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Gloom Lifts At Cannes

For a few years, it seemed the Cannes Film Festival appreciated movies only if they were dark and unsettling, or gritty and realistic.

This year, the festival's trying to lighten up: there's a spoof about the movie business, a comedy about the owner of a phone sex service and an epic on '70s British pop.

British director Michael Winterbottom's movie about sex and drugs in Manchester's music scene should provide some black humor and attitude at the Riviera festival, which starts Wednesday. Two funny guys from New York — Adam Sandler and Woody Allen — will bring comedies, a genre rare for Cannes.

And for fans of animation, DreamWorks is back with a cartoon about an untamed stallion in the Wild West.

The lineup still includes some of the somber or disturbing films that have been the toast of Cannes in the past. But the organizers clearly want to prove they haven't lost their sense of humor, or scorned the masses.

Last year's festival had such an emphasis on gloom — with common themes of death, bereavement and war — that moviegoers began to wonder.

The film that swept the most awards — "The Piano Teacher," starring Isabelle Huppert — was a shocker, about a repressed woman who gives in to impulses of self-mutilation and sadomasochism. And the coveted Palme d'Or went to "The Son's Room," an Italian movie about a family unraveling after the accidental death of a teen-age child.

As usual at Cannes, the festival's choices ruffled a lot of moviegoers. Many griped that the organizers had unfairly shunned "Amelie," a whimsical French blockbuster about a lonely Parisian girl who devotes herself to random acts of kindness, and in the meantime, falls in love. The movie wasn't selected for Cannes, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards.

After all the fuss, it seems organizers have done some thinking.

Artistic director Thierry Fremaux said recently that Cannes organizers "wanted to break the rule that says the selections... should always be tragic and solemn."

So they called on Woody Allen, a comic legend in France, to open the festival Wednesday. In Allen's latest movie "Hollywood Ending," showing out of competition, he plays a has-been director who comes down with a psychosomatic case of blindness when he gets a chance to make his comeback film.

Another U.S. export that has people talking is "Punch-Drunk Love," a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler as the owner of a phone sex service. His character falls for a mysterious harmonium player, played by Emily Watson. It won't be just another Sandler slapstick — it's directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the talented 31-year-old filmmaker who made "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights."

Winterbottom's movie, "24 Hour Party People," stars Steve Coogan as a TV presenter whose life is changed when he goes to a Sex Pistols gig. The Brits are back in force this year, with three films in competition, after being shut out of last year's festival.

After "Shrek" was a hit last year on the Croisette, DreamWorks has returned with "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." The movie, about a wild mustang who refuses to be broken, is narrated by Matt Damon, and is being shown out of competition.

As usual, the organizers have included a dose of tough realism, a reminder that there's a real world out there beyond the yachts and beach-side sidewalk cafes. Belgium's Dardenne brothers, who triumphed at Cannes three years ago with "Rosetta," are back with "Le Fils" (The Son), about a carpenter and his fascination with a boy who tried to join his workshop. And Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both Cannes regulars, are offering portraits of working-class Britain.

Despite the attempt at a little lightheartedness, there's also the requisite dose of darkness — like David Cronenberg's "Spider," with Ralph Fiennes playing a deranged Londoner just out of a mental institution.

And Cannes wouldn't be Cannes without one film sure to shock and upset — and divide — the critics. This year, it's likely to be Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible," starring France's Vincent Cassel and his partner in real life, sultry Italian star Monica Bellucci.

The movie centers around a brutal, graphic rape scene in a darkened corridor.

"Today, when I see the scene on screen, I can't handle it," Bellucci told France's Premiere magazine. "I look away."