Even great filmmakers don't always benefit from repeat business

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Film directors repeat themselves at their own risk. mOther artists — painters, musicians — turn out work that is intended as variations on a theme, and critics applaud. Such authors as Philip Roth (with his Nathan Zuckerman novels) and John Updike (who chronicled Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom through four volumes) return repeatedly to their literary alter egos, and readers happily follow suit.

But there's something about the movies that demands novelty. Auteurists might argue that the great directors obsessively recycle themes and rework techniques, but when a major name unveils a new work, especially in a hothouse environment like the Festival de Cannes, audiences want to be wowed by something new.

Just ask Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg.

Allen didn't venture into the Cannes waters until 2002, when his "Hollywood Ending" opened that year's edition. After a return visit in 2005 with "Match Point," he's quickly become a semiregular, returning this year with his romantic roundelay "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," his first feature filmed in Spain.

Its sun-splashed locales might set "Vicky" apart from Allen's other low-key, mildly angst-ridden comedies, but in most respects it follows the template that the director has made his trademark.

It's got the same no-frills title treatment. Allen's latest muse, Scarlett Johansson, making her third appearance in one of his films, is paired with British actress Rebecca Hall as two Americans abroad. And it's full of the usual walking and talking as the young women debate their diametrically opposed approaches to life.

But the film really belongs to his Spanish stars, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who play a volatile couple with the kind of combustible onscreen chemistry that Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni displayed in their "Marriage Italian Style" heyday.

The result? Critics were pleasantly surprised. Opined the Times of London, "Vicky" is "not up there with (Allen's) career greats, but it has a lightness of touch and a sense of mischief which has been missing from his films of late."

If anything, Allen succeeded because he's managed to reduce the bar for himself. Because he is so predictably prolific, turning out one film per year, critics no longer expect him to hit it out of the park, and that has worked in his favor.

Spielberg, on the other hand, faces one of the highest bars imaginable. Making his first visit to Cannes since unveiling "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" in 1982, Spielberg came to launch his first Indiana Jones movie in 19 years, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

During the course of his career, Spielberg certainly has proved himself a more ambitious filmmaker than Allen. Artistically, he regularly has challenged himself, leaving behind popular entertainments for such serious fare as "Saving Private Ryan," "Munich" and his Oscar-winning "Schindler's List." If he had brought a film in that vein to the Croisette, it might well have earned him automatic kudos.

Instead, the skeptics were out in force for "Skull."

To their credit, Spielberg and his collaborators, by setting their tale in 1957, introduced some new surprises, especially when Harrison Ford's Indy stumbles into a Nevada nuclear test site. At the same time, though, they necessarily reprise many of Indy's greatest hits — from creepy crawlies to Rube Goldberg-like caves.

Reactions ran the gamut, from dismissive to amused.

In this instance, though, the Cannes crowd was really beside the point. The final verdict belongs to the moviegoers, expected to show up en masse when the movie opens Thursday. And unlike critics, moviegoers often don't complain when a moviemaker returns to familiar territory.

Gregg Kilday can be reached at gregg.kilday@THR.com.
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