Can-can at Cannes

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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.

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

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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.

Also chasing the palm is Shrek, a DreamWorks release directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jensen, which opens in US theaters next week. It's one of very few animated films ever to compete here.

Rounding out the slate of US competitors are The Man Who Wasn't There, a black-and-white thriller by Joel and Ethan Coen, whose "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" debuted here last year, and Sean Penn's drama The Pledge, which played in American theaters a few months ago but is still new to Europe.

These pictures add up to heavy American firepower, and there's more when you look past the official competition to the festival's sidebar events. The most imaginative of these secondary programs, called "Un Certain Regard" or "A Certain Look," opened with the oddly titled R-Xmas, by Abel Ferrara, an American maverick who combines adventurous cinematic ideas with a taste for violence.

Other idiosyncratic Americans are also contributing to this slate: Hal Hartley, whose No Such Thing is a fantasy about a monster and a TV news crew; Todd Solondz, whose Storytelling follows up his acerbic "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which were as controversial as any films in recent memory; and The Anniversary Party, shot by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming on digital video.

Elsewhere in the festival are a long documentary on Italian film by Martin Scorsese, the great Italian-American filmmaker; a newly edited and expanded version of Apocalypse Now, the 1979 classic by Francis Ford Coppola; and the new C.Q., by his son Roman Coppola - emulating daughter Sofia Coppola, whose "The Virgin Suicides" started its ride to popularity at Cannes.

All these American productions are of international as well as stateside interest, since they signal a genuine shift in Cannes's attitude toward high-profile US fare. There's plenty of product here from other parts of the world too, though, and the best of it will travel to American cities as rapidly as distributors and exhibitors can snatch it up.

Among the major international entries are the Japanese drama Desert Moon, by Shinji Aoyama, whose "Eureka" is currently in American theaters; Sun Behind the Moon, by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who wrote "The Day I Became a Woman," also on US screens now; the documentary ABC Africa, by Abbas Kiarostami, whose Iranian dramas have a large American following; and new works by two of France's own New Wave giants: Va Savoir, by the uncompromising Jacques Rivette, and Eloge de l'amour, by Jean-Luc Godard, whose genius has changed the course of film history over the past half-century.

Which will hit and which will miss with Cannes audiences, of course, remains to be seen.

'Moulin Rouge' and 'Shrek' have their American premieres May 18, and 'The Anniversary Party' opens June 8. The new version of 'Apocalypse Now' has an Aug. 15 debut, 22 years to the day after the film's original release.

An eclectic Cannes jury

The prizes at Cannes are among the most closely watched awards in the movie world. Sometimes the winners come out of nowhere, as happened last year, when the jury awarded the French drama "L'Humanite" several top honors after it had been hooted by festival spectators.

The 2001 Cannes jury includes the usual eclectic mix of film-world luminaries:

Liv Ullmann, the Norwegian actress who earned fame as the star of Ingmar Bergman classics like "Persona" and "Scenes From a Marriage," and then started directing films herself, including "Faithless," which played in US theaters this year. She is president of the jury.

Terry Gilliam, who shot to TV fame as the animator for "Monty Python's Flying Circus," and then became the imaginative director of big-screen fantasies like "Brazil" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Edward Yang, the ambitious Taiwanese filmmaker whose "Yi Yi (A One and a Two)" traveled from last year's Cannes program to great success on American screens.

Mathieu Kassovitz, a controversial French director whose "Haine" was a Cannes prizewinner but whose "Assassins" was (ironically) one of the most booed competitors in recent Cannes memory.

Julia Ormond, the versatile British actress whose movies range from "Legends of the Fall" to "The Baby of Macon."

Moufida Tlatli, a Tunisian director whose "The Silences of the Palace" was much appreciated by adventurous American viewers last year.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, a French actress.

Sandrine Kiberlain, a French actress.

Philippe Labro, a French writer.

Mimmo Calopresti, an Italian director.

- David Sterritt

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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