LIGHTS, CAMERA, CANNES

Film critic takes long view of France's mega-festival and high vs. low cinema

ITS official name is the Cannes International Film Festival, but just say ``Cannes'' and moviegoers the world over know what you're referring to.

Not the crisp white beaches of this southern French city. Not the marinas crowded with yachts, or the hilly medieval quarter with its crooked streets and elegant clock tower. Not any of the outdoor features that make this area a magnet for vacationers on the renowned Cote d'Azur.

For cinema fans ranging from high-art connoisseurs to Saturday-night entertainment hounds, Cannes means primarily the indoor pleasures that populate the theaters, auditoriums, and screening rooms of the Palais du Festival, the sprawling high-modern structure that dominates the busiest street in town.

Although its doors are literally a stone's throw from the sandy shores and sparkling waters of the French Riviera, the thousands who swarm up its red-carpeted stairs for about 10 days every May want little to do with the natural beauties that surround it. What they seek are darkened rooms, comfortable chairs, and wide screens filled with images the world has never seen before - exactly what Cannes has been providing for almost half a century, at a hectic pace that begins first thing every morning and continues long, long into the night.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my first trip to Cannes, and I've worn various hats during my numerous return visits. For several years, I attended as a programmer for the New York Film Festival, which takes place at Lincoln Center in autumn. I often discover some of the best attractions a few months earlier at Cannes.

I also serve on the Special Jury of Screen International, a British film magazine that recruits one critic from each of 11 countries and prints our ratings of major movies on a chart published each day.

But first and foremost I'm a journalist, forever combing the screening schedules for worthwhile events to report on for readers who may never see the Palais and its attractions for themselves. One of my main goals is to ferret out pictures that are likely bets for international distribution, and spread the word so movie fans can watch for their arrival in local theaters.

Another goal is to spot ``uncommercial'' films with major significance as cinematic art, hoping that enough journalistic attention will encourage some daring distributor to give them a chance in the theatrical marketplace. Like many of my colleagues, I feel that a critic who concentrates entirely on the commercial or the esoteric isn't doing the job right. Both kinds of cinema need seeing, describing, and evaluating in print - and plenty of both are on display throughout the festival, as any good journalist can wearily attest.

The movies shown at Cannes are divided among various main events and sidebars. The most heavily publicized program is the Official Competition, with about two dozen films contending for the coveted Golden Palm award and a handful of secondary honors. Some of the festival's best pictures appear in this category - and so do some of the worst, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained by anyone I've asked, including members of the jury that bestows the prizes on closing night.

A few movies are also shown Out of Competition, meaning they appear in the Competition series but aren't in the running for awards. Another key event is the program called Un Certain Regard -

``A Certain Look'' - which presumably spotlights work of great originality or visual inventiveness, but really functions as a catch-all for noteworthy films that didn't fit into the Competition's limited number of time slots.

The three sidebars are the International Critics' Week, showing films chosen by French reviewers; the Directors' Fortnight, featuring works by filmmakers of unusual merit; and Perspectives on French Cinema, a vehicle for France to promote its own productions.

Good critics spend time at all these programs, hopping from one to another whenever prompted by a tantalizing title, a reputable filmmaker, or a hot tip from a colleague. Since several films are available for viewing at every hour, journalists are always trading tips with one another, looking for inside information on must-see discoveries and must-avoid flops that would waste valuable time. Few things are more amusing than seeing two critics with wildly opposed sensibilities - people who disagree with each other's every word back home - eagerly swapping advice on the most promising prospects to put on their ever-more-crowded schedules.

Critics and reporters aren't the only film-folks in attendance at Cannes, of course, although their enormous quantity makes them a highly visible presence, and is the single biggest factor in the festival's huge international impact. Also crowding the Palais are members of the film industry, many of them peddling new movies or sniffing out deals for producing, distributing, and exhibiting pictures that are still only gleams in a wheeler-dealer's eye.

Stories of legendary dealmaking are essential parts of Cannes lore. A favorite is the 1986 tale of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard dashing off a production contract on a napkin at a beachfront cafe, agreeing with a high-powered entrepreneur to direct a movie of ``King Lear'' with Marlon Brando and Woody Allen in the leads.

The napkin acquired star status at a hastily called press conference, spurring debate as to whether this scrap of paper could cement a bond between one of France's most art-minded directors and one of Hollywood's most money-minded producers. In the end, the movie did get made - without Brando, but with a bewildered-looking Allen in an eccentric cast including actress Molly Ringwald, director Peter Sellars, and writer Norman Mailer, among others. Only at Cannes could such an unlikely project get onto the drawing board, much less off it.

How did the festival itself get off the drawing board almost 50 years ago? While the concept of filmfests has been traced to 19th-century art expositions, Cannes was founded in a calculated effort to revive the French Riviera after the hardships of the World War II era. So says an overview published by New York's film-conscious Museum of Modern Art to mark the festival's 45th anniversary in 1992, with insightful essays by journalist Dave Kehr and curator Laurence Kardish.

Movie folks had flocked to southern France before the war, and a luxuriously mounted film festival seemed a good way to lure them back. At first it was a relatively intimate affair, populated mainly by friends and colleagues who were more interested in socializing than in checking out new movies. But the atmosphere changed in the late 1950s, ushering in the hyperactive Cannes that still flourishes today.

One factor in this alteration was a shift in censorship standards, allowing more sex on the screen (and more undraped starlets on the beaches) than festivalgoers had seen in the past. Many journalists feasted on the sensationalistic possibilities this opened up, giving Cannes a publicity boost as forceful as it was sleazy.

Another factor was the advent of the New Wave film movement, led by a group of Paris-based directors whose energy and imagination gave fresh impetus to art cinema in general and French cinema in particular, influencing movie styles in Hollywood and around the globe.

No sooner did Francois Truffaut's exquisite drama ``The 400 Blows'' win the Best Director prize in 1959 than all eyes turned to Cannes with more interest than ever before - and the festival's public-relations machine was primed to take full advantage of this fortuitous situation.

Later years have found Cannes pursuing both of its preordained paths - hype and hoopla on one side, art and aesthetics on the other - with equal enthusiasm. I discovered this firsthand during my 1974 visit, when imposing pictures like Federico Fellini's glowing ``Amarcord'' and Carlos Saura's gloomy ``Cousin Angelica'' rubbed elbows with junky potboilers like ``The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat'' and the idiotic ``S*P*Y*S,'' a ``M*A*S*H'' wannabe that inexplicably captured the prestigious closing-night time slot.

While the latter films seemed wildly out of place at the world's most important festival, their presence demonstrated the willingness of Cannes to recognize all of cinema's possibilities, from the heights of artistic expression to the depths of dim-witted diversion. I've witnessed the same tendency as recently as last year, when the estimable ``Naked'' and ``Farewell My Concubine'' shared program time with the dopey ``Falling Down'' and ``Splitting Heirs.''

Cannes today is so firmly established as the world's most influential film festival that the movie scene would be profoundly shaken if it were to suddenly disappear. This doesn't mean, however, that the festival is immune to the large and small problems that bedevil all such events.

Sometimes keenly anticipated pictures aren't ready in time to meet the programming deadline - as happened with Steven Spielberg's blockbuster ``Jurassic Park'' last year, and with other big-studio movies this year, according to Variety, the show-business newspaper. And sometimes the crop of available films simply isn't as impressive as programmers would like, forcing second-rate items into otherwise strong lineups.

This year's Competition slate set tongues wagging even before it was officially announced, when observers noticed that American movies were represented less vigorously than usual. Festival officials quickly put out word that their choices were not influenced by French-American differences in world-trade talks a few months earlier, and insisted that plenty of US productions would be on view.

Sure enough, the final listing indicated that Cannes's perennial weakness for Hollywood-style entertainment remains a powerful force in shaping the schedule. ``The Hudsucker Proxy'' was the opening-night picture and ``Serial Mom'' is tonight's closer, guaranteeing that laughs coaxed by Tim Robbins and Kathleen Turner will offset any high-falutin artistry found in other offerings.

What seemed most important to me about the 1994 program, however, was that it struck a good balance between well-established filmmaking giants - or auteurs, as French-influenced critics like to call them - and provocative newcomers, including some who unveiled their first films in these high-profile surroundings.

In the Competition lineup, Poland's great Krzysztof Kieslowski and China's towering Zhang Yimou contended with such lesser-known talents as Shaji N. Karun of India and Charlie Van Damme of Belgium; meanwhile, Un Certain Regard featured veterans like Marco Bellocchio of Italy and Andre Techine of France opposite several newer directors including five Americans in their filmmaking debuts.

I also appreciate the festival's continuing commitment to a rousingly multicultural approach. Competition entries hailed not only from major filmmaking centers but also from Iran, Cambodia, and Romania; films in Un Certain Regard represented such nations as Algeria, Peru, and Guinea Bissau. Critics' Week and Directors' Fortnight had similarly diverse slates, including a Palestinian-Dutch coproduction and a feature from Bosnia.

Faced with these and other attractions, these have been the movies highest on my must-see list:

* ``Huozhe,'' directed by Zhang Yimou of China. Known as ``To Live'' in English, this ambitious epic marks another collaboration between filmmaker Zhang and actress Gong Li, who starred in ``Ju Dou'' and four of his other movies.

The story follows a Chinese couple from the 1940s to the 1970s, and features Ge You of ``Farewell My Concubine'' in the leading male role.

Zhang has one of the most versatile and expressive visual styles in world cinema today - and a strong track record of getting his superb movies into international theaters despite frequent opposition from his own government.

* ``Red,'' directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski of Poland. The last installment in Kieslowski's offbeat ``Three Colors'' trilogy (others were ``White'' and ``Blue'') stars Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a student and a retired judge whose lives intertwine after an unsettling first encounter.

* ``Eat Drink Man Woman,'' directed by Ang Lee of Taiwan. The maker of ``The Wedding Banquet,'' one of last year's most engaging Asian American movies, revisits his native Taiwan in this comedy about a celebrated cook and his three rebellious daughters. Already acquired for American release, it opened the Directors' Fortnight.

Other films that captured my interest were: ``A Caixa'' by Portugal's brilliant Manoel De Oliveira; ``Tatjana'' by Finland's unpredictable Aki Kaurismaki; ``Faust'' by the Czech Republic's surrealistic Jan Svankmajer.

With so many films, I may have missed a masterpiece or two. But it won't be for want of trying.

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