The Cohen Brothers at Cannes

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men.
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The Coen brothers' pulpy, ultimately pretentious neo-Western No Country For Old Men screened early in the Cannes Film Festival and by the end had maintained its standing as the most widely approved Yankee feature to bow here since Pulp Fiction (though it didn’t win any awards). Once again, the appeal of a bloody, well-crafted thriller with intimations of profundity (and a killer who tortures his victims with words) appeared darn near universal. As for addressing this fest's perennial tension between the "world cinema" tradition and the ongoing U.S. invasion of movie screens worldwide, the job fell, ironically, to the Coens' other new work in Cannes -- their sarcastic contribution to the auteur-packed omnibus film Chacun son cinéma.

Set in the sort of small-town American art-house duplex that scarcely exists anymore, the four-minute Coen short, needlingly titled World Cinema, follows a slow-witted cowboy moviegoer (Josh Brolin) through his oddly agonizing choice between matinee screenings of The Rules of the Game and the Turkish Climates. What's this -- a young Dubya recast as an aspiring film snob? Quelle horreur! Passive-aggressive as ever, the Coens encourage and then scold the Cannes crowd for their prejudices against the good ol' boy -- who turns out, by golly, to appreciate rarefied filmmaking as well as any highfalutin' festival habitué. Maybe the Coens think the cowboy's cultural acuity stems from his being gay. (He tries to pick up the ticket seller.) Or maybe they just want to expose the world's prejudices about them, the better to poke more retaliatory fun next year.

In any case, the brothers' particular brand of comedic anti-humanism has somehow earned them a free pass here ever since Barton Fink took the Palme d'Or in '91. Otherwise, from the sounds of press screenings, where boos speak louder than words of any language, le festival is no place for old-fashioned American bluster. Indeed, the loudly negative response to James Gray's fraternal policier We Own the Night seemed less a reaction to the movie's ample dramatic failings than to its pro-vigilante/pro-NYPD message. Bad brother to Mark Wahlberg's good one, Joaquin Phoenix's recovering Brooklyn crook earns an honorary badge by pledging his vengeance against a brown-skinned cop-killer. (Sony bought the well-named We Own the Night for $11 million.)

Since correct politics can't hurt here, most of the year's Hollywood mega-celebs came to the red carpet with causes in tow. Angelina Jolie brought A Mighty Heart, a thickly procedural drama about the search for murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl; the inevitable conclusion to that search, along with the lack of useful information en route, makes you wonder what purpose the film serves besides giving its star a shot at Oscar gold for her easily sympathetic turn as the widowed Marianne Pearl. Much less egregious, Leonardo DiCaprio's self-described mission as a "concerned citizen" led him to co-write, produce, and narrate The 11th Hour, an admirably bleak and unsettling climate-change doc that demands an end to our conspicuous consumption while understandably holding its greatest hope in the fact that earth-friendly products of the future look really cool.

Michael Moore's Sicko calls for change, too, and, like his documentary agitations of the past, the film is chiefly praiseworthy for its populism — that is, for Moore's exceedingly rare potential to bring that change about. His argument is simpler, less divisive, and more undeniable than before: Americans deserve health care as comprehensive and humane as that offered in Canada, France (vive la France!), and, uh, Guantanamo. Seeking to rile the masses on a large scale, Moore is probably not wrong to steer safely clear of that pesky disease known as mental illness, which surfaced instead in two violent American dramas: Tom Kalin's boldly anti-psychological Savage Grace, and Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, the director's fourth sensual meditation on youth and death (that's one too many for my taste, though the Cannes jury disagrees, awarding it a special 60th anniversary prize).

Untreated lunacy took center stage — straddled the pole, even — in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, a lovably screwball ode to showbiz iconoclasm that's also impressively serious about the costs of same. Stripping down himself, the flamboyant chronicler of addiction and redemption (e.g., Bad Lieutenant) sticks to basics here, gathering his loyal troupe (Willem Dafoe, Matthew Modine, Asia Argento) and managing to stay independent of Hollywood—philosophically and geographically. The beautiful irony here isn't that Ferrara has made a wholesome, heartwarming movie about a striptease club and its hypersensitive manager; it's that he conjured the most American film of the festival by shooting "New York" on a soundstage in Rome. -- Rob Nelson from Cannes

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