THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A sense of direction

During a first week short on spectacle, filmmakers take center stage at Cannes

From left: Lucy Punch, Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Woody Allen, and Josh Brolin at the screening of Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.’’ From left: Lucy Punch, Gemma Jones, Naomi Watts, Woody Allen, and Josh Brolin at the screening of Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.’’ (Martin Bureau/Reuters)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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CANNES, France — You’d think from the screams and chaos in the photo pool a couple of evenings ago that a giant star had shown up on the red carpet. Angelina and Brad, was that you? Monica Bellucci? Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis? No, pas de tout. The pandemonium was for one 74-year-old Woody Allen. He put on a tuxedo and made funny faces, inciting flashbulbs to make the sort of lightning that strikes for someone less than a third his age. It’s true that to either side of him on this particular evening were Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin, laughing at every grimace and dropped jaw. But they seemed very much beside the point.

In France, Allen’s fame is not the punch line it appears to be when viewed from the United States. It is deep, abiding, and apparently unconditional. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’’ is the comedy that brought him to the French Riviera, and it’s far from a film you’d celebrate. It’s flaccid and exasperatingly lazy. But there the ticket seekers were, in even fuller force than usual, standing outside the Palais des Festivals with homemade signs (“Un invitation pour Tall, Dark. SVP?’’). Sony Pictures Classics will release the movie later this year. The despair and enthusiasm of Cannes-goers trying to get a look was unfortunate since they could do better. Yet it was a touching sight, too.

We take Allen’s longevity for granted. But despite the notional turn his moviemaking has taken, he remains a national treasure — if not in our nation (we remain ambivalent) then certainly in this one and others in Europe. His disappointments can be exasperating. But in the way that the French still have Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais and Claude Chabrol and the crazy-making Claude Lelouch, we have Woody Allen: to aggravate, enlighten, and entertain us.

If, after less than a week, the paucity of spectacles (both great and awful) and the high number of so-so films at the festival is the story this year (which feels right for a jury led by Tim Burton), the alternative tale is the persistence of national-treasure directors. Allen isn’t alone. Martin Scorsese was here Friday to introduce a handsome, painstakingly restored print of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard,’’ from 1963. The 101-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira was clamorously welcomed back to the festival with his new film, “The Strange Case of Angelica.’’ And Godard has returned with “Film socialisme,’’ a gaseous new tract — his specialty in the last 10 years. But judging from the packed house and disappointed turn-aways, gassy Godard is better than no Godard at all.

Meanwhile, the international press often uses at least one or two questions per conference to ask filmmakers not about the plight of the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who remains under his government’s thumb, but instead about the legal straits of Roman Polanksi, who has no film at Cannes but lives in Paris. No country for old men? Not if that country is France, where gray goes with everything. On the other side of the moviemaking apparatus is Roger Ebert, the American film critic, who, especially since his cancer surgeries, has become a kind of totemic figure, allowing strangers from all over the world to shower him with both love and man-on-the-street movie reviews.

This reverse youthquake might be more exciting were the work that came with it earth-shattering, too. But aside from the de Oliveira, the movies here coast on their makers’ good names — namely Allen’s and Godard’s.

There have been standouts. It’s been several days, but I’m still giddy about Mathieu Amalric’s American-strippers-on a-French-road-trip comedy, “Tournee.’’ Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora,’’ loosely about a man on the streets of Bucharest with a gun, has a startling power and great dramatic irony. Charles Ferguson’s financial-crisis documentary, “Inside Job,’’ is a true, urgent disturbance of the peace. And “The Screaming Man,’’ from the Chadian director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, in which a father tries to free his son from war service, is one of the best films, so far, in the main competition or anywhere.

Just yesterday, we finally got a look at Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful,’’ with a courageously grim Javier Bardem as a Spaniard with money woes, family trouble, and cancer. Oy vey, I know. There are big problems (Iñárritu seems to luxuriate in squalor, for one thing; the grimy apartments look like they need chemo as much as Bardem does), but the movie got to me in a way none of his other odes to grandiloquence — “Amores Perros,’’ “21 Grams,’’ “Babel’’ — have. The people who loathed it could say the same. It’s the first movie that inspired us to fight in the hallways, and that’s all we can ask for at Cannes.

Interestingly, the exasperation with the Woody Allen film was probably intensified by having seen, less than an hours before, the new Mike Leigh film, “Another Year.’’ Allen’s movie is set in current London and requires Watts, Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, and a clever Gemma Jones to play dim neurotics craving success or companionship. The appearance of a fortune teller in the opening sequence would make any audience feel like a certain kind of psychic: All signs point to no. Allen leans on hoary coincidences and hoary whores rather than apply the introspection and insight worthy of characters this seasoned by life.

Introspection and insight — that’s something Leigh, 67, does with seemingly minimal effort. “Another Year’’ is also about lonely middle-aged people, and Leigh also does very little that’s different from his previous films — “Secrets & Lies’’ and “Happy-Go-Lucky’’ are two of 11. But “Another Year’’ doesn’t depend on shtick, and it’s far funnier for it. The movie thrives on the intelligent conception of characters who exist seemingly independently of Leigh’s control.

Its most polarizing creation is Mary (Lesley Manville), a 50ish chatterbox who can’t meet the right man. After two scenes, you know why — Mary is a sweet but self-pitying narcissist who drinks too much. She’s the downer to the unsinkable upper Sally Hawkins played in “Happy-Go-Lucky.’’ Manville has the harder job since it’s impossible to redeem such a desperate person. So Manville doesn’t try.

Where Hawkins’s Poppy was capable of existing on her own, Mary evaporates without human contact. We only see her when she’s sharing a scene with other characters, namely her blissfully married, upper-middle-class co-worker, Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a shrink, and Gerri’s husband, Tom (Jim Broadbent). The subject of therapy and medication come up in the Allen film and here. In “Another Year,’’ Mary appears to be in crisis, but Leigh isn’t merely pathologizing. He pulls her back from the brink of tragedy just by leaving his camera to linger on her for an extra beat. Allen films continue to have their sly cinematic moments — the camera moves around Watts and Brolin’s apartment like a dancer. Leigh uses his somewhat more limited eye in a more effective way. His medium shots and close-ups are exquisite portraits of loneliness and doubt. You could hang them anywhere.

What we — and presumably the jury — respond to with this movie is recognition. We know this woman, and while we’re not required to like her, Leigh makes us feel for her. That’s not the move of a beloved old man coasting on his reputation. It’s the choice of a veteran applying his considerable wisdom.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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