Why do they dress up? Because Cannes is a huge party, in which films must fight for attention with gaudier enticements. A worthy effort from Eastern Europe may be upstaged by news that a Saudi billionaire's yacht has run aground in the harbor. A global-warming documentary may be seen by few, but if its producer is Leonardo DiCaprio, journalists will turn up in droves seeking an audience. And what chance does a premiere by minimalist Taiwan master Hou Hsiao-hsien have when, that same morning, U.S. comedian Jerry Seinfeld is promoting his cartoon feature Bee Movie by dressing in a bee costume and flying, on guy wires, from the top of the Carlton Cannes Hotel across the town's oceanside boulevard to land on a pier jutting into the Mediterranean? "They tell me Scorsese did the same thing last year for The Departed," he quipped.
Almost any other film festival is more conducive to concentrating on the rarified art of cinema. But to resent the banquet of self-promotion and razzmatazz that is Cannes is to miss one big reason people, even critics, go to the movies. At this fabulous buffet, the films are the canapés. Are they tasty? Nutritious? Amid all of Cannes' other enticementsthe good food, fine wines, gorgeous peopleone is tempted to ask: Who cares? But the 12-day bash, which ends Sunday, has had some lovely tidbitsa wide range of art films with pizzazz, genre pieces with a high IQ and a few probing documentaries have made this Cannes, so far, a rewarding festival. One mark of the overall quality: even the disappointing entries aren't a total loss.
Take the opening attraction, Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights. Much heralded as the Hong Kong master's first English-language feature, and starring pop diva Norah Jones in her acting debut, this fable of a lovelorn woman's jaunt across the U.S.from New York to Memphis to Las Vegas and back againlurches in and out of plausibility without ever quite weaving the slo-mo magic Wong brings to his homegrown fare. But then, just as the viewer's patience is being tried by the relentless despair Jones' character appears to live in, Natalie Portman shows up and injects a bolt of life as a gambler trying to wheedle her one big win. She's just the defibrillator this languishing movie needs, and we thank Portman for her saucy radiance.
Surprises, too, from Romaniaindeed, some of the greatest pleasures of festivalgoing are such unexpected ones as Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It is set in 1987, during the final days of the Ceausescu regime, when the whole country seems to be in a sour mood. But politics are in the background of this taut, fraught drama about what goes wrong when a college student (Laura Vasiliu) seeks an illegal abortion. She and her roommate (Anamaria Marinca) are led to the ironically named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a stolid fellow with a sulfurous whiff of menace. He'll do the job, but for a price that horrifies the desperate women. Shot and acted with ferocious precision, 4 Months is a movie well worth seeking out and shuddering through.
Nobody at Cannes gives filmmakers a list of topics to address, so it is by sheer coincidence that another Eastern European movie, Andreü Zvyagintsev's The Banishment, also treats the topic of abortion. While on a stay in the countryside, a brooding woman tells her husband that she is pregnant, but not with his child. Crushed, the man insists she get rid of it. Their marriage, already strained, now splits at the seams, and everything tumbles into catastrophe. This tragedy is played out in beautiful settings and photographed with a graceful assurance, as if the world were blooming while the couple's love withers. Their banishment, in this fine, supremely Russian film, could be from Eden.
Humankind's downfall is, of course, a perennial topic for filmmakers, and watching the newsseeing real-life tragedy of an appalling and insoluble nature befall their fellow human beingsgnaws at the entrails of some directors, inspiring them to forsake glitz for grit. That's very noble, the movie moneymen say, but will anybody pay to see your scalding exposé of how rotten everything is? The answer is they will, if the filmmaker is Michael Moore.