CANNES, FRANCE — In case you had any doubts -- and maybe you didn't -- it's now official: The Festival de Cannes is a very big event.
According to a story in Nice-Matin, the paper of record in the South of France, the festival close to triples the population of this wealthy seaside town, taking it from 70,000 to 200,000 for the 12 days it takes place. And all these people spend an awful lot of money: The festival estimates that 170 million Euros -- that works out to about a quarter of a billion dollars -- was spent here last year.
So maybe it's to be expected that the major presence in this big, expensive festival, set to open tonight with Fernando Meirelles' highly anticipated "Blindness," is a big, expensive movie: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Does that title ring a bell? It certainly does over here.
It's not only that a replica of a South American temple has all but obliterated the entrance of the celebrated Carlton Hotel, but also an unofficial survey of French film magazines devoted to the festival shows that director Steven Spielberg and/or star Harrison Ford are the cover people of choice in anticipation of the film's Sunday world premiere. Studio magazine offers "100 Secrets" about the film, while Cine Live insists it has "the whole story."
Dr. Jones, it turns out, is only the tip of the iceberg where this year's considerable American presence at Cannes is concerned. So even though the popular culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles broke the Indy trend by putting Penelope Cruz on its cover, she turns out to be the star of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," the new film by Woody Allen set to premiere here.
Also on the Cannes horizon from American directors are Steven Soderbergh's 4-hour-and-28-minute, two-part biography of "Che"; screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York"; and James Gray's drama "Two Lovers." There's also Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?," shortened from its Sundance premiere; "Kung Fu Panda," the latest from DreamWorks Animation; and a rare multiple appearance by Clint Eastwood.
"Changeling," Eastwood's latest film as a director and his fifth in competition here, stars Angelina Jolie as a woman in 1928 Los Angeles who's convinced that the lost son the Los Angeles Police Department returns to her is not her child.
Eastwood also narrates Richard Schickel's documentary on the 85th anniversary of Warner Bros., "You Must Remember This," and appears in the venerable "Dirty Harry," one of 10 Warners films to be shown evenings at a Cannes public beach.
American presence is felt in subtler ways here as well. The festival's official poster is based on a photograph by David Lynch (whose daughter Jennifer has a film here called "Surveillance"), and this year's Cinema Master Class lecture is by Quentin Tarantino. Even the opening-night film, "Blindness," directed by Brazil's Meirelles, stars American actors Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Danny Glover.
Cannes has increasingly embraced documentaries in recent years, and two of the most interesting are by American directors. Marina Zenovich's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" is here following its triumphant Sundance premiere. Equally vivid is James Toback's "Tyson," a completely mesmerizing and surprisingly candid portrait of the former heavyweight champion that is likely more intimate than even Tyson thought it would be.
Another potentially potent documentary combination is "Maradona by Kusturica," a look at the controversial Argentine soccer player by the controversial Serbian director.
As Kusturica's presence indicates, Cannes is never so crowded with Americans that there isn't room for new work by the world's most respected directors. Looking especially enticing this year are "Lorna's Silence" from Belgium's two-time Palme D'or winners the Dardenne brothers; "O' Horton" from "Kitchen Stories' " Norwegian master Bent Hamer; and new films from Argentina's Lucretia Martel ("The Headless Woman"), Canada's Atom Egoyan ("Adoration"), Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan ("Three Monkeys") and even American indie stalwart Kelly Reichardt ("Wendy and Lucy").
Also being talked about are "Anna," the first film by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski in more than 15 years, and "Waltz With Bashir," Israeli director Ari Folman's animated documentary about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
One focus of Cannes this year that would surprise American audiences is a look back 40 years, to the summer of 1968, a time of such great social upheaval in France that local bookstores have entire tables groaning under new books on the subject. The unrest was so pervasive that the Cannes fest closed shop halfway through its run and now, to make amends, five films that never got shown are going to get their belated time in the sun.
Lest anyone think that Cannes is only about art, the presence of a thriving market, the Marche du Film, puts that notion away. This year, more than 8,000 buyers and sellers from 93 countries show up with so many films with so many strange titles that it's hard to resist putting them into imaginary double bills.
"Tarantino Is My Uncle" and "My Marlon and Brando";
"Bollywood Zombie" and "Zombies Anonymous";
"Dying or Feeling Better" and "Kiss Me Kill Me";
"Kung Fu Drunk" and "Rock 'n' Roll Nanny."
These names have not been changed. In Cannes, there are no innocents to protect.