Liar.

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, most British critics admit that our boys (not girls: there is, depressingly, a single female director, Aussie debutante Samantha Lang, in competition) are bearing up well. In the Directors' Fortnight My Son the Fanatic, scripted by Hanif Kureishi, starts out as a social satire which pits fundamentalism against Western hedonism in Bradford's Asian community, and becomes an improbable, but surprisingly touching love story.

Also much liked has been Love and Death in Long Island, whose odd couple consists of an unworldly English eccentric (John Hurt) and an American bratpacker (Jason Patric). In competition Welcome to Sarajevo is still thought to have an outside chance at the Palm while Gary Oldman's gritty family drama Nil By Mouth is strongly tipped for acting honours.

It's inconceivable that the French will allow the home team to go away empty-handed, though the Gallic offerings are thin. Western, a road movie set in Brittany, is an amiable audience-pleaser (and a rare patch of light relief in the festival's mood of prevailing end-of-millennial gloom) that rambles, albeit divertingly, well past its natural conclusion.

Assassin(s), from Mathieu Kassovitz - the wunderkind director of La Haine two years ago - looks unlikely to reproduce the earlier film's success, while La Femme Defendue, the story of an adulterous affair between a balding married man (played by the director, Philippe Harel) and a luscious 22-year-old nymphet, is an old chestnut given surface novelty by a stylistic gimmick: it uses a subjective camera throughout to tell its story through the unseen male character's point of view. The young actress, Isabelle Carre, who carries the film virtually single-handed, is a front-runner for the Best Actress award.

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