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Art and commerce coexist at fest

CANNES, France -- The riot police may not be needed after all.

Striking French show-biz workers, who threatened to shut down the Cannes Film Festival over cuts in their unemployment compensation, were mollified Wednesday when the festival struck a compromise. They were allowed to ascend the famous red-carpeted steps of the Palais des Festivals and be officially greeted by fest officials, which won their cause a moment in the limelight -- although not, alas, tickets to the opening-night screening of Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education."

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Or perhaps the riot police may be needed, if a fight breaks out on the jury. Those who attended its opening news conference were buzzing Thursday about frostiness between jury president Quentin Tarantino and one of his jury members, British actress Tilda Swinton. They differed over the worth of "art films," which Tarantino sniffed at and Swinton defended. Although QT has been in a brawl or two, I'd pick Swinton in a matchup. She trains in Scotland.

Cannes usually honors what anyone would define as an art film (Tarantino's Golden Palm winner "Pulp Fiction" is an exception), but it likes to open in a tumult of publicity, with big stars in attendance; Brad Pitt mounted the red carpet Thursday night for the European premiere of "Troy," which is showing out of competition.

"Troy" officially cost $175 million and is rumored to have cost as much as $250 million, which makes it a contrast to another film playing over the weekend, Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," which cost $218. A sensation at Sundance, it's a documentary about three generations of Caouette's troubled family, and he made it with digital footage, old home movies and tape recordings, answering machine messages and his memories.

Caouette and his film stopped at my Overlooked Film Festival in April, en route to Cannes, and he said he assembled his materials on a Macintosh, using the iMovie software that came with the computer. That makes the film's stylistic sophistication all the more remarkable; he uses superimposition, complex fades, supertitles and other effects that would stretch expert software, and the effect is a powerful portrait of family agony.

His mother, so beautiful that she was a model as a girl, was injured in an accident, fell into depression and was given dozens of shock treatments, which essentially destroyed her personality. Caouette confronts his grandfather over his decision to approve the treatments, and also contemplates his own life; he knew from childhood that he was gay, he says, and there is remarkable footage (taken by himself) of young Jonathan doing a monologue in drag.

Of course the $218 price tag represents the cost of producing a DVD on the Mac and submitting it to Sundance. Once the film was picked up for distribution by Wellspring, post-production costs, including a transfer to 35mm. and clearances of the music rights, cost several hundred thousand.

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That's still a bargain; odds are "Tarnation" will come out of Cannes with better notices than "Troy."

"Troy" will be followed by a gala party costing no doubt millions; "Tarnation" publicist Mickey Cottrell was negotiating for his film's party with La Pizza, down by the harbor.

Still staggering with jet lag, the North American press corps had to contend with the first two official entries, which were slow-paced and quiet. Both kept me wide awake; oddly, the first day after an all-night flight to France, I find that it's the loud action films that put me to sleep.

"Nobody Knows," by the gifted young Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda ("After Life"), tells the story of four pre-teenagers trying to live by themselves after their mother leaves with a boyfriend and doesn't return.

As the water and electricity are turned off, as money runs out and food grows scarce, they keep their secret because they're afraid of being separated by social workers. The film doesn't punch up the drama, but underlines their slow descent into desperation. At 141 minutes, this is the kind of film that requires brave exhibitors and curious audiences, and rewards them. What's best about it is the one thing you'd never find in a more commercial version of this story: its avoidance of contrived melodrama and its patience in showing how the children slowly realize they are entirely on their own.

"The Consequences of Love," by Italy's Paolo Sorrentino, centers on an extraordinary performance by Adriano Giannini, as a quiet, withdrawn, forbidding man who has lived in the same hotel for years. What is his reason? We learn that he has a wife and children he telephones but has not seen in a decade, and a brother who visits. We see him minutely observing the lives of fellow guests, including a couple who live in the next room. Using a stethoscope, he eavesdrops on their conversations about a life of ruin: The neighbor once owned the hotel, but now humbly lives in a room, having gambled away his fortune.

Neatly dressed, monklike in his lifestyle, the man sits and smokes and communicates in as few words as possible. But why does he deliver cash to a bank once a week? Why does he never return the greetings of the pretty bartender (Olivia Magnani)? Strange, how we can become bored by characters who loudly reveal their lives to us, but be drawn so deeply into lives that are a mystery.

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