CANNES, FRANCE — The world's most influential filmfest launched its 52nd annual edition with its usual explosion of glamour. A luxuriously dressed army of media-world celebrities strolled into the elegant Palais des Festivals along a pristine red carpet lined with stargazers, video cameras, and paparazzi.
What awaited this stylish audience within the Grand Auditorium Lumire was another story, however. The opening-night attraction of the Cannes International Film Festival, a historical comedy-drama called The Barber of Siberia, had been viewed a few hours earlier by the international press corps.
By the time of its gala premire, virtually all the journalists had declared it a terrible movie on almost all counts, from Julia Ormond's one-note performance to the rambling 19th-century plot about an America woman caught between a Russian aristocrat and the ordinary soldier she loves.
So unanimous was the verdict on this overblown epic by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, who won an Oscar for "Burnt by the Sun" five years ago, that US audiences will probably be spared any temptation to see it.
Cannes is so powerful because of the attention it gets from distributors and exhibitors, who decide which pictures to show in theaters. True, some enterprising programmer might try eliminating an hour or so of "The Barber of Siberia," reediting the most badly made scenes, but most likely the dismal reception here has ended its chances of reaching anyone's local multiplex.
Meanwhile, audiences comforted themselves by deciding that the festival had reached its low point on the first day and now would get better with every passing hour. Little did they know what awaited them.
The first movie to be screened in the Official Competition - a lineup of 24 films competing for the festival's prizes - was Pola X by Leos Carax, whose extraordinary Lovers on the Bridge is due in American theaters this summer after an eight-year delay.
The chief programmer at Cannes had proclaimed "Pola X" a superb movie with all the qualities a festival choice should have. But a different opinion occurred to the critics, who greeted it with yawns and snickers. A minority defended its pretentiously acted story about a privileged young man who tries to become more "authentic" by inviting scandal and violence into his life. Others found it a sad mistake by a gifted filmmaker whose career has gone regrettably off course.
The first upturn at Cannes came with two movies from Middle Eastern directors. Sacred, an Israeli drama by Amos Gita, tells the moving story of two sisters unhappily married to men with ultra-Orthodox religious ideas rooted in political considerations as well as personal conviction.
The Other, by Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, brings a freewheeling blend of satire and melodrama to the unpredictable tale of a married couple struggling for happiness amid various forms of bigotry and corruption. Both deserve wide audiences.
Serious themes and first-rate filmmaking are even more visible in the somberly titled Moloch, by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov, a highly imaginative artist whose fame has been growing steadily. In this muted historical drama, he etches a stylized portrait of Adolf Hitler spending a weekend with various associates in a rural Bavarian retreat.
The movie contains a degree of grim irony as it shows the dictator's mistress, Eva Braun, making a vain attempt to humanize her demonic lover.
Yet, it remains literally and figuratively dark even at these moments, as if light itself were unable to function in the presence of such evil forces. Few filmmakers have Sokurov's ability to generate such artistic and emotional power with such striking economy of means.
Scenery and spectacle were also present in films certain to arrive on American screens in the near future. One is Pedro Almodvar's dramatic comedy All About My Mother, which uses the Spanish director's bright colors and outrageous dialogue to pepper an unpredictable plot that swings from tactfully drawn scenes of human sorrow to rowdy humor.
Taking a more traditional route is The Emperor and the Assassin, a sweeping tale by Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige that exemplifies both the virtues and limitations of the historical-epic genre. Psychologically, it's often thin and stilted. But its cast-of-thousands action scenes will thrill anyone who likes to see a wide screen crammed with eye-dazzling adventure.
Almost from the first day, audiences here have been trying to guess which movies will garner prizes from the festival jury. It's headed by Canadian director David Cronenberg and includes Jeff Goldblum and Holly Hunter among its 10 members.
Almodvar's film emerged as an early favorite, and many critics are enthusiastic about Raoul Ruiz's stately Time Regained, an adaptation of Marcel Proust's magnificent novel that captures the book's meditative pace.
The competition's most promising entries hadn't been screened at this writing, including "The Straight Story," from David Lynch, and "8 1/2 Women," by Peter Greenaway, who's known for cerebral rigor and outright weirdness. All of which means the coveted Golden Palm is still very much up for grabs.