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Can-can at Cannes

By David Sterritt Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2001


The red carpet is rolled out at the Palais des Festivals for a nightly parade of international stars. The palm-tree-lined streets are cluttered with billboards hyping films of every size, shape, and description.

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Spectators are making agonized choices among Hollywood haymakers, European art films, and far-flung exotica. In short, it's another Cannes International Film Festival: uncertain whether it's a cultural event, an entertainment extravaganza, or a marketing convention. Which is exactly what attracts the cineastes who have gathered here for 12 days of viewing, networking, and - if time and fortune allow - a little stargazing on the side.

What is different this year is the cry of "Hooray for Hollywood!" It's not that Cannes programmers have actively

20th Century Fox

dodged Hollywood pictures. They enjoy good movies as much as the rest of us, and they're just as eager to see the latest big attraction a clever studio has cooked up. Remember, Cannes is the place where viewers greeted the 1982 premiere of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" with a standing ovation.

Still, many observers have noticed a shortage of American movies at Cannes for the past several seasons. Responsibility for this rests partly with the festival's organizers, who haven't been as energetic as they might in seeking, soliciting, and selecting the best productions from the United States.

But blame also falls on some segments of the American film industry, which have an odd habit of playing hard to get. Hollywood studios don't always want festival exposure, since this could interfere with their precisely calculated marketing plans. Bad reviews from Cannes could start negative buzz about a picture - every studio's nightmare. And good Cannes reviews might appear too long before the financially crucial opening weekend in America.

Even if producers are willing to accept a Cannes slot, calendar considerations might interfere. When programmers come knocking, the year's most eagerly awaited movies may not be finished yet - since many productions are geared for release in summer or autumn, long after this springtime festival has ended.

All of which has caused grumbling among the critics, reporters, distributors, and industry players who gather here in May to get an advance peek at potentially hot discoveries.

The edgy relationship between Cannes and Hollywood has cast a bright spotlight on this year's shakeup in the festival's top management: Gilles Jacob, the programmer who has (literally) called the shots here for more than 20 years, starts sharing his power with two colleagues in 2001.

When it comes to finding and celebrating American fare, will the festival's new triumvirate be more aggressive than Jacob has been on his own? If so, the ripple effect - as a swelling number of American pictures use Cannes as an international launching pad - could affect everyday American moviegoers, as well as industry insiders.

This year's festival is only three days old, but excitement is already high over the strong presence of US fare. It's not a question of numbers alone. The trade newspaper Variety reports that last year's lineup had almost as many pictures that were either directed by US filmmakers or financed by US companies.

What's cheering audiences in the Palais des Festivals here is the unusually high promise of the 14 entries that have come to the filmfest's main program with American credentials. Some insiders are already predicting that competition for the top Cannes prize - the coveted Palme d'or, or Golden Palm - will have a decidedly American accent when it heats up in about 10 days, with David Lynch's mystery Mulholland Drive going mano a mano against The Son's Room, by Nanni Moretti, a popular Italian filmmaker.

It's too early for such speculations to have much meaning, of course, since "Mulholland Drive" has yet to prove itself in battle. Then again, Lynch appears to have taken over from Jerry Lewis as the American filmmaker most adored by French critics - and Cannes veterans vividly remember when his 1990 psychodrama "Wild at Heart" grabbed the Golden Palm in a victory hardly anyone had foreseen.

Also contending for this year's prize is Moulin Rouge, directed by Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann for Twentieth Century Fox, a leading American studio. Its presence in the prestigious opening-night slot doesn't give it an inside track for awards, and some critics complain that the boldness of its style isn't matched by the warmth of its content. Still, the fact that an American production kicked off this year's program is another sign that Cannes is thinking more seriously about its American outreach.