Photo by Guy Ferrandis

“WHERE IS THE RECTUM?!” AS AN ABSURDIST cri du cinéma and a possible festival metaphor, it was hard to beat this line plucked from Gaspar Noé's scandal-seeking Cannes competition entry, Irréversible. More shocking for its intellectual puerility than for its violence — which includes a much-vaunted nine-minute anal rape — the hotly anticipated follow-up to the French filmmaker's I Stand Alone attracted a capacity crowd for its premiere press screening. By my estimate, the no-lube assault lasts closer to five minutes, with the vigorous foot stomping visited on the prostrate, sobbing victim (played by Monica Bellucci, an Italian actress of alpine hauteur and décolletage) sucking up another four. Calculated, like its predecessor, to shock, Irréversible is an anatomy of vengeance, in reverse. It opens with a swooping camera and an act of madness — one man crushes another's head to pulp — then moves backward past the rape, past the party that preceded it, past some afternoon coitus, back back back, before ending with the victim's idyllic morning. Following Kubrick, Noé initially hoped to make a sexually explicit film with a real couple. Bellucci and her boyfriend, actor Vincent Cassel, demurred, however, which is how the reigning enfant terrible of French cinema landed on the more banally familiar conceit of a male-driven rape-revenge fantasy.

Noé's one (endlessly repeated) idea is that “Time destroys everything,” but at Cannes, time was on the critic's side. The festival began with one down note after another, first from Mike Leigh, whose working-class dirge All or Nothing showed the filmmaker close to his indulgent nadir, then from Atom Egoyan, whose crushingly sincere anti-epic about the Armenian genocide, Ararat, was punctuated by moments of unintended comedy. Both films were disappointments but, as with most of what screens at Cannes, warranted more than instantaneous dismissal. Such dismissal, however, is as much a reflexive habit of the festival critic as the compulsion to take positions on directors, the state of the art and the opinions of everyone else crowding the halls outside the screening rooms. The biggest casualties of such position taking tend to be films that are less extreme in both form and content, work that doesn't rate as instant masterpiece or as grand folly, but falls into the gray zone between. Leisurely paced films tend to fare particularly badly, as does work from “undiscovered” (or at least unsanctioned) national cinemas — which explains how Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours (from Thailand) and Carlos Reygadas' Japón (from Mexico), two of the festival's best entries, slipped under the radar.

Deeply moving and scattershot droll, Blissfully Yours follows two Thai women and a Burmese man into a lush forest where, together and alone, they find relief from grinding factory work, immigrant exploitation and the lonely miseries of everyday life. Before his first press screening, the 31-year-old director, who studied architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago and whose first feature was the documentary Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), warned the meager audience that his film was about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and not to expect too much. What he didn't say was how, with its languid pacing and poetic sense of quiet and gesture, Blissfully Yours would eventually uncover a world of hope, possibility and bliss at the crossroads of human connection and aesthetic achievement. Nearly as hushed and unhurried, Japón traces a would-be suicide into the remote Mexican countryside, where the order of things, the ebb and flow of the natural world, dovetails beautifully with the director's gift for sweeping landscape. At once modest and monumental (it was shot in CinemaScope), Japón is both a religious allegory and a self-conscious expression of artistic hubris that reveals its mysteries — and its ambitions — in a final devastating image that brought one public audience to its feet.

GIVEN THE WOES ON PARADE AT FILM FESTIVALS, where tears flow as freely as stage blood, it's not surprising that critics tend to embrace comedies like baby blankets. Aki Kaurismäki's charming if slight The Man Without a Past became an immediate favorite (it ended up winning second prize), and while critics were split when it came to Paul Thomas Anderson's lazy riff on an Adam Sandler comedy, Punch-Drunk Love, the film was quickly crowned a conceptual coup. (Anderson shared the director's prize with Im Kwon-Taek, whose bawdy Chihwaseon recounts the life of the 19th-century Korean painter Jang Seung Up.) Conversely, while it's smart to make critics laugh, it can be deadly when a filmmaker seems to be taking himself, or his art, too seriously. This year, the festival's undisputed whipping boy was French director Olivier Assayas, whose interesting if opaque Demonlover was eagerly damned as much for its aspirations as for its flaws. Set in the upper reaches of the video-game business, Assayas' film is a story about power, its moral depths and its glossy surfaces, in which the narrative matters less, and often makes less sense, than the director's expressionistic visual style. One of the film's unforgettable moments: Chloë Sevigny, naked, dry-humping a bed while bathed in the pulsing light of the video game she's playing.

Damned with faint praise were The Son, another morality tale from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta); Unknown Pleasures, an epic of ennui from Jia Zhangke, the prodigiously talented Chinese director of the 2000 festival's discovery, Platform; and David Cronenberg's Spider, about a mentally ill man struggling against his own demons. In a normal week, any one of these three titles would be greeted with enthusiasm, but instead, in the hothouse atmosphere of Cannes, they were found wanting, mostly because they were too nuanced to jolt their exhausted audiences into engagement or even wakefulness. Although it snared the Palme d'Or, Roman Polanski's The Pianist came in for some of the worst knocks, shrugged off by many as one of those deathly serious period pieces that crop up on cable television, the sort that are more good for you than good. The film suffered on two unavoidable counts: weighty subject matter (it was the second genocide piece to screen for the press at 8:30 a.m.) and unfortunate timing. It bowed at the end of the festival after a series of triumphs that enraptured critics, from Alexandre Sokourov's virtuosic magical history tour, Russian Ark, to Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a humanistic comedy that richly justifies the third act of Jack Nicholson's career.

Based on the autobiography of Wladislaw Szpilman, The Pianist traces how one Warsaw man managed to escape extermination during World War II. While certainly more grounded in reality than some of Polanski's recent features, and more formally restrained than his best work, The Pianist conveys something I've never seen in a fiction film about the Holocaust: namely, how by dehumanizing European Jewry, the Nazis effectively neutralized the potential for mass resistance. Adrien Brody plays the scion of a comfortably middle-class Jewish family, an acclaimed pianist who's playing for live radio when the German bombs begin raining down. Soon enough, the Szpilmans are trying to make sense of the Nazis' rationalized madness. The family marvels at the exacting specifications for the yellow armbands they're to wear, which are to measure a set number of centimeters, with the points of the Star of David reaching just so. One day, the son finds he's barred from a favorite café; another day, the father learns he can no longer walk on city sidewalks. The family scrambles for work permits they don't need, packs suitcases they can't use. Inch by inch, law by law, they are first psychologically, then literally removed from their community, from their city and, finally, from the world.

FOR A FESTIVAL MARKED BY POLITICS — FROM THE guards sweeping security wands over audience members to the screens filled with war and suffering — The Pianist perhaps seemed a safe choice for the Palme d'Or. Yet in a festival laden with good movies but absent any major revelation, neither did it seem especially wrong. Indeed, most of the overtly political films disappointed on some level. The worst by far was Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, a morass of reductive thinking and sloppy technique that raises, then drops, provocative questions about America's culture of violence. For Moore, history is a hash meant to be gobbled down in giant, undigested bites, which explains — though it doesn't excuse — his use of security video footage from Columbine and images of the World Trade Center bombing (the latter of which are accompanied by Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World”). Scoring smarter, deeper political points were Amos Gitaï's Kedma, a drama about the founding of Israel, and Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, the first Palestinian film selected for competition. A patchwork of vignettes about the wretched absurdity of Palestinian life, the film is likable if thin, and undermined by a hot Ramallah babe who kicks Israeli butt with some ninja hijinks. That Suleiman's film was an early festival favorite was, as it turns out, one of the few things about which many of the critics could readily agree.

LA Weekly