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French greats in top form

CANNES, France -- The old men still have the right stuff. Jean-Luc Godard at 70 and Jacques Rivette at 73, two founders of the French New Wave, have returned in triumph to Cannes with their new films for Rivette, the first in 10 years. And three younger rebels also scored, as this year's festival bounced back from its early doldrums. Sean Penn's "The Pledge" and David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" were cheered, and the Italian director Nanni Moretti is a front-runner for a major prize after the premiere of his "The Son's Room."

The surprise was "Va Savoir" (roughly "Who Knows?") by Rivette, whose films tend to be long and brittle. This one clocked at 150 minutes, but was a supple delight, a farce played in low key with romance and flirtation in an Italian theater troupe visiting Paris. The leading lady, now living with her director, encounters her former lover; the director sparks love from the daughter of a book collector; the former lover's current lover is seduced by the half-brother of the daughter, and around and around.

One expects Rivette to be a little austere, but here a smile plays at the corners of his mouth; romantic triangles grow into quadrangles and everything is finally settled on the stage of the Pirandello play that the troupe is producing. Developments look gloomy, even tragic, and then the sun comes out in a series of coincidences; you'd never expect Rivette to remind you of the benevolent Eric Rohmer, most hopeful of French directors, but here he actually does.

Godard, whose "Breathless" (1960), "My Life to Live," "Masculine-Feminine" and "Weekend" (1968) were banner carriers of the New Wave in the 1960s, grew obscure in a recent series of experimental video productions, but came to Cannes this year with "Eloge de l'Amour" ("In Praise of Love"), which many loved and everyone at least understood. It was like the old days, as critics pushed, shoved and elbowed their way into the screening.

Godard begins with the story of three couples (young, adult, old), and then spins off into flashbacks and conversations involving his usual preoccupations: America, politics, mass communication, capitalism as the enemy of spontaneity. The characters spice their conversations with so many references, we seem to be in Godard's Familiar Quotations; he uses black and white, saturated color, intertitles, double and triple exposure, dyes, stop motion, speed-up and slow-down, in a movie that finally seems to ask: Has it been worthwhile for him to spend his life making movies which are largely ignored by audiences who prefer Steven Spielberg?

At one point you can feel his pain as he has a character say, "Mrs. Schindler was never paid; she's living in poverty in Argentina." Even if true, irrelevant, since Mrs. Schindler after all was not a source of the Spielberg film, and Spielberg gave away most of his profits from the film to fund a Holocaust memorial project. But if the charge is unfair, Godard's angst is real, and the movie feels like a bittersweet summation of one of the key careers in modern cinema.

Moretti's "The Son's Room," which could win the Palme d'Or, seems destined for commercial success because it tells a deeply touching story in a bright, perceptive way; one is reminded of "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "Ordinary People." The movie stars Moretti as a therapist, happily married, with two teenage children, whose life is shaken by an unexpected tragedy. Many of Moretti's earlier films, such as "Caro Diario" and "April," have placed him resolutely in the foreground; here he steps back into a family unit and tells a story of surprising power. Hardened critics were snuffling.

David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" surprised me; I enjoyed it immensely, and I am not one of his regular fans. It's a Los Angeles dream sequence in the style of a film noir, involving two newcomers sunny blond Naomi Watts and intriguing brunet Laura Elena Harring in a story where one Hitchcockian situation segues into another with nightmarish logic. Does the film lose its way at the end, as the characters seem to cut loose from their identities, or is that just the restlessness before waking? This one I look forward to seeing again.

I reviewed Sean Penn's "The Pledge" when it opened domestically in January. It has only grown in stature with time. Jack Nicholson gives one of his best performances as a good cop, retired, who becomes obsessed with a case, is surprised by late love, and lets these two commitments become tragically entangled.

And then for pure fun, after all of this art high and low, there's "Tears of the Black Tiger," a lurid and exuberant Western from Thailand. It's playing in the festival marketplace, where crowds line up early to grab seats. The movie has audacious fun with blatantly artificial sets and effects, wildly overdone color and sound schemes, and a plot that shames mere melodrama. Miramax has picked it up for U.S. distribution.

There are a lot of good films here at Cannes, but the shame is, in many cases, you have to come to Cannes to see them.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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