The Spectacle Of Cannes

The dark clouds, the heavy rain, the soggy stars--not the brightest beginning for the 53d Cannes Film Festival last week. And behind the scenes: another tempest. Gilles Jacob, the man who's picked the movies for the competition since 1978, reneged on his decision to resign the programming post this year, and fired Olivier Barrot, a French-television cultural correspondent he'd named to replace him.

Messy stuff, even by Cannes standards. But with a record 23 films in competition, 30,000 accredited attendees and a new Riviera complex for the ever-expanding film market (the world's largest), this is the biggest, richest and most varied festival ever to grace the Croisette, as the beachside boulevard is called. Of course, Cannes is still the festival everyone loves to loathe. Listen to all the griping on the terrace of the Hotel Majestic and you'd think the hangovers had begun before the parties. The egos are too big, the critics say, and the films are too little. Blockbusters needn't apply--and don't. Too much risk of bad press, say the studio execs, and too little return. The whole thing is too hectic, too crowded, too arty, too--well--French.

But for outsiders Cannes is an irresistible spectacle, whether you're watching from under the umbrellas, on TV, or over a Webcam. Where else would Uma Thurman wear a dress like that? And for insiders, especially independent filmmakers, it's still a refuge on the Riviera where relatively low budgets can make big-money reputations. Americans Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies, and videotape"), Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction") and the Coen brothers ("Barton Fink") all got their kick-starts at Cannes.

The glitz is gloriously international. (We're not just looking for an excuse to run that picture of Claudia Schiffer, Andie MacDowell and Gong Li.) For years it's been a bit beside the point to identify films with countries: the money for major productions comes from all over, so does the talent, and they're marketed everywhere. Those kinds of global connections always seemed to come together naturally over a martini at the Martinez. The cacophony of accents slurs together rather naturally sometime between midnight and dawn.

But the directors--the auteurs, as Gilles Jacob would call them--do have distinctive visions rooted in cultures as different as those of China and Denmark, Iran and England. And Hollywood. In the first week of competition there was room for Chinese director Jiang Wen's complex morality tale about Chinese peasants and Japanese soldiers at the end of World War II, "Devils at the Doorstep," and French director Dominik Moll's sexy, sinister "Harry, a Friend Who Wants the Best for You." The Coen brothers will be weighing in with "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and there's James Ivory's "The Golden Bowl." More or less for fun, outside of competition, there's also Brian De Palma's grand if risible "Mission to Mars" and John Waters's "Cecil B. Demented." There's no point trying to pick the popular favorite of the festival in advance. It's usually different from the one the jury picks for the grand prize, the Palme d'Or.

Cannes, as ever, is grand and tawdry, fresh and decadent, mildly infuriating and seductively inevitable. At its worst, it feels like the last picture show; at its best, it's cinema paradiso.