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Cannes Wrap-Up

Where Art, Sideshow Peacefully Coexist

More high-profile films are needed, but the promotional antics are highly entertaining.

May 24, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

CANNES, France — Even with the perspective more than a decade of attendance provides, it's hard to know where to begin in getting a grip on the recently concluded 53rd International Festival du Film at Cannes, hard to convey what the experience is like and just how this 12-day annual event both fascinates and frustrates its tens of thousands of attendees. This year, however, Luis Bun~uel is probably a good place to start.

To celebrate the centenary of the birth of the great Spanish director, who won the Palme d'Or with "Viridiana" in 1961, the festival not only named a new screening room after him but mounted a major exhibition of blown-up stills from his films titled "The Secret World of Luis Bun~uel."

But while the walls were filled with the kinds of images that defined surrealism, from severed hands and razored eyebrows to insects exiting from a hand, few people paid much attention. Because it often seemed that not even these celebrated images were as surreal as the scene visible both within the Festival du Palais and on the streets and beaches outside. Cannes is a circus with an infinite number of rings, where anywhere you turn reveals something you can't quite believe you're seeing.

On a day chosen at random, several large TVs in the Palais were broadcasting Brian De Palma's press conference, where the "Mission to Mars" director was seen lashing out at a questioner who had the temerity to ask about aspects of "hommage" in his work. "It's that word," De Palma raged, pointing an accusatory finger at the unsuspecting miscreant. "It's been attached to me for 40 years, and no one's been able to define it. What does it mean?"

Escaping De Palma and the Palais, it's hard to avoid being run over by a roller-skating young woman simultaneously turning in circles and selling newspapers: "Nice-Matin, Nice-Matin," she screams as the wheels grind. Turning away, your hand is taken by a person in a giant Mickey Mouse costume who then pulls you within camera range of a man with a Polaroid who wants payment for the compromising photo of you and the Mouse he's about to take. Out of the corner of your eye a black-robed character, his face masked and hooded, nonchalantly walks by wearing a sandwich board advertising "Demonium," a film few people have heard of and less care about.

You try to move away, but two women from something called Pop.com, a Web site whose ultimate purpose is as darkly mysterious as "Demonium," hand you a red balloon and a lollipop. On the beach, a crowd is forming, silently watching as a kneeling young woman gets a tattoo etched onto her shoulder. Pause for a moment and two people brush past, both loaded down like Sherpas with dozens of heavy plastic sacks on their shoulders. Each sack turns out to be a press kit for a film called "Dead Babies," including, for those who have always wanted one, a "Dead Babies" travel toothbrush.

With scenes like this all around, is it any wonder that the appearance of "bad boy Dennis Rodman" to promote a film called "Cutaway" at a party featuring "a laser show, go-go cages, ribaldry, revelry and European and U.S. DJs" causes hardly a ripple?

Getting a Chance at the Spotlight

Though the focus of the films in competition is always art, with directors whose works are often all but unknown even in their home countries getting a shot at the world stage, on the ground the focus is always commerce. Everything you can imagine, and some you can't, turn out to have a tie-in to some aspect of something. Mouton Cadet may be the official wine of the festival, but Sol and Dos Equis are the official beers of the American Pavilion. While Grey Goose Vodka is a sponsor of the pavilion, that didn't stop Skyy Vodka from creating the signature drink Skyy Blue Splash (blue curacao adds the color) for eager imbibers at what Skyy tells us are "several high-profile parties." One product without a visible rival was the Eurocopter 120B Colibri ("available for press flights, on request"), apparently the only helicopter partner the festival has.

This uneasy but vibrant coexistence between the commercial and the artistic is the hallmark of Cannes, and sometimes the two come together in a way that no screenwriter could have concocted. One particular evening, the opening night of the festival in fact, started with an ultra-casual screening of Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses," an earnest and passionate film dealing with the hardscrabble problems of labor organizers attempting to unionize impoverished, often illegal workers who make marginal livings cleaning the office towers of Los Angeles.

When that socially conscious film was over, all that was necessary was a quick change from T-shirt to tuxedo to attend the official party for "Vatel," a film set amid the sumptuous "it's good to be the king" splendor and never-ending pageantry of the profligate 17th century court of the Roi du Soleil himself, France's Louis XIV.

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