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Wenders’ new film a front-runner at Cannes

‘Don’t Come Knocking’ stars Sam Shepard and Sarah Polley
/ Source: The Associated Press

Men on missions — seeking truth, justice, respite from the past and children they never knew — led the charge for top honors as the Cannes Film Festival prepared to wrap up its 12-day run.

Front-runners for Saturday’s awards included two tales of aging bachelors searching for sons they’ve never met: German director Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking,” co-written by and starring Sam Shepard; and U.S. filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” with Bill Murray.

Other favorites among the 21 films in the main competition were Canadian director David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” starring Viggo Mortensen as a family man fending off mobsters who insist he’s a long-lost crony from their past; and Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s “Hidden,” with Daniel Auteuil as a man trying to uncover the truth about menacing messages his family receives.

Along with those four established competitors, all past winners of key Cannes prizes, Tommy Lee Jones was a wild-card entry with his feature-film directing debut “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” The harsh contemporary Western stars the actor as a Texas ranch boss who forces his best friend’s killer (Barry Pepper) to exhume the corpse and haul it to a new final resting place in Mexico.

While the front-runners had solid receptions among critics and festival crowds, the mission of Cannes jurors is to bestow prizes for cinematic achievement independent of reviews, hype and the audience applause-meter.

Judges’ tastes unpredictablePredicting the tastes of any particular jury is a futile exercise, said Cronenberg, who headed the Cannes panel in 1999.

“I’ve also been president of the jury, so I know what goes on from both ends,” Cronenberg said. “I know how much you shouldn’t worry about it. You are at the mercy of chance. You just don’t know what the personality of the jury is each year. ...

“There are no absolutes. It’s completely subjective. The same films with a different jury would have a different outcome,” said Cronenberg, whose racy sex drama “Crash” received a special jury prize for “originality, daring and audacity” at Cannes in 1996.

This year’s jury is headed by Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica, a two-time winner of Cannes’ top honor. Others on the nine-member jury include American author Toni Morrison, Mexican actress Salma Hayek, French filmmaker Agnes Varda and Spanish actor Javier Bardem.

Last year, the jury led by Quentin Tarantino gave the top prize to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s assault on President Bush over his actions regarding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Publicity more important than prizesFilmmakers covet the publicity Cannes offers their films, yet they often find the notion of competing against one another discomfiting.

“The competition part of it is not really of interest to me, because I don’t believe in competition, unless you’re playing chess or sports, you know?” said Jarmusch, whose “Stranger Than Paradise” earned him the prize for best first-time director at Cannes in 1984. “In the field of expression, that’s kind of an absurdity. Like, let’s take 12 people and go to the Louvre and decide what’s the best painting in the Louvre. How can you do that? You can take 100 people, and there’d be 100 different choices, which is the beauty of expression.”

The same year Jarmusch won his prize, Wenders took top Cannes honors for “Paris, Texas,” whose screenplay also was written by Shepard. A win for “Don’t Come Knocking” would be a fitting bookend, the new film examining similar themes of reconnecting with the past and playing out against stark American landscapes resembling those of “Paris, Texas.”

Aside from Wenders, the competition includes three other movies from filmmakers who have won Cannes’ top prize: Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose “Rosetta” won in 1999, returned with “The Child”; American Gus Van Sant, whose “Elephant” won two years ago, competed again with “Last Days”; and Danish director Lars von Trier, whose “Dancer in the Dark” won in 2000, was back with “Manderlay.”

Waiting for Saturday’s awards at the Palais des Festival, the event’s headquarters, can be a jittery time, not only because of the competitiveness, but also because some simply do not like the attention.

“If I have to appear at the Palais when they give out prizes, that would make me very nervous. I hate it,” von Trier said. “Of course, it would be fun to have a prize, but it wouldn’t change my life.”