Dark Victory

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All right, so it was bereft of major-studio blockbusters (Gladiator went to Rome; Mission Impossible 2 stayed home). A California glamour girl didn't show up to present the top award on closing night (Kim Basinger bowed out at the last minute). But the 53rd Cannes Film Festival had something every Hollywood publicist dreams of — a star feud with a happy ending — when Dancer in the Dark was awarded the Palme d'Or and its star, the pop thrush Björk, was named Best Actress.

Of the 23 films showing in competition at the world's largest annual convention, Dancer had been the most eagerly anticipated: a musical tragedy written and directed by perennial bad boy Lars Von Trier, with songs composed by Björk. It also had the musk of controversy, since the auteur and his leading lady had reportedly feuded on the set, with Björk walking off for four days. At a press conference after the first screening, where the film was met with roughly equal blasts of rapture and derision, Von Trier spoke of Björk's eccentric work habits in tones of measured frustration ("I enjoyed working with her, and I will never do it again"). Björk, who was absent from the press conference, finally appeared at the black-tie evening show, smiling dazedly and licking her cheek like a demented kitten. But when jury president Luc Besson announced the Palme d'Or, all rancor was put aside, as the old combatants behaved with the respectful courtesy of a divorced couple who had won joint custody of the film.

Dancer is your standard modern international art film: a multicultural hybrid aimed at the English-speaking market. The Icelandic singer plays a Czech factory worker in '60s rural America, which the travelphobic Danish director (who has never been to the U.S.) reconstructed in Sweden. As the doomed Selma, Björk is surrounded by French icon Catherine Deneuve (in a role conceived for an American black actress), others from Germany, Sweden and Slovenia and, amid all the Euroflesh, American actor David Morse playing a troubled cop who conspires in Selma's downfall. The language is English — or whatever variation of it Björk and the others can manage.

In other ways, Dancer is Von Trier ad absurdum. The plot has Selma, who is going blind, amassing a nest egg of $2,056.10 for an operation to save her young son's sight (the disease is hereditary). After she is unjustly convicted of murder, a lawyer is ready to defend Selma, for a fee of — guess — $2,056.10; she rejects his counsel to ensure her son's operation, knowing it seals her doom, and none of her loving friends thinks to come up with the money! Wild lapses in logic have never kept Von Trier from the climactic death by hanging of an innocent woman; he did it in Breaking the Waves. But he must know this sort of emotional sadism is the cheapest way of winning an audience's tears — the movie equivalent of pointing a gun at a puppy's head.

The real tragedy, though, is the degeneration of a gifted filmmaker. Von Trier, once a master of boldly compressed imagery (in his early The Element of Crime and Zentropa), has since liberated himself from film style. Now he moves the camera with desperate wooziness, rubbernecking from one character to another as if he doesn't know whose turn it is to speak. The clueless direction finds its equivalent in the star's stupefied non-acting, in the naive songs and bleating vocals. Would somebody please buy Von Trier a tripod? And hold him to that promise of never working with Björk again.

As the preceding rant indicates, Von Trier is an extremist whose work inspires extreme reactions. Some people he gives a pain; others give him the Palme. And, in truth, the Cannes competition had no indisputable masterpiece, no film to which a Dancer detractor could point with righteous belligerence and say, why not that? Instead, we had a Cannes fortnight of solid pictures, many of them on the favorite theme of serious European and Asian directors: man's stupidity to man.

There's a lovely lunacy to the critic's life at Cannes. For 12 days we sit through small, long films that investigate — indeed, celebrate — the misery of the human condition. Some of them, like Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor (60 or so scenes, full of trompe l'oeil and treachery, shot with a static camera), can be quite wonderful in a dour way. Others, such as Ken Loach's hectoring, nattering Bread and Roses (which vainly aspires to be a Norma Rae for janitors), make moviegoing a vicarious ordeal, like watching pain dry. At the end of each film we nod dutifully: Ah, yes, life stinks. We then emerge into the blinding brilliance of Riviera sunlight, surrounded by the world's densest concentration of handsome people, and head off down the beach to a free lunch of stars and strawberries, both delectable. Sermonizing and sensuality: what journalist could ask for anything more?

How about a few good American movies? They're hard enough to find in the U.S., but Cannes rounded up a nice selection: the semi-rollicking, if corpse-strewn comedies Nurse Betty and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a coherently wistful adaptation of The Golden Bowl. Each film featured delicate work by top male stars: respectively, Morgan Freeman, George Clooney and Nick Nolte.

But enough about guys. One of film's great pleasures is to watch beautiful women endure exquisite agony in period costumes. And who grieves more becomingly than a French actress? Consider, and worship: Juliette Binoche, defending two men she loves in Patrice Leconte's The Widow of Saint Pierre; Isabelle Huppert, charming and ruthless in Patricia Mazuy's Saint-Cyr, about the 17th century lady who founded France's first college for girls; and Emmanuelle Beart as the wife of a Protestant clergyman in Olivier Assayas' Sentimental Destinies. All three beauties suffer sublimely.

Assayas' own wife, Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung, gets a gorgeous showcase for her pensive glamour in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. Cheung is a married woman who befriends a neighbor (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, winner of this Festival's Best Actor award). Soon they realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Should they follow suit? They start spending time together, trying to hide their forlorn, at first innocent friendship from the nosy neighbors. Set mostly in 1962, the movie depicts an old-fashioned, middle-class romance — all that delicious guilt without any messy ecstasy — spiced with the tension of furtiveness. The only sin of this bereaved couple is that they're keeping their not-quite affair a secret.

The film could be called For the Love of Mood, so attentive is it to the details of setting and costume, of feelings unspoken and, perhaps, love unfulfilled. The director of Chungking Express and Happy Together has put aside his celebrated cinematic and emotional pyrotechnics to portray a world of propriety and repression. Here, the important things are those withheld: information from the audience (we never see the faces of the cheating spouses), passionate release from the characters. Yet there is all the drama anyone could ask for in Leung's sad, sensitive eyes, in the solitude of chic misery as Cheung walks in slow motion toward her empty room.

Wong's melancholy melodrama was one of many Cannes prizewinners that spanned the Asian continent. Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards, from Iran, shared the Jury Prize (third place) with Songs from the Second Floor. On closing night, Makhmalbaf, at 20 the youngest director ever to receive a Cannes award, tearfully and bravely said she was accepting it "on behalf of the young, new generation of hope in my homeland — to honor the heroic affairs of [those] who struggle for democracy in Iran."

China and Taiwan, divided in politics, were united at Cannes, as Taiwan's Edward Yang won the director's prize for A One and a Two, a precise, complex study of a family in crisis, and mainland actor-director Jiang Wen took the Grand Prix (second place) with Devils on the Doorstep, about Japanese occupiers and prisoners in a Chinese village at the end of World War II. Each film was in excess of two-and-a-half hours; each revved up to an affecting conclusion. In the case of Devils — which castigates the Japanese as brutal, the Chinese as craven — the running time is justified. This is a powerful document, filmed in searing black-and-white, written in human blood.

The lingering frustration of the Festival was that its one truly triumphant film — Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — was not in competition. But that is Cannes' loss, not Lee's. Based on a series of novels published in the 1930s, this martial-arts marvel embraced all the best traits of Cannes. It had nuclear star power in its cast of Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and newcomer Zhang Ziyi. Like Saint-Cyr it was about the instruction of a defiant prodigy by teachers who realize their protege is a dangerous rival. Like In the Mood for Love, it described the poignant relationship of a mature couple in mourning for a love they acknowledged too late.

But Lee's soaring spectacle, with its delirious combat scenes and a death scene Björk couldn't dare dream of, was in a class by itself. Let Dancer in the Dark take the Palme d'Or. Crouching Tiger was a Cannes film for the ages.