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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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The year nobody deserved to win

CANNES, France -- Can there be a Cannes Film Festival without a winner? Is the jury obligated to award the Palme d'Or? Could they send a message by refusing to award the top prize? These and other murmurings and mutterings are growing louder, and they add up to a depressing consensus: Going into the closing weekend, there is no film that seems great enough to deserve the Palme.

"I'm looking for a film that will change my life," jury chairman Martin Scorsese announced optimistically a week ago, as he and his fellow jurors settled in to judge the official competition. He is sworn to secrecy, so I have no idea what he thinks of the films he's seen so far. But I fear most of them haven't changed much of anything.

I just came from participating in a panel discussion with a group of film critics and filmmakers. Todd McCarthy, chief critic of Variety, and Michael Ciment, editor of the French film magazine Positif, seemed to feel the way I do. "Two years ago," Ciment said, "everyone was agreed that 'Breaking the Waves' or 'Secrets and Lies' was an important contender for the Palme. This year, there seems to be no film in that category."

Oh, there are some good films here. I've liked Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe" and John Boorman's "The General," Claude Miller's "The Class Trip" and Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," among others. But most years there are films you can't wait for your friends to see. This year, they can wait.

A few films have shown out of competition. They include "Dark City," the visionary futuristic epic by Alex Proyas. For my money, if it had been in the competition, it would have deserved to win the Palme.

As evidence of the mounting disappointment, I offer an astoundingly bad film titled "The Idiots," by Danish director Lars Von Trier. This is the same man who made the masterful "Breaking the Waves." So of course he was invited back to Cannes this year with his new film, but this time, he seems to have had a temporary lapse of judgment.

"The Idiots" comes attached to a silly manifesto called "Dogma 95," signed by Von Trier and a few of his Danish filmmaking colleagues, that calls for all movies to be shot on location, without sets, without genres, without special effects, without gratuitous scenes, and without a directorial signature.

While a great film could no doubt be made that would observe all of these rules, von Trier's "The Idiots" is evidence that a bad one can result just as easily. "Dogma '95" can be dismissed with three little words: Form follows function.

The film involves a group of friends who have decided to live together and be deliberately moronic - to get in touch with their "inner idiots." Their philosophy is that conventional society is sterile and pointless, and personal freedom comes by indulging in irresponsibility and license.

The film opens in a restaurant where the members avoid paying the bill by causing a scene, and in the process manage to recruit a new member, a genuinely disturbed and sad woman who comes along with them and, perhaps, benefits from their madness. Later scenes involve shocking the bourgeoisie, acting boorishly, engaging in endless self-criticism and participating in an orgy that includes hard-core sexual footage (just in case anyone thinks von Trier was serious about avoiding the gratuitous).

There's lots of nudity and cavorting and scenes in which conventional people from the outside are mocked and tested. Far from opening new frontiers, von Trier seems to be rediscovering the hippie credo of the 1960s. There's one scene of four nude characters prancing through the garden that evokes an even earlier age, the nudist volleyball documentaries of the 1950s.

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