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Cannes Report

Has U.S. Sent Them Reeling?

Now more than ever, the American movie industry seems to be defining the character of the French Riviera's famed festival.


CANNES, France — This chic beachfront city's Festival International du Film is putting on a brave front for its 52nd edition--and, who knows, it might even pay off.

"Cannes: The Fever Rises on La Croisette" ran the hyperventilating (and a tad premature) banner headline on the front page of Nice-Matin, the local paper, anticipating the 12-day event that begins tonight along the city's celebrated seafront promenade.

Local souvenir shops are selling more and more gimcracks with the festival logo, everything from umbrellas, money clips and cigarette lighters to the more traditional T-shirts and towels. You can even buy an empty film can emblazoned with English letters proclaiming this "The Last Festival of the 20th Century." A sigh of relief is optional.

Major films and film companies still compete to place advertising for their projects in prominent seaside positions. This year the coveted front of the Carlton Hotel was all but converted to a working Egyptian temple--complete with bandage-wrapped figures and life-size statues of gods--to promote the forthcoming European release of "The Mummy."

But despite such business-as-usual situations, it takes just a peek at French film magazines, which traditionally prefer to have a French film or star on the cover of their annual Cannes issues if at all possible, to see that: a) the festival proper is becoming more and more of a specialized event for a core audience of cineastes and b) American cinema, like it or not, continues to be the dominant topic of conversation worldwide.

Though the word "Cannes" can be found on the cover of Premiere, the word "Matrix" is twice as big and a close-up of star Keanu Reeves takes up the whole front. Studio does have a Cannes cover, but its story is the great Palme d'Or winners of the past and its image Anita Ekberg in 1960's "La Dolce Vita."

The names of cult directors with films in this year's festival (Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose out-of-competition English-language costume drama "The Barber of Siberia" opens the event, Spain's Pedro Almodovar, America's David Lynch and France's Leos Carax) were visible but in less obtrusive type near the bottom.

Even more telling, Cine Live featured a cover picture of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor from "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace." In much smaller letters at the top was the line in French that said it all: "Cannes 99: The Other Star Wars." Thus have the mighty fallen.

It's not as though the festival doesn't want to have big, star movies as part of its menu: It is showing the Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta-Jones "Entrapment" (called "Haute Voltage" or "High Voltage" in French) out of competition this year.

It's more that Hollywood studios, with hugely expensive films at stake, don't want to risk their European debuts on notoriously judgmental Cannes audiences. So the festival is often left on the outside looking in, a wistfulness unconsciously reflected in the poster for this year's event, a drawing of a couple trying to catch stars with butterfly nets.

As a result, almost by default, the festival has become less connected to popular filmmaking than it wants to be and more connected to auteur-driven international art cinema, rounding up the familiar usual suspects among well-known directors and providing a showcase for their latest work. Sometimes, as in 1993, when Jane Campion's "The Piano" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell, My Concubine" shared the Palme d'Or, these films break through and sweep the world, but more often ("The Eel," "A Taste of Cherries," "Eternity and a Day") they do not.

Chen is back in competition this year with "The Emperor and the Assassin," a nearly three-hour costume epic starring Gong Li. Definitely not back is fellow Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who press reports suggest withdrew his film from the festival when it became apparent that it was headed for the sidebar Un Certain Regard event and not the main competition.

Four American directors have films in competition. Aside from Lynch's "The Straight Story," these include John Sayles' richly enigmatic "Limbo," Tim Robbins' much-anticipated "The Cradle Will Rock" and Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."

Other English-language films in the main event include Atom Egoyan's "Felicia's Journey," adapted from the William Trevor novel; Peter Greenaway's "8 1/2 Women"; and Michael Winterbottom's "Wonderland." New American films showing out of competition include Kevin Smith's potentially controversial "Dogma," Steven Soderbergh's Terrence Stamp-starring "The Limey" and "An Ideal Husband," taken from the Oscar Wilde play and officially closing the festival.

Despite Problems, This Remains the Place to Be

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