CANNES, FRANCE — There was a time," said Hollywood director Mike Nichols at the beginning of the 51st Cannes filmfest, "when the question about a movie was, 'Is it good?' - not, 'How did it do on the first weekend?' "
Mr. Nichols was responding to a question about his latest picture, Primary Colors, which racked up unspectacular box-office returns before traveling to Cannes as the opening-night attraction.
But he was clearly thinking about the movie slated for closing night, Godzilla, an outlandishly lowbrow choice even for a filmfest that prides itself on celebrating cinema's commercial as well as artistic sides.
"I could understand it if this were a giant lizard that reads Tolstoy," said filmmaker Terry Gilliam later, "but this is just a giant lizard that's bigger than the other giant lizards!"
Despite such grumbling, few were really puzzled by the festival's decision to end with such a money-minded offering. Back in the United States, the Sony studio was slithering its high-tech monster into multiplexes on a Tuesday night so the "first weekend" would actually be several days long, thus aiming for big profits before word of mouth could circulate about the picture's actual quality.
While industry observers enjoy tsk-tsking such tactics, they feel a certain admiration too. Filmmaking, as Woody Allen once noted, is the only art that uses big money as one of its creative tools. Cannes insiders are keenly aware of this, even though they reserve the loudest applause for movies that stretch the imaginations of their viewers as well as the pocketbooks of their producers.
Indeed, some of the biggest American waves were generated at Cannes, the premier 12-day film festival that concluded Sunday, by the independent pictures that arrived in surprisingly large numbers. These films perhaps reflect the impact of recent Oscar races, where "indies" like "The English Patient" and "The Full Monty" boosted their once-overlooked breed to new levels of fame.
No distributor places more trust in indies than Miramax, which unveiled three major releases here, all due soon in American theaters. The most family-friendly is The Mighty, based on a children's book about two boys - one physically challenged, one mentally slow. They cook up a fantasy life based on the knights of the Round Table, finding a new sense of purpose by helping the downtrodden and fighting neighborhood bullies. Sharon Stone and Kieran Culkin star.
Controversy struck another Miramax film, Life Is Beautiful, directed by Roberto Benigni, a popular Italian comedian. He plays a Jewish waiter who enters a Nazi concentration camp with his five-year-old son, convincing the child that the whole experience is an elaborate game that everybody's playing just for fun.
Some found this story a distasteful trivialization of history, suggesting the Holocaust could be survived by anyone with pluck, innocence, and a doting dad. Others found it an upbeat fable - it garnered a top prize from the Cannes jury - and some predict it will be a major Oscar contender. Audiences can cast their box-office ballots in a few weeks.
Unconventional in different ways is Velvet Goldmine, a high-energy trip through the glittery "glam-rock" scene that captivated pop fans in the early 1970s. Directed by Todd Haynes, whose movies include the brilliant "Safe," the Miramax movie stars Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale in a story combining "Citizen Kane"-type biographical drama with MTV-style visuals. Reviewers gave it mixed responses, but its trendy subject could make it a major hit with young moviegoers.
The same time period, dominated in the US by Watergate and the Vietnam War, plays a leading role in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which had its Cannes premire just before opening in American theaters. Many here applauded the hyperactive imagination of director Terry Gilliam, former animation guru for the Monty Python comedy troupe, although the film's satire of drug-addled behaviors struck some as too excessive for comfort.
Maverick moviemaker Hal Hartley does his best work to date in Henry Fool, coming to theaters next month. The unlikely hero is a sanitation worker whose newest friend, a drifter with an unsavory past, inspires him to write a book-length poem received by some as richly sublime and others as simply disgusting.
Also about suburbia is the ironically titled Happiness by Todd Solondz, of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" fame. Its characters range from a sexually anxious teenager to a psychologist who molests his son's schoolmates. The movie is extraordinarily frank about deeply troubling material, but considering how crudely such ills are often treated in today's news and entertainment media, many will find Solondz's treatment compassionate as well as candid. It's sure to prompt lively debate when Americans see it later this year.
Other freshly minted offerings from US filmmakers include Paul Auster's Lulu on the Bridge, with Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino as lovers bewitched by a mysterious stone; John Turturro's Illuminata, with Susan Sarandon and Rufus Sewell as members of a feisty theatrical troupe; Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan, the precisely filmed tale of a prostitute (Katrin Cartlidge) trying to change her sordid life; Ken Yunome's Island, Alicia, about a young couple with an amour fou relationship; and Roland Joff's Goodbye Lover, about an immoral woman (Patricia Arquette) who outsmarts two men before running off with a crafty policewoman (Ellen DeGeneres) in a sardonic ending.
When they weren't busy at screenings and press conferences, festivalgoers attended panel discussions ("Are Movies Too Loud?") and jostled for admission to industry-related parties that might offer a good tip or a good quote as well as a good time. They also traded opinions from dawn to dusk, looking for fresh perspectives on individual movies and the state of world cinema as a whole.
The consensus on that last question is currently poised between guarded optimism and growing concern over the increasing crassness of today's film scene. While the productions named previously earned attention for their energy and inventiveness, new works by established European filmmakers (Lars von Trier, Benoit Jacquot) seemed slight and insubstantial, and some old masters (Ingmar Bergman, Shohei Imamura) were deemed by some critics to be performing below their potential.
Few top-rank films
To be sure, there were stunning achievements on view, such as The Flowers of Shanghai, by Taiwan's Hou Hsaio-hsien, and Inquietude, by Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira. But there weren't enough top-rank movies to stave off a sense that media with less sophisticated histories and more fragmented attention spans, from music video to commercial-packed TV movies, are chipping away at philosophical and spiritual possibilities that great filmmakers have been drawn to in the past.
Also sobering is the realization that some of the cheers for individual masterpieces came from distributors and exhibitors who will never bring those movies to American theaters - because, unlike Mike Nichols, they ultimately care less about "was it good?" than "how much money would its first weekend pull in?" Until that attitude changes, Hollywood's ability to dictate the choices of US moviegoers will remain unchallenged.
The jury at Cannes, headed by Martin Scorsese, gave its coveted Golden Palm award to Eternity and a Day by Greek director Theo Angelopoulos. Other winners included "Henry Fool" for best screenplay, John Boorman's The General for best directing, and "Velvet Goldmine" for best artistic contribution.