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It's tough to grin and bear it watching this grim lot of films

CANNES, France--Where is the Cannes of the past? The Cannes of great joyous movies and silly starlets and larger-than-life characters and long, lazy lunches on the beach? How did it get replaced by this melancholy impostor, this festival of murder and nihilism and hopelessness?

As I write, the daily demonstration is unwinding beneath my window--teachers, this time, banging garbage can lids against park benches and shouting slogans, while the police eye them balefully. A dusty wind comes down from the hills, scattering cafe napkins and menus into the street. The first movie I saw today, Michael Haneke's "Le Temps du Loup," was about the dog-eat-dog world of survivors in a post-apocalyptic universe. The second, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's "Bright Future," ended with the hero's father committing suicide by grabbing a jellyfish. In three recent movies, everyone was shot dead at the end.

I do not ask for jolly, simple and cheerful movies. You know me better than that. But a morose funk has settled on this year's festival, in which each film is more despairing than the last, and the overall message is: Life is hell, and then you die. Even the stars aren't fun anymore. Arnold Schwarz-enegger came all the way here to stand before a "Terminator 3" display in front of the Carlton Hotel and say "I'm back!" Unquote.

Nicole Kidman has been a good sport in support of Lars von Trier's "Dogville," but now there is a controversy about whether it is anti-American. In the good old days, when a film was anti-American, you knew it. My own feeling: Von Trier shows that liberalism is weak-kneed, and doomed to lose to fascism. Lots of machineguns at the end, trained on the weaklings of Dogville. Maybe Dogville is America and the gangsters are the Bush administration. Maybe that's it. Search me.

There was a little Italian comedy, "Il Cuore Altrove," by Pupi Avati, on the weekend, and it wasn't very good but at least it made me smile and had some charm, in its story of a clueless 35-year-old bachelor who is seduced and abandoned by a heartless blind beauty. It was a human comedy, with people who had simple elemental motives like lust, greed and vanity. How brave was this cheer, in the face of the festival's doomsday obsession.

On the big screen on the beach every night, they are showing the films of Fellini, and there is also a retrospective of works by Chaplin. These are reminders that the movies can rescue us from our misery, as well as rubbing our noses in it.

My motto: No good movie is depressing, all bad movies are depressing. "Do the Right Thing" was depressing, but exhilarating in its greatness. I am depressed this year because one film after another has been unspeakably awful. There are good ones, of course; I exempt "At Five O'Clock in the Afternoon," from Iran; and the Turkish film "Uzak," about a country cousin who comes to visit and disrupts the life of his city relative; "Elephant," Gus Van Sant's stark meditation on Columbine, and a few others.

But even the Turkish film has been seized by the fierce, paralyzing minimalism that now passes for style. In the glory days of Cannes, style was Fellini's gracefully moving camera and shots that seemed to sing. Or audacious experiments by Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. Or the freshness of the New Wave. Or the audacity of Fassbinder and the vision of Kurosawa.

Then along came Angelopoulos from Greece and Kiarostami from Iran, with their fashionably dead films in which shots last forever, and grim middle-aged men with mustaches sit and look and think and smoke and think and look and sit and smoke and shout and drive around and smoke until finally there is a closing shot that lasts forever and has no point.

The Turkish director of "Uzak," Nuri Bilge Ceylan, seems to have been infected by his Greek and Iranian neighbors, and takes a perfectly sound story and slows it down into a mannered exercise. I sort of liked it anyway, this tale of a neat and solitary intellectual whose life is disrupted by his ill-mannered visitor. The last shot, as he is seen alone and isolated in a wintry, desolate cityscape, shows that now he can sink again into his solitary misery. But consider this: The only time the audience chuckled, and applauded lightly, was more than an hour into the film--when a reverse shot revealed that two rooms we thought were separate were, in fact, just opposite ends of the same room! Such a meager pleasure, in the festival where Francis Ford Coppola revealed the boundless creative energy of "Apocalypse Now."

There are films here I've loved. The Sundance winner "American Splendor," about the blue-collar comic book author Harvey Pekar, is one of them, but it's out of competition. Maybe that's my problem: I've been faithfully attending every single competition film, when maybe I should be plundering the sidebar programs. I know that many major directors (Altman, the Coens and Bertolucci among them) were not able to finish their new films in time for Cannes. But even so, this year's official entries are the weakest in memory, almost a salon of refuseniks. When your film is rejected by Sundance, you can always try Slamdance. What is this? Slamcannes?

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