Another one in the Cannes

 

After four years of Cannes juries honouring overestimated films that understandably failed to find significant international audiences, justice prevailed this year when the jury of the 54th Cannes Film Festival gave the Palme d'Or, its principal award, to Nanni Moretti's universally acclaimed La Stanza Del Figlio (The Son's Room).

This superb film is the finest achievement of Moretti, its director, producer, leading actor and co-writer, and it marks a significant shift away from the irony and self-centred nature of Dear Diary and Aprile, his engaging autobiographical films of 1994 and 1998. The first half of The Son's Room is all lightness and joy as it establishes the warm, loving bond between a psychiatrist (Moretti), his publisher wife (Laura Morante) and their two teenage children, Irene (Jasmine Trinca) and Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), in a seaside Italian town.

The central sequence takes place on a sunny Sunday morning as all four of them engage in separate pursuits, each of which is clouded by an ominous sense of foreboding until the unthinkable happens and Andrea is killed in a scuba-diving accident. The immediate consequences are unbearably moving to observe, as the family is faced with the shocking reality of the boy's death and numbed by grief and a deep sense of loss - and, in the father's case, by guilt as he tries to turn back time to imagine how he might have prevented the tragedy.

Moretti treats these themes with a mature, unsentimental approach as the family splinters through accumulating tensions, and as his psychiatrist character unexpectedly finds himself in a situation far more traumatic and painful than the fears and anxieties his regular clients expose. Permeated with raw, honest emotion and made with classical simplicity and an unerring mastery of the medium, Moretti's quietly powerful film proves as untypically understated as his performance.

I look forward to returning to The Son's Room when it eventually opens here, and to dealing in greater detail with the other film that triumphed at Sunday's awards ceremony, Michael Haneke's provocative La Pianiste (adapted from Elfriede Jelinek's novel The Piano Teacher), which kept the media talking for days but drew walk-outs and boos from the black-tie audience at its official screening.

This consistently challenging psychodrama features a riveting, selfless performance from Isabelle Huppert as a demanding but lonely Viennese piano teacher who is in her 40s, lives with her domineering, possessive mother (Annie Girardot) and leads a twilight life of visiting porn arcades, spying on couples having sex and performing shocking self-mutilation. BenoȨt Magimel plays the cocky young student with whom she becomes involved and whom she encourages to release her masochistic urges. Haneke's unflinching film, which takes risks certain to disturb and divide audiences, received the runner-up prize, the Grand Prix du Jury, along with the festival's two acting awards to Huppert and Magimel.

Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's protracted thriller, takes bizarre narrative turns in its later stages, which will alienate audiences for different reasons. Lynch shared the best-director prize - with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn't There - for this characteristically stylish and moody journey into the dark heart of the American psyche. Playing like a television soap with classy production values, however, it fails to disguise its origins as a US network-television pilot, and it does not compare with Lynch's previous excursions into this territory with Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, his cinema filmsfrom 1986 and 1997, or his TV series Twin Peaks.

Much was made of the fact that five of the 23 films in competition at Cannes were directed by men aged 70 or over. The youngest of them at 70, Jean-Luc Godard produced another of his elusive exercises in ╔loge De L'Amour (In Praise Of Love), which has a beginning and an end - though not in that order - and possibly a middle. His fragmented series of reflections on love, language and history is visually striking, shot on film in black and white and digitally in colour. It also serves as a platform for Godard to rant amusingly against America, Hollywood and, in particular, Steven Spielberg. It provided one of the festival's most memorable moments when Godard arrived in a crumpled jacket and green T-shirt at the gala screening, and received a long, thunderous ovation from the 2,200 viewers who packed the Palais.

Manoel de Oliveira, the remarkably prolific 92-year-old Portuguese director, presents a personal meditation on ageing and achievement in the light and stagy Vou Para Casa (I'm Going Home), which features a spirited and poignant performance from Michel Piccoli as a respected French actor whose options are shrinking. A fey John Malkovich plays the US film director who hires him as a last-minute replacement to play Buck Mulligan in a pretentious new film based on Ulysses.

The formidable Asian presence in the Cannes competition delivered some visually attractive but slender and overextended films, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo, which inexplicably employs narration to summarise events it is about to dramatise, and Tsai Ming-liang's engaging but rambling yarn of romantic obsession in What Time Is It There?, which features several scenes of its young male protagonist urinating so copiously into plastic bags and bottles that his efforts drew applause from the audience.

Outside of the official competition, the festival market offered two contrasting pictures of prison experience. Silent Grace, the first feature from the writer and director Maeve Murphy, is an effectively low-key dramatisation of the dirty protest by the Provo women jailed in Armagh 20 years ago. The key fictional element is the placing of an apolitical but impressionable young joyrider (Cathleen Bradley) in the same wing as the five IRA women led by the single-minded Eileen (Orla Brady), whose boyfriend is among the first hunger strikers in Long Kesh.

Murphy's approach to the principal themes is unusually even-handed for dramas dealing with the Northern Ireland conflict, to the point where the prison governor (Conor Mullen) emerges as concerned and even sympathetic. Rarely venturing outside its claustrophobic prison setting, Silent Grace generally surmounts the evident limitations of its very low budget to emerge as a work of sincerity and concern, one anchored in Brady's subtle, dignified central performance.

The Experiment, the taut German psychological prison drama, features Moritz Bleibtreu (the dopey boyfriend in Run Lola Run) in a gritty portrayal of a taxi driver who hopes to revive his botched career as a journalist by going undercover as a human guinea pig in a behavioural-science project. This involves placing 20 male volunteers in a monitored prison environment where eight of them play the guards and the others are the inmates. The more deeply the protagonists get into their roles, the more out of control the situation becomes in this gripping, revealing thriller, which is let down by an intrusive romantic-interest sub-plot.

A much lighter view of our primal instincts is taken by Human Nature, which revolves around four interlinked characters: a naturalist and author (Patricia Arquette) who suffers from an extreme body-hair problem; a mild-mannered scientist (Tim Robbins) who falls for her; a primitive innocent (Rhys Ifans) he trains in speaking, etiquette and sexual control; and the scientist's coyly seductive assistant (Miranda Otto). The screenplay, by Charlie Kaufman, is as eccentric as his work on Being John Malkovich, but by no means as clever or as imaginative, and its regular moments of witty zaniness are undermined by director Michel Gondry's lack of narrative discipline and pacing.

But it never plumbs the depths hit by Hal Hartley in his deeply disappointing No Such Thing, a shrill, grossly self-indulgent spin on Beauty And The Beast in which a lowly television news-show worker (Sarah Polley) comes into contact with a hideous, foul-mouthed recluse played by the Irish-American actor and Hartley regular Robert John Burke. Shot in New York and Iceland, this meandering mess of a film marks a new low in Hartley's career and squanders the talents of a cast that also includes Julie Christie as a compassionate doctor and Helen Mirren as the show's sensation-hungry boss.

Audiences seeking sensationalism at Cannes were primed by the advance publicity for the midnight screening of The Center Of The World, Wayne Wang's digitally shot sexual romp. In this would-be erotic variation on Pretty Woman, a stripper is paid to spend a weekend in Las Vegas with a young dotcom tycoon who, in what has become a new movie clichΘ, cannot make emotional connections in his life. Working from a screenplay that involved his Smoke collaborator Paul Auster, Wang appears more interested in baring the bodies of the characters rather than their psyches, and his silly voyeuristic exercise is played bravely by Molly Parker, from Kissed and Wonderland, and Peter Sarsgaard, who played the rapist in Boys Don't Cry.

Finally, back in the competition, last Saturday morning offered two hours of diverse and entertaining cinema as the festival screened the 12 films competing for the short film Palme d'Or. Live action, animation, widescreen, colour and black and white were all employed as we were whisked through humour, satire, pathos and tension in a commendable international programme. In the end, the palm went to the US director David Greenspan for Bean Cake, his aptly simple homage to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

Ireland was well represented by Barry Dignam's Chicken - oddly, untitled on the screen - in which one young male draws another into a game of dare only to reveal a deeper agenda. Impressively played by Darren Healy and Niall O'Shea, it was sharp, succinct, attractive and telling, unlike many of the more verbose and self-indulgent feature films at Cannes 2001.