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Fest ends with the best

CANNES, France -- Why did they save the best for last? "Songs From The Second Floor" and "In The Mood For Love," two brilliant final entries in this year's Cannes Film Festival, played over the weekend, as the hotels were emptying and the traffic jams clearing.

The two films could not have been more different. "Songs from the Second Floor," by Roy Andersson of Sweden, is the most provocative of this year's films, and also the funniest, in a mordant way. "In the Mood for Love," by Wong Kar-Wai of Hong Kong, is a sad love story about two neighbors who discover that their spouses are having an affair. They also fall in love, but are reluctant to act on their feelings, because that would make them no better than their partners.

The Swedish film is audacious, offensive, original, surrealistic. It is a series of vignettes in a lonely city gripped by psychic meltdown. A man collapses in a corridor and clings to his boss' leg when he is fired. A magician makes a horrible mistake while sawing a man in half. Gridlock stops all of the city's traffic. In a strange ceremony witnessed by clerics and dignitaries, a blindfolded little girl is made to walk the plank and fall into a deep pit full of broken stones. A bankrupt businessman empties a truckload of crucifixes at the town dump and moans that he invested in a loser.

Some of the scenes are sacrilegious. Some are pathetic, as when a drunken woman tries to pull herself back up onto a barstool while a man in a tuxedo vomits. Some are just plain funny, as when a businessman tries to explain a suspicious fire to insurance investigators, while through the window a parade of flagellants goes past. I scribbled names into my notes: Beckett, Bunuel, Tati, Kafka, but Andersson has created his own world.

Wong Kar-Wai is famous for films that end in a bittersweet minor key, and "In the Mood for Love" points to its ending the whole way. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, two of Asia's biggest stars, would seem destined to play opposite each other as lovers, but the film provides no easy payoff.

Visually, it isolates the characters; they're in a city so overcrowded that despite good jobs, they must rent rooms in the apartments of others. They always seem to be in empty spaces, at night, often in the rain_or in diners where they occupy booths like the subjects of an Edward Hopper painting. Like the British classic "Brief Encounters," this is a film about a love that cannot be consummated without destroying itself.

From Japan, Aoyama Shinji's "Eureka" begins with six dead after an armed man takes a bus hostage, and then follows several lives, including the driver and two schoolchildren. Deliberately looking away from the violence itself, the film focuses on the lingering despair of the survivors. At 3 1/2 hours long and in black and white, it is not destined for mass market release, but it is a haunting achievement.

Though Olivier Assayas' "Sentimental Destinies" also is three hours long, it's likely to be more commercial. The French film follows the family who controlled the Limoges china firm through good times and bad, world wars, death and marriage. Emmanuelle Beart plays the second wife of the Protestant cleric (Charles Berling) who leaves his pulpit to run the firm, in a film about how the responsibilities of business can challenge the soul.

I still contend that the festival's best film was "Innocence," by Paul Cox, which played out of competition. "It's too sentimental for the official competition," a Cannes insider confided. But its sentiment is contained in fearless honesty and truth; it tells the story of a man and woman in their late 60s who find that the passion they felt for each other as teenagers has survived 50 years and marriages to others.

It is said the films about older people don't work at the box office. Maybe not, but great love stories do. Cox's was the only film at this festival that people have described with an intense warmth and affection, and that has made many of them cry, not in sorrow, but in admiration and recognition. "Innocence" and "Songs from the Second Floor" occupy opposite ends of the emotional and stylistic spectrum, but they are both works by directors who know exactly what they want to do, and how, and why.

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