As the Cannes Film Festival rolled into its final stretch Friday, the leading contenders for its top prize, the Golden Palm, became clearer -- and yet the resort town was still humming with frenzied speculation.
By most reckonings, there were six in the running for the award, to be announced Saturday evening:
* Agnes Jaoui's "Look at Me" ("Comme Une Image"), a delightful French comedy, features the continued collaboration of writer-director Jaoui and co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri (a sort of French Elaine May and Mike Nichols team), both of whom appear in the movie.
* Brazilian director Walter Salles' engaging travelogue "The Motorcycle Diaries" is drawn from the diaries of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his companion Alberto Granado, detailing their motorbike trip through South America in the years before Che became Che. It features a stirring performance from Gael Garcia Bernal (the co-star of "Y Tu Mama Tambien") as Guevara.
* Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the documentarian's incendiary attack on President Bush and the great hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Wild response attended Moore's every appearance in this Mediterranean corner of the world, and the film -- the strongest and subtlest of Moore's career -- is considered a wild-card contender.
* Wong Kar-Wai's "2046" is an extremely arty romance-noir with sci-fi elements to it, featuring the delectable Tony Leung and Gong Li. A festival darling for such works as "In the Mood for Love," the Hong Kong director can expect some kind of award, if not the big one.
* "Old Boy" by Korean director Park Chan-Wook is an overly violent melodrama whose lead character (Choi Min-sik) suggests an Asian Gary Oldman in a fright wig. But it's so clearly in the Quentin Tarantino B-movie action style -- in a year when Tarantino is the festival jury's president -- that it's packing more heat than it otherwise would.
* "Nobody Knows," from Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu, was one of the first films to screen at Cannes. But this understated, sad drama, about a family of kids forced to care for themselves when their mother deserts them, has hung in there with the critics and, presumably, the jury.
Also drawing favorable word of mouth are Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's slick character mystery "Le Conseguenze dell'amore" ("The Consequences of Love") and Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's "La Nina Santa" ("The Holy Girl"), a delicate drama about a 16-year-old girl who feels a spiritual call to save a middle-aged man from sin.
But who will take the Golden Palm on Saturday night? Everyone, it seemed, had a different opinion. All were hedging their bets.
For artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who weathered complaints that last year's fest had more turkeys than an oven roaster sale at Thanksgiving, this uncertainty amounted to a programming triumph. His response this year was to fill the lineup with a huge variety of works, from Hollywood fare (including "Shrek 2") to art-house esoterica. Although there were a few disappointments (the Coen brothers' "The Ladykillers" was met with the thunder of indifference and disdain), the 57th Cannes Festival clearly had some oomph. Festival-goers actually found themselves waking up to the smell of competition each morning.
The Golden Palm ain't everything at Cannes. A healthy number of works in the other festival categories drew enthusiastic responses from this festgoer. They include Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers," a stirring martial-arts drama reminiscent of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; "Moolaade," Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene's hypnotic allegory about the practice of female circumcision; Jonathan Caouette's agonizing home-movie autobiography, "Tarnation"; Xan Cassavetes' enjoyable if heartbreaking documentary "Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession," about an independent film promoter and exhibitor who is credited with influencing the Oscar triumph of "Annie Hall"; and "The Woodsman," an understated but moving film about a child molester, played by Kevin Bacon, who struggles to rejoin the everyday world after serving time.
Campbell Scott's wonderful New Mexico-set "Off the Map," which was doing the circuits at last year's Cannes, was back again, this time in the market section, searching for a distributor. And last but certainly not least, there was Pedro Almodovar's dark, brilliant "Bad Education," a drama involving female impersonators, priestly sexual abuse and a haunting Spanish language version of "Moon River." All of these films are likely to be coming to a theater (probably an art-house theater) near you, later this year or next.
There was a strange squealing sound at the entrance to a party for "Kill Bill, Vol. 2" last week. It was the triumph of two Japanese women who had managed to snap a digital photo of the film's director, Tarantino, as he swirled past. They held up the image, a purplish profile shot of Tarantino, head down, heading into the noisy hubbub that also drew Uma Thurman, Mick Jagger and Cuba Gooding Jr., to name but three.
Tarantino, who received the insignia of the Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government on Tuesday, seemed to be omnipresent, in the manner of Marshal Tito in the old Yugoslavia. Even on-screen. He's an interviewee in the aforementioned "Z Channel," talking with manic gusto about the guilty pleasure of sexual scenes involving Laura Antonelli in the 1977 film "Wifemistress." And he's abstractly there in "Kontroll," a Hungarian melodrama about gonzo tram-ticket inspectors. At one point, the inspectors walk side by side toward the camera in slow motion. It is what has come to be known as the "Reservoir Dogs" shot -- a moment in Tarantino's cult film that uses the same technique.
And then, during the end credits of a film short by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, two names rolled down: Tarantino and . . . Tarantino. Were they perhaps distant relatives? It was too scary to find out.
Although artistic director Fremaux was flushing out the old with the new in the competitive lineup, he nonetheless still honored some active veterans. They included the 91-year-old Antonioni, who was led in a wheelchair to the screening of his latest work, the 15-minute "Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo"; actor Max Von Sydow, 75, who delivered an amusing, touching class on the art of acting; and French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, 73, whose "Our Music," a moody, poetic meditation on war, was presented out of competition.
All of them, dignified and silver-haired, stood patiently as appreciative audiences gave them standing ovations. All three represent something of a lost generation. Worshiped by the Martin Scorseses and George Lucases, they are hardly known to the Tarantinos of this world. So in the midst of ongoing festival business, and despite the constant insult of cell phone rings that often interrupted their presentations, these evenings amounted to the most poignant of the week.