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Things have moved a little sluggishly in the Palme d'or competition going into the final three days of Cannes, and at times it has started to look as if it might better be called the Palme Bore. There is no consensus on a critical favourite, and in general the films are not of the same vintage as last year's, which included The Pianist, Punch-Drunk Love and A Man Without a Past. "Is Cannes best yet to come?" asks Variety. Newsweek responded with the sing-along headline: "Cannes fans sit on their hands."

As predicted, Lars von Trier's Dogville has stirred a reaction, most notably in a review by Variety's Todd McCarthy, who rose to von Trier's mocking America-baiting. "Through the contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself," he wrote, "von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the Earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people . . . than any other in the history of the world."

More moderate voices are suggesting that von Trier's theatrical piece owes much to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Inasmuch as it indicts America, the movie might be compared to The Scarlet Letter, as a fable of the destructive force of Puritanism. Either comparison, though, doesn't really work for a movie that -- despite its static style on a football-sized black floor, with houses and streets drawn in chalk -- is too flippant to build dramatic momentum.

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Some interesting controversy has also arisen around Gus Van Sant's Elephant, a made-for-television movie with specific parallels to the Columbine high-school killings. Van Sant's formal approach to his subjects, following them through the hallways of the school and offering brief vignettes in the course of a day, is -- to his fans -- an examination of the banality of evil. To those who feel the rush of empathy at the movie's conclusion, the project just seems sterile and banal. In any case, as one journalist who liked it said, "It's probably just not an important enough film to be worth the fuss."

At this stage, the dark horse may be a film from Turkey by writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, entitled Uzak ( Distance). The film, which has a leisurely pace and is often silent, is about a photographer, Mahmut, who lives in Istanbul. One day a man from Mahmut's rural village comes to visit him, hoping to stay long enough to get a job on the ships.

While the days pass, the visitor, unable to get work, continues living in the house, as Mahmut sinks into a depression at the news that his ex-wife will soon be moving to Canada with her new husband. The gulf of loneliness in both characters' lives is subtly and movingly evoked. Probably the most harmonious and satisfying of the films offered so far, it may prove an impediment to jurors who like events: Perhaps the major crisis of Distance is the point at which a mouse gets stuck to some glued paper especially for that purpose, and neither man knows quite how to kill it.

In a stronger year, Samira Makhmalbaf's uneven but brave At Five in the Afternoon might not be a strong candidate. But this year, the topical story of a young Afghan woman's struggle to get an education and help keep her family from dying has struck a chord with many.

Hector Babenco's prison drama, Carandiru, has some believers, though the general reaction is dumbfounded. Based on a Brazilian prison riot that left more than 100 dead, it suffers from some jarring shifts in tone. It starts out like a behind-bars version of The Canterbury Tales, with each of a group of prisoners telling his particular story to a doctor. It ends with the screen awash in gore.

If the subjects seem dark, they are: Even lesser films are often extremely brutal. Raul Ruiz's disappointing Ce jour-là ( That Day) is a brisk, surreal comedy about mental illness and multiple murders.

Bertrand Bonello's melodramatic Tiresia is a modern update on the myth of the blind prophet who had lived both as a man and a woman. In the new version, a Spanish transsexual prostitute named Tiresia is abducted by a man. Unable to keep up his hormone shots, Tiresia begins slipping back into maleness. Finally his abductor decides to release him, but only after he has stabbed out his eyes. The new Tiresia, neither woman nor man, is mysteriously blessed with the ability to see the future. In what appears to be a gesture at keeping the audience in the dark, the director has chosen to have Tiresia played by two different characters (a man and a woman) while his tormentor also plays a parish priest who learns Tiresia's secret.

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Playing head games with the audience is also a feature of François Ozon's clever but slight murder mystery, Swimming Pool, in which the events experienced by a veteran English mystery writer (Charlotte Rampling) become confused with real life.

From Japan, the usually more impressive Kurosawa Kiyoshi (creator of the science-fiction films Cure and Pulse) marries a fantastic metaphor to a downbeat story about alienated Asian youth (almost an annual category at Cannes) in what is being dubbed the "Japanese jellyfish movie." A young man manages to acclimatize a deadly poisonous jellyfish to fresh water. When he murders his factory boss, he demands that his friend take care of the jellyfish while he awaits sentencing. By the movie's end, jellyfish have infested the canals of Tokyo -- the only bright, glowing spots in an otherwise grimly monochromatic city.

In the context of its competition, the Canadian entry -- Denys Arcand's Les Invasions barbares ( The Barbarian Invasions) -- which screens here tomorrow morning, is upbeat and wryly positive, or at least as much as you could expect from a film that condemns the Quebec hospital system and features a death by cancer as its central theme. A sequel to, and in almost exactly the same tone as his success of 17 years ago, The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions may just strike the redemptive note the festival is looking for.

Seven more competition screenings are set to show from tomorrow through Saturday, with some intrigue raised by reports that American Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny (about a motorcycle racer crossing America while mourning his true love's death) features a seven -minute scene of actress Chloë Sevigny fellating the director-star.

Timing sexual acts seems to be one of the new oddities at Cannes: Last year's most scandalous film, Irreversible, featured an anal rape that was widely reported to have lasted nine minutes. To this list we can add that Elephant features a one-second gay kiss between teenaged boys, and Dogville features at least 10 minutes of Nicole Kidman engaging in clothed but non-consensual sex.

Most shameless of all is Makhmalbaf's At Five in the Afternoon, which features a five-second sequence of an Iranian woman rebelliously pulling back her veil, which promptly causes an aged religious man to turn away and pray to Allah for forgiveness for the impure thoughts she inspired. True, it's getting more and more difficult to stay shocked while managing your stopwatch, but it's the kind of important discipline a responsible cinephile must learn.

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