The New York Times, 5/13/05

Does this festival still matter? Can Cannes retain its cachet in a world glutted with festivals? These questions are sure to be posed and pondered over the next 10 days. They are every year at this time, as journalists, movie stars and film industry players from around the world swell the population of this small French city and wonder, sometimes aloud, just what they are doing here.

One thing, however, is certain: the opening ceremonies of the Cannes International Film Festival are, have been and will always remain the most lavishly meaningless event in the world of cinema, compared with which the Oscars resemble a seminar in German philosophy. This is not necessarily a put-down; profundity can be found, in profusion, on the screens of the Palais des Festivals, as well is in other locations where the sidebar programs take place. Opening night is for pomp, frivolity and excess, to be savored, rushed through or ignored entirely on the way to more serious matters like war, social alienation, sexual desperation and domestic grief, which are among the festival's perennial themes.

The ritual goes something like this. On Tuesday, the town is quiet, cafe tables are empty and the plywood platform skirting the staircase that leads to the grand Salle Lumière in the Palais is not yet fully swathed in red carpeting. By midday Wednesday, the Croisette is aswarm with jet-lagged arrivals brandishing their fresh badges and lugging brand-new official shoulder bags, which change design from one year to the next while remaining reliably ugly, especially when accessorizing a tuxedo or a gossamer gown. (Bright red and pale beige are not anybody's colors.) As the sun begins to dip over the bay, sunburned Cannois with disposable cameras plant themselves in aluminum folding lawn chairs outside the barriers flanking the red carpet, waiting for the parade of stars in evening wear that begins while it is still fully daylight.

Any noncelebrity with a ticket to the ceremony is already inside, watching the glamorous ascent -- "les Marches," in local argot -- projected on video. The Lumière screen is so large that couture-clad cleavage can achieve Alpine scale.

Then the mistress of ceremonies -- usually an actress, frequently French, always stunning (this year it was Cécile de France) -- will read something uplifting about the magic of cinema and introduce the juries, an intriguingly eclectic selection of notables whose highly secretive deliberations in all likelihood provide some of the richest drama in Cannes, on screen or off.

This year's main competition jury is headed by Emir Kusturica, the mischievous and often controversial Bosnian director, and also includes the Mexican actress Salma Hayek, the American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and the action filmmaker John Woo, among others.

Eventually, the assembled audience settles down to watch a movie (or else leaves for an early dinner), usually one that will be entirely forgotten by the time the jury reaches its verdicts -- which will be next Saturday, an entire cinematic epoch from now. This year, for the first time since "Moulin Rouge" in 2001, the opening selection, Dominik Moll's "Lemming," has at least a theoretical chance of winning something, as it was selected for the main competition.

The title refers to a species of rodent known for its mysterious and often self-destructive (though contrary to legend, not intentionally suicidal) mass migrations, so the movie's selection as the first film of the festival could be taken as a jibe directed at those in the audience. We travel in a herd, each one following the others, no one knowing quite why, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

"Lemming" itself is a series of unfortunate consequences, beginning with an awkward dinner party and a plumbing mishap and leading to suicide, murder and the kind of teasing supernaturalism that has become a motif (or at least a tic) among purveyors of high-end French thrillers in recent years. The first 45 minutes are swift, funny and unnerving, and the two principal actresses, Charlotte Rampling and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Rampling is at right in the photo at the top of the page; Gainsbourg's at left), are mirror images of fine-boned feminine enigma. But the movie goes on for too long and after a while loses its sharp, Hitchcockian snap, turning from a prickly psychological puzzle into a plodding and pretentious ghost story.

By the end of Wednesday, the consensus seemed to be - or at least my own conclusion was - no more sex with ghosts, please. It was irritating enough in "Lemmings" (in which the spirit of one of the Charlottes possesses the earthly form of the other), but to see it again in Kim Ki-duk's "Bow" was more than a body could stand. Mr. Kim's admirers - and I have been one - have sometimes had to defend him against critics who find his formal ingenuity shallow and gimmicky, and I have to cede this round to the doubters.

As in the much better "3 Iron," which opened in the United States a few weeks ago, Mr. Kim presents two central characters (in this case a 16-year-old girl and the grizzled fisherman who has raised her with the intention of making her his wife), neither of whom says a word. You can't help but conclude that if they had just talked things over a little, instead of communicating by means of camera angles and soundtrack music, a lot of trouble might have been avoided, for characters and audience alike.

So the first day was mostly a washout, but then again Cannes is famous for its slow starts. Unlike the Toronto and Sundance festivals, which increasingly frontload their opening weekends with big names and important movies and then peter out toward the end, this one tends to build slowly toward a late climax, with enough surprises and scandals along the way to keep everyone paying attention. Thursday brought one such surprise, earlier than expected: a first-rate movie directed by Woody Allen.

No, really. I mean it. Even as "Melinda and Melinda," his almost-good tragicomic diptych, hung on in a few American theaters (and as the memory of "Hollywood Ending," his opening-night Cannes dud from 2002 lingered faintly in the air), Mr. Allen lighted up the Cannes screens with "Match Point," which is both a departure and a return to form. Maybe what he needed was to get away from his beloved Manhattan; this picture takes place in London (and was partly financed by BBC Films).

That city, with plenty of gorgeous real estate, proves a more convincing background than New York for the tale of social ambition and marital deception Mr. Allen has to tell. He has also come back to the morally charged, intellectually ambitious drama of "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (some of whose themes and plot points are echoed by "Match Point"), but without hitting you over the head with Big Ideas.

The ideas are there -- as is a literary sensibility that blends Henry James, Dostoyevsky and Theodore Dreiser -- but they are contained by the writing and the acting rather than put on anxious, self-conscious display. The youthful, mostly British cast -- including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Scarlett Johansson and Matthew Goode -- glitters brightly enough to disguise, at least for a time, the essential darkness of Mr. Allen's worldview.

There is still, of course, plenty more glitter -- and more darkness -- to come before the closing ceremonies next Saturday night. And, as always, some politics, including two well-meaning and interesting, but not quite satisfying, films dealing obliquely with the situation in Iraq. Hiner Saleem's "Kilomètre Zéro" tells the story of a Kurdish conscript in Saddam Hussein's army in the late 1980's, while Masahiro Kobayashi's "Bashing" chronicles the experience of a young Japanese woman held hostage in Iraq (where she had gone as a volunteer), who faces ostracism and humiliation on her return home. These films, flawed and limited in scope, are likely to fade as the festival continues, though the raw, haunting performance of Fusako Urabe, who is in nearly every frame of "Bashing," deserves to be remembered.

As I write, anticipation is building for Gus Van Sant's "Last Days," based on the death of Kurt Cobain, and for Atom Egoyan's "Where the Truth Lies" -- two features that I and the other lemmings will be swarming to see, now that the eye-grabbing precredit sequence is over and the real story has begun.