Cannes Diary IX: Famine and Feast

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Two more days to go. The Cannes Film Festival is an 11-day event, but each year in the waning days it gives evidence of shrinkage. The movie-industry dailies, like Variety, Screen International and the Hollywood Reporter, which in mid-Festival are so fat with ads they nearly rival In Style in bulk, were pamphlet-thin today. The Film Market, where producers and national cinemas set up stalls to entice buyers, is nearly deserted. And as a political campaign in its last days turns from discussion of the issues to speculation on who will win, the talk here now is about front-runners for the Palme d'Or.

The 10-member Jury, headed by Serbian director Emir Kusturica, will hand out its prizes Saturday. So when my colleague Richard and I met Hong Kong director and Jury member John Woo at a Chinese party last night, we teasingly asked him what films he liked. Woo, suitably noncommittal and required to remain silent, only laughed. Or maybe, like many here, he was wondering whether any of the 10 competition films was Palme-worthy.

The past nine days have trained the 2,000 or so movie critics covering Cannes to be measured in their cinematic appetites: not to expect masterpieces, rather to hope for films that are competent and, at their best, compelling. And like a child whose mother dresses him in a slicker if there's a chance of rain, the contingent of reviewers are always prepared for terrible films.

By critical consent. yesterday's egregious sex comedy, Peindre ou faire l'amour, marked a new low for the fortnight. But, as the Ukrainians say, expect the worst and you'll never be disappointed. Today's big film, Don't Come Knocking, topped (or bottomed) the French film, because it arrived with a sleek pedigree: Wim Wenders as director, actor-playwright Sam Shepard in charge of the script and the starring role. The last time these two collaborated on a film —Paris, Texas —the 1984 Cannes Jury awarded it the Palme d'Or. On the Moab Valley set of a Western, its aging star, Howard Spence (Shepard) impulsively rides into the sunrise and off the movie. He ends up in Butte, Montana, where his old girlfriend Doreen (Jessica Lange) tells him he fathered a child 20-some years ago. The boy, Earl (Gabriel Mann), doesn't take the news that Daddy's home with much grace: he throws most of the contents of his upper-floor apartment, including a couch, onto the street outside. There, he and Howard engage in edgy negotiations on the subject of parental responsibilities. Meanwhile, Sky (Sarah Polley), yet another of Howard's offspring —he seems to have spawned more scattered children than an NBA star —totes her late mama's ashes in a blue urn and does her own best to corral the old cowpoke. When Howard tries to get out of town, an ornery Indian shoots out the tires on the getaway vehicle

A semi-remake of Paris, Texas, where a grizzled man wandered out of the desert and was eventually reconciled with his son and the boy's mother, Don't Come Knocking is also the mangy cousin of several films in the Cannes competition, notably Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, where Bill Murray is the estranged dad on a pilgrimage. The Jarmusch looks like a worldbeater next to the Wenders, which keeps spinning more wildly but boringly out of control as sullen, whiny Earl and his spacey girlfriend (Fairuza Balk) set up camp amid his jettisoned belongings, and the director has no cleverer visual ideas during the climactic father-son chat than to run his camera in near-endless circles around them.

The following sentence will exhaust my good will on Don't Come Knocking: it opens with some wonderfully craggy vistas of Monument Valley and has good performances by Polley and by 80-year-old Eva Marie Saint as Howard's mother. All else is ludicrously bad. Saint asks Shepard, "How'd you get to be such a mess?" I wonder the same about Shepard, who 30 years ago was writing America's most fertile and exciting plays (including that surreal and eloquent Western, The Tooth of Crime), but now is comfortable attaching his name to this meandering junk. The same with Wenders: how far he has tumbled since the great Wings of Desire. At some point between their old prime and their current dotage, Shepard forgot how to write, and Wenders lost his vim.

For critics who find that films like Don't Come Knocking lacking, there are always the parties. Last night's dinner fete celebrating 100 years of Chinese cinema was a star-laden blast. For art and entertainment, glamour and sex appeal, and marquee personality galore, don't go to the movies. Let China come to you.

The Carlton Beach was a-dazzle with beautiful people in formal dress. Mainland star Zhang Ziyi, who will light up U.S. moviehouses this December as the lead in the Steven Spielberg production of Memoirs of a Geisha, was even more radiant than usual, pouting only when she said of her Hollywwood handlers that "they made me" upend her Western screen name to Ziyi Zhang. Her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon co-star, martial-arts prima ballerina Michelle Yeoh, set a thousand paparazzi bulbs to popping and graciously endured a hundred interviews —though she didn't repeat one of her greatest stunts, in the same venue five years ago, when she hosted a contest to see who could consume the most Chinese liqueur and drank some of her heavier Western competitors literally under the table.

Richard and I had some lovely conversations at the party, but we didn't get any food. So we retired for a quiet meal at Cannes' premier Chinese restaurant, the Mandarin. Quiet it was not, fabulous it was. For there, Jackie Chan and a 30-member entourage had commandeered the place and, when they spotted us, generously took us into their company. We chatted with Jackie's ebullient manager Willie Chan, always purring with mischievous good humor, and Tony Leung Ka-fei, who is excellent as a Triad psycho in this year's competition film Election. We also met Mallika Sherawat, the Bollywood bombshell (her steamy musical Murder was India's top-grossing film last year) who will co-star with Jackie in his new film, The Myth. Articulate, friendly and forthrightly ambitions, Sherawat impressed the two visiting Americans. The weather and the film selection have been cool this year, but Sherawat instantly raised the temperature. And Jackie and his fellow Chinese proved that there is plenty of star quality left in Cannes, if only you know where to look for it. I don't know which film will take the top prize Saturday, but I hereby award the China party and the Mandarin dinner my own social Palme d'Or.