IN springtime, all eyes turn to the Cannes International Film Festival for signs of what's ahead in the movie world. That's largely because of the festival's tremendous size, which enables it to unveil a large number of films every year - some in competition for prestigious prizes, others in various sidebar events.
Many will be instantly forgotten, but the better contenders will go on to international fame in weeks and months ahead. This is why critics, reporters, programmers, exhibitors, and others with a stake in the cinematic future will be flocking from all over the world to the latest Cannes extravaganza, slated for May 13-24 at the sprawling Palais du Festival overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean sea.
Not that the Cannes filmfest is basking in unqualified success. Top brass have sent up surprising trial balloons in recent years, suggesting that the festival might change its time of year from spring to some other season. This has caused consternation among film festivals in different parts of the world, which have already laid claim to a particular time on the calendar and dread the thought of competition with Cannes.
This year's Cannes lineup does suggest, though, that spring is no longer the best possible time for assembling an exciting slate of movies. Most glaringly, Hollywood films will be in short supply at the festival.
In some cases, this is because of studio reluctance to premiere hot summer attractions before their massive publicity blitzes are ready to roll. In other cases, it's because major American films simply aren't finished yet.
Variety, the show-business newspaper, reports that Steven Spielberg's fantasy "Jurassic Park" was slated to close this year's program but won't be ready since Mr. Spielberg has precipitously leapt ahead to his next project, leaving his almost-completed dinosaur epic for George Lucas to wrap-up.
Other hoped for movies that won't debut at Cannes include "The Age of Innocence" by Martin Scorsese, "The Remains of the Day" by James Ivory, "Rising Sun" by Philip Kaufman, and "Short Cuts" by Robert Altman.
So what will be screened at Cannes this month? The competition contains enough movies by renowned non-American auteurs to tantalize anyone who enjoys the diversity and unpredictability of international film.
A hopeful sign is the large number of pictures by women, from Elaine Proctor of South Africa to Pilar Miro of Spain, Tracey Moffatt of Australia, and veteran director Agnes Varda of France, to name only a few. Gender aside, the most promising entries are:
* "The Piano," by Jane Campion of Australia. One of the most inventive young filmmakers in the world, Ms. Campion hasn't been represented on-screen since "An Angel at My Table" became an international success after starting its life as a New Zealand television series. Expectations are high for her latest drama, a tale of romance and jealousy set in the 19th century.
* "Farewell to My Concubine," by Chen Kaige of China. This ambitious filmmaker's most recent films ("Life on a String" and "The King of Children") have received only limited exposure, despite the widespread respect earned by his earlier works. The time is ripe for a breakthrough by Mr. Chen, and a major American distributor - Miramax Films - has already bought the rights to his new picture for United States release.
* "Body Snatchers," by Abel Ferrara of the US. This remake of the classic 1950s science-fiction yarn, about aliens who appear exactly like their human victims, is a perfect project for Mr. Ferrara, who uses action-movie plots to explore social and psychological disarray. Stars include Meg Tilly and Lee Ermey.
* "The Puppet Master," by Hou Hsaio-Hsien of Taiwan. Considered by some to stand with the world's greatest directors, Mr. Hou spins out finely detailed stories through images of amazing delicacy and restraint. Several of his films, such as "Daughter of the Nile" and "A Time To Live and a Time To Die," have found international audiences despite their often rigorous and challenging style.
* "Fiorile," by the Taviani Brothers of Italy. The popular makers of "Padre Padrone" and "Night of the Shooting Stars" have failed to click with their recent efforts, including the exquisite "Night Sun," but hopes remain high for their latest picture.
* "Faraway, So Close!" by Wim Wenders of Germany. Will the popular director have another smash hit like "Wings of Desire," or another resounding flop like "Until the End of the World," which remains all too fresh in memory? Cannes will provide the answer.
Other attractions of special interest include high-profile movies shown out of competition. Among them are "Baby of Macon" by England's controversial Peter Greenaway, and "Madadayo" by Japan's revered Akira Kurosawa, now in his 80s and still producing world-class cinema.
And yes, some American pictures will be on hand, apart from "Body Snatchers" and the repellent "Falling Down," which will have its European premiere at the film festival. Steven Soderbergh - whose "sex, lies, and videotape" was a Cannes sensation a few years ago - will unveil his new "King of the Hill," and John McNaughton will show his offbeat "Mad Dog and Glory," already released in the US.
How many of these movies - and others from countries as diverse as Haiti, Iceland, Norway, Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Romania, and Russia - will make their way to screens in the US and elsewhere? That will depend on reactions from the thousands of film professionals who throng the Palais for a cascade of morning, afternoon, evening, and late-night showings.
I'll be there for as many as possible, and between screenings I'll be tracking down the savviest film folks I can find for news and interviews. Stay tuned.