Cannes Caters to More Than Offbeat Art Films

The festival opened its 50th year with Bruce Willis's 'Fifth Element' and will close with Clint Eastwood's 'Absolute Power'

No question about it, this year's edition of the Cannes International Film Festival has a distinctly special flavor.

The most obvious reason is that 1997 marks the 50th anniversary of this highly visible, hugely popular event.

True, the birthday's timing is a bit arbitrary, since Cannes first raised its cinematic curtain back in 1939. But the first year's activities ended on their first evening, when Hitler's invasion of Poland turned Europe's priorities elsewhere. Some later editions were also canceled or truncated, as in 1968, when French filmmakers made their industry a target of political protest.

Add up these glitches and you find that several different years could legitimately host the half-century honors. But the Cannes authorities have decided that this is the appropriate year. They're backing up their decision with many special celebrations, climaxed by the awarding of a special Golden Palm - the festival's highest award ever - to Ingmar Bergman, the legendary Swedish director.

A subtler but equally important reason for this year's special excitement stems from the recent Academy Awards race, which was marked by renewed enthusiasm for exactly the sort of movies Cannes has championed for decades: the independent, the adventurous, the unexpected.

"Secrets & Lies," "Fargo," and "Breaking the Waves," for example, earned top marks at Cannes in 1996 and fared well - some better than others - in this year's Oscar race.

Cannes has always been a key source of movies for the enormous American market. But the sharp-eyed studio or distribution company that ferrets out this year's equivalent of "Sling Blade" or "The English Patient" will be scoring a financial as well as artistic triumph.

Entrepreneurs are thrilled about this because it means more money in their pockets. Critics are thrilled because it means more substantial fare to think and write about. And audiences will be thrilled if this results in the richer, more diversified movie scene that a strong Cannes lineup could augur.

Not that fine-art filmmaking is the only kind Cannes cares about. This year's opening-night (May 7) attraction was "The Fifth Element," which premired in the United States just two days later.

Nominally a French production, since it was made by Luc Besson with mostly French financing, it's the sort of picture Hollywood fans take instantly to their fun-loving hearts - fast, furious, and as mindlessly amusing as the campy performances and cartoonish violence that punctuate its goofy story, centering on Bruce Willis as a futuristic cabdriver helping a mysterious woman save Earth from extraterrestrial doom.

The festival will close May 18 with a similarly commercial movie that's already come and gone on American screens: "Absolute Power," the Clint Eastwood thriller about a jewel thief who uncovers a White House scandal.

If it seems odd that box-office champions like Willis and Eastwood snag the most prestigious time slots at this culturally high-toned festival, remember that notions of culture have an eclectic ring in a nation that has long regarded Jerry Lewis as more an inventive artiste than a silly clown.

Scan the list of Golden Palm winners invited to the Bergman ceremony, and you'll find hitmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, of "Godfather" fame, and Steven Soderbergh, of "sex, lies and videotape" notoriety, along with certified artistic giants like Michelangelo Antonioni and Shohei Imamura, among many others. One of Cannes's most appealing attributes is its ability to blend aesthetics, economics, and sheer entertainment into a seamless cinematic flow.

As the festival heads toward its halfway point, memories of both "The Fifth Element" and the elaborate 50th-anniversary soiree are giving way to anticipation of movies occupying all points along the art-entertainment spectrum.

Ang Lee, whose "Sense and Sensibility" helped energize the recent Jane Austen revival, will unveil "The Ice Storm," about emotional turbulence in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. Thriller specialist Curtis Hanson will present "L.A. Confidential," probing interplays between progress and corruption on the West Coast in the '50s.

Nick Cassavetes will offer "She's So Lovely," a study of love and madness based on a screenplay by the late John Cassavetes, his greatly respected father.

Making as much news as these attractions is another movie that's conspicuous by its absence here. "Keep Cool," a new comedy by Chinese master Zhang Yimou, is included in the festival's official program but won't be screened because China's government has withheld permission for apparently political reasons. These remain somewhat misty, although China is said to be squelching Zhang's movie - about a liberated woman and an amorous bookseller - to punish the festival for including "East Palace West Palace," another Chinese production focused on homosexuality.

Chinese authorities do this sort of thing periodically; they refused clearance for Zhang to attend the New York Film Festival two years ago, for instance, because of their displeasure with an unrelated documentary on China's democracy movement. They evidently consider such actions necessary to protect their image on the world entertainment scene, but predictably, their censorship has exactly the opposite effect.

Fortunately, another political peccadillo was narrowly avoided when Iran withdrew a ban it had placed on Abbas Kiarostami's new movie, "The Taste of Cherry" - dealing with suicide, a taboo topic under Iran's Islamic regime - after the official program had been printed without including it.

Cannes was born amid political upheaval, and conflicts still rear their heads here - although in considerably milder forms, suggesting that today's off-screen world is at least marginally more peaceful than when the first festival was called off on account of World War II.

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