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The good, the bad and 'De-Lovely'

CANNES, France -- The winners of this year's Cannes Film Festival will be announced at a ceremony Saturday night. As I write, the leading contenders for the Palme d'Or are said to be "The Motorcycle Diaries" from Brazil and "Comme Une Image" ("Look at Me") from France, although there are supporters for "2046" (2005) by China's Wong Kar-Wai, a film I found maddening in its mannered repetition of a few worn stylistic and dramatic strategies. And it is said that Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" will win one of the top prizes; it was cheered longer than any other film in festival history.

I have written about all of these films earlier, except "2046," which we will get to presently. For myself, the treasures at any Cannes festival are found not only in the official competition but elsewhere, in the sidebar programs and the marketplace.

A few years ago, the best film I saw at Cannes was "Innocence," by Paul Cox of Australia, which played only in the marketplace. Again this year Cox was in the marketplace, again with an inspired film, "Human Touch." He tells the story of an uneasily married couple and her strange half-affair with an older man; this man is brilliant and artistic and impotent, but on their first meeting, she models nude for him, and on another occasion his caresses excite her as nothing before.

Other characters are involved, but rather than describe the entire plot, I will bow down in wonder to the way that Cox moves the story from Australia to France, sends his characters on a visit to a cave that is 110 million years old, and awes them (and us) with the overwhelming contrast between our brief lives and the age of our world. It is easy enough to make a movie about romance and adultery, but only Cox, visionary and spiritual, would draw back to put his characters in a context that humbles their brief fancies.

Another wonderful film, which will play on closing night after the awards, is Irwin Winkler's "De-Lovely." This is the life story of Cole Porter, an equal first with Gershwin among the best popular music composers of all time -- a complex man who was homosexual but whose life's great love was Linda Lee Porter, the woman he was married to for more than 30 years.

Kevin Kline stars as Porter, Ashley Judd is Linda, and as the spirit of Porter attends rehearsals for a musical based on his life, scenes spin out as flashbacks. Winkler and his writer, Jay Cocks, tell the story largely through Porter's lyrics, presenting complex material with a touch so delicate, so fragile, they embody the subtle grace of Porter's songs.

The film has sharply divided audiences here. I have talked to no one who is indifferent; everyone seems to love it or hate it. I think it is the most unusual and enchanting musical in years, with Kline and Judd (not claiming to be singers) breathing life into the lyrics, while Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole and Elvis Costello (who are singers) bring the songs to full life.

Another triumph of the closing days of the festival is "Tarnation," by Jonathan Caouette, the film that has gained fame because it cost the director only $218 to make, but which has won standing ovations here not for its budget but its remarkable power.

I have written before about the way Caouette combines home movies, new video footage, photographs, answering machine messages and graphics into the tragic story of how his mother's personality was destroyed by shock treatments. At Cannes, the power of the film has been confirmed at every screening; this is one of the strongest documentaries of recent years.

Of the official entry "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," directed by Stephen Hopkins, starring Geoffrey Rush as the great comedian and Emily Watson and Charlize Theron as two of his wives, what can be said is that Sellers was one miserable SOB. "I have no personality, except for what I get from my characters," he announces onscreen. Not quite true. The film sees him as a neurotic, cruel, selfish, immature monster whose charming moments even have a cloying insincerity. Rush brilliantly embodies these qualities, which may not be what Sellers fans are hoping for. Here is a good film about a very unpleasant man.

The Wong Kar-Wai film, "2046," was raced to Cannes still wet from the lab in Paris; the great director of "In The Mood For Love" was editing until the last moment, and I recommend he recommence editing immediately. What he has at this point is a monotonous story narrated by a sad sack (Tony Leung) who has affairs with three women who live in Room 2046 of the same hotel. All his affairs are doomed, but they never seem to be anything but doomed; in the film's view, all love is destined to lead to heartbreak, true communication is impossible, we are the victims of our miserable natures, etc.

The visual style is elegant and lush, yes, until it becomes elegant and lush to a fault. The camera tracks endlessly past beautiful faces, with foreground objects obediently obscuring the view from time to time, and there are love scenes pitched at various degrees of energy but always leading to bittersweet regret.

A great many of the scenes take place on Christmas Eve, and Nat King Cole's version of "The Christmas Song," with its chestnuts roasting on an open fire, is played from beginning to end not once but three different times (some claim to have counted four). Is this an ironic touch, or simply wretched excess? And how popular were English-language Christmas songs in China in 1966?

Some of the same colleagues who hated "De-Lovely" loved "2046," which shows they have cast adrift from the pleasures of traditional craftsmanship and signed on to the cinematic fashion of the day at whatever cost. Wong Kar-Wai has made great films, but "2046" is a colossal failure. "De-Lovely" is the kind of film you love in your heart; "2046" is the kind of film you build a tortured defense for, lest you seem uncool.

One more story and I am finished. During the screening of "Human Touch," I had the misfortune to be seated next to a pathetic creature who was receiving e-mail messages on his pocket device, and replying with taps on his clever little keyboard. The tiny screen was bright green in the darkness. I asked him to stop. He said, "I have to do this." I said, "Then you have to leave." He continued to tap away. "The director is sitting right over there," I said. "How do you think he feels?" "I don't care how he feels," the cretinous man replied. "Stop it, goddamn it!" I said. He stopped for a while, and then took a little peek at his screen from behind his hand. "Why don't you go outside?" I said. He did. He was the only person who left the full house; his electronic masturbation had blinded him to the film's greatness.

After the screening, I mentioned the incident to Paul Cox.

"If he had started typing one more time," said Cox, a genial and philosophical man, "I would have ripped his bloody toy from his hands and smashed it to bits beneath my feet."

It was enough to make me wish the cretin had continued.

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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