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50 YEARS OF CANNES

Reeling in the Years

Insanity? Sure. Glitz? Galore. Marketeers? Mondo. Did we mention art too?

May 04, 1997|John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg is The Times' Paris bureau chief

CANNES, France — For the 50th time, the lights will go out in Cannes this week and out of the darkness will come surprise, delight, joy and sorrow. And perhaps a hit or two.

Cannes calls itself an "international film festival," but "film frenzy" would now seem closer to the mark. For a dozen days, a strip of Mediterranean beachfront property 300 yards wide and a mile long will become the most photographed, most videotaped, most recorded patch of real estate in the world.

Four thousand photographers, TV crew members and journalists are expected this year--more, local tourism officials predict, than for any other event in history, including the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

"It's going to be two weeks of insanity," grimaces photographer Gilles Traverso, 38, a fourth-generation member of a local family renowned for its pictures of the festival.

By yacht, jet, train and automobile, another 4,000 producers, agents and wheeler-dealers--double the figure only two years ago--will be arriving to set up shop in palatial, wedding-cake hotels along the shorefront boulevard called La Croisette. In their luggage will be more than 1,000 new movies for sale.

The population of this quiet French Riviera town, now 70,000, should almost triple, and its narrow, sun-washed streets will be clogged with Ferraris and Rolls-Royces, rubber-neckers and would-be starlets hoping against hope to catch somebody's eye.

For the 114 hotels, 800 restaurants and 3,500 shops and boutiques, it will once again be Christmas in May.

"Cannes is the place where you meet absolutely everybody from world cinema, whether it's business people, on-screen talent, technicians," festival organizer Gilles Jacob said in an interview. "For two weeks, they talk nothing but movies. There can be a war or anything else. But people at Cannes will remain totally obsessed with the movies."

In the seaside Palace of Festivals, projectionists will be busy from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. Last year, at the festival and concurrent International Film Market, more than 2,000 miles of celluloid were screened.

The impact of all this frenzied activity on the world's fantasy life finds its quintessential expression at a dingy set of concrete steps, flanked by metal banisters, leading from La Croisette into the Palace, an edifice with no more beauty than many university libraries in America.

By the festival's opening night, these otherwise unremarkable stairs will be swathed in red carpeting and flanked by two 80-foot-high glittering palm fronds, symbols and namesakes of Cannes' highest honor, the Palme d'Or, or Golden Palm.

To ascend these steps in black tie or evening gown, under the artificial lightning of photographers' strobes, has become the rite of passage for the international movie star. Sophia Loren, perhaps the most popular actress ever at Cannes, once recalled with emotion what it was like to climb the stairs for the first time. That magic moment for her came in 1954, when she was a little-known 20-year-old starlet clad in a white lace robe with a plunging neckline.

"When I saw those stairs loaded with photographers, all pointing their flashes at me, a poor little girl, down there at the bottom, seized with fear, I thought, 'My God! My dress! My decollete! Just let it not be too deep!' " Sophia Loren said. Somehow, she made it to the top--"and suddenly I found myself in the firmament of stars."

Art and mart, film showcase and never-ending photo op, Cannes as it hits 50 has become all of these. This is a singular destiny for an event first held in 1946, in a France exhausted and devastated by war, for an audience of around 700 spectators gathered in the resort's casino.

"Cannes? A star and a whore," Isabelle Giordano, one of France's most celebrated film critics, has summarized.

Francois Russo, Cannes bureau chief for the largest local newspaper, Nice Matin, observes of this event: "People come here now not to have fun, but to work. It's a market--a market of films, of producers, of people and of countries. It's become an exchange for people with something to buy or sell."

In its tastes, the critical side of Cannes has been nothing if not all-embracing. Over the decades, "Dumbo" and the Coen brothers, "E.T." and Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Sharon Stone and Sally Field, the French "Nouvelle Vague" and Elizabeth Taylor, the epics of Japan's Akira Kurosawa and the pounding disco music from "Car Wash" have all found favor with jurors, audiences and the throngs of ordinary folk who show up yearning for a glimpse of their screen idols.

For struggling or little-known cinemas in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, to be included in the festival selection--a total of 28 films have been so honored this year, along with other movies to be viewed in separate short-subject and noncompetitive "Un Certain Regard" categories--is to make filmdom's major leagues.

As for a prize from the Cannes jury, it is dreamed-of recognition from one's peers that can also become the ticket to a global box office.

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