CANNES, FRANCE — The renowned Cannes International Film Festival is as glamorous as everyone says, complete with star-studded screenings, swarms of media groupies, and armies of celebrities trooping up a crimson carpet to view eagerly touted premires.
Surely this is all a movie-lover could ask for - or so it seems until you hear the complaints that waft through the sprawling Palais des Festivals.
Yes, the diversity of world cinema is roundly represented. And yes, new directions in the art of film are here for pundits to ponder. But a pressing question has arisen with increasing frequency: Where are the big Hollywood pictures that just about everyone, from industry insiders to everyday ticket-buyers, really wants to see?
This year's grousing centered on the absence of "Mission: Impossible 2," which some had expected to open the festival, and "Gladiator," considered the sort of universally appealing fare - made by an English director with American money and an international cast -that Cannes used to thrive on.
In their place was an opening-night screening of Vatel, with Grard Depardieu and Uma Thurman prancing around the court of Louis XIV, followed by European premires of the corny "Mission to Mars" and the dreary "I Dreamed of Africa," hardly the best of Hollywood's recent products. Also present was Under Suspicion, a competently made murder mystery with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, probably invited because it's based on a popular French picture.
Beyond their disappointment over specific movies, Cannes-watchers have become concerned that the world's most visible film festival is losing touch with the audience-pleasing showmanship that Hollywood serves up so reliably. Blame for this is generally aimed at Gilles Jacob, the longtime Cannes programmer. Once an enthusiastic seeker of innovative American movies, he hasn't visited the United States for a full five years, according to Variety, the entertainment trade paper.
Not that Hollywood is particularly bothered by this. American movies are still the most popular on the planet, and their ongoing domination of world cinema was demonstrated by Cannes's own Eurocentric lineup, which had English-language dialogue spouting from the casts of French and Scandinavian pictures like Esther Kahn and Dancer in the Dark, not to mention the opening-night "Vatel" and the closing-night Stardom.
In short, if either side is suffering from the queasy relationship between the most powerful film festival and the most powerful film industry, the former is feeling the most discomfort. All of which lends extra importance to Jacob's impending retirement and his replacement in 2001 by a still-unnamed new programmer - whose attitude toward Hollywood will become the subject of worldwide scrutiny and speculation the moment next year's lineup starts to be selected.
If the shortage of high-voltage American cinema spilled some cold water on Cannes's just-completed 2000 edition, comfort could be found in an unexpected theme that emerged during the festival's early days and persisted until the end: an extraordinary concern with the lives, hopes, and challenges of women, depicted in thoughtful and complex ways.
A few of these films were made by female directors, in a welcome sign that their meager numbers may be growing. Among them were the hard-hitting Girlfight, by American newcomer Karyn Kusama; the visually stunning Blackboards, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf; and The Captive, a Proustian tone poem by Chantal Akerman, a brilliant Belgian director.
In other cases, male filmmakers turned their attention to women with smart and sympathetic results. A fine example coming to US theaters is Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, by Rodrigo Garcia, a gifted American making his directorial debut. The movie spins loosely interconnected tales about several women, including a bank manager (Holly Hunter) caught in an unhappy love affair, a lonely physician (Glenn Close) looking for romance, and a single mother (Kathy Baker) striking up friendship with an unusual neighbor. Sensitively written and superbly acted, it deserves summertime success.
American women are at the heart of Neil LaBute's amusing Nurse Betty, about a soap-opera fan who loses sight of the difference between TV and reality, and Bread and Roses, by the socially conscious Ken Loach, focusing on a Mexican immigrant who adds her voice to a bitter union struggle.
The Golden Bowl, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for director James Ivory, brings visual radiance to Henry James's introspective novel about the unhappy effects of an adulterous affair at the turn of the 20th century.
More female characters filled the screen in productions from other countries. Among the most impressive was Dancer in the Dark, with the pop superstar Bjrk as a vision-impaired woman who stumbles into violence when a friend betrays her. Directed with astonishing imagination by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, it sharply divided Cannes spectators and promises to do the same when Artisan Entertainment brings it to US screens later this year.
Such Is Life, by the great Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, retells the Medea myth through the sad experiences of a contemporary urban woman. Esther Kahn, by French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechins, chronicles the adventures of a Jewish girl who dreams of becoming an actress in London a century ago.
Then there's Cecil B. DeMented, the new John Waters comedy starring Melanie Griffith as an Oscar-nominated actress who's kidnapped by guerrilla filmmakers shooting a no-budget epic. It's a wildly uneven picture that spins between inspired satire and sheer silliness, but its heroine is yet another strong-minded woman.
Looking to the future of what has long been the most influential event of its kind, there's growing agreement that Cannes's prestige and effectiveness will weaken if it continues to treat the most imaginative mainstream movies with less respect than they receive from general audiences around the world. Moviegoers everywhere will benefit if next year's program takes a more expansive view of cinema's unbounded possibilities.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society