On the Croisette this year: A festival of hype

WHILE IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of good cinema to illuminate societys woes, this years Cannes Film Festival most of all illuminated the woes of being French. In a fervent effort to celebrate its 50th birthday, Cannes all but suffocated itself in self-congratulation. In so doing, its impresarios signaled loud and clear the fests ominous propensity for self-destruction.

The French have always enjoyed being enigmatic, but these days theyre especially hard to figure. While the Brits have just held a decisive election, the French cant even agree on what their upcoming election will decide. Unemployment is high, economic growth is low and a distinct surliness characterizes private manners and public life.

Even more upsetting, as far as Cannes is concerned, is the fact that all this angst is not resulting in good movies. Critics by and large were slamming fest entries, and many agreed that even the opening gala selection, The Fifth Element , illustrated some distinctly unattractive traits of French cinema. In creating a cheesy ripoff of Hollywoods soulless special-effects vehicles, director Luc Bessons comic-book style reminded us that the French, despite their cultural snobbery, really prefer to take a comic book to bed rather than something more demanding.

The absence of at least one or two hot pictures — the sort of discoveries that have mesmerized critics in times past —underscored the perilous position in which the fest finds itself. With 4,000 or so journalists, TV crews and paparazzi running rampant, Cannes has become maxed out on hype. Where once critics and auteurs chatted amicably, the fest today is a maze of armed camps, each fortified to ward off the other. Between burly security guards and inept fest bureaucrats, journalists find Cannes about as friendly as Bosnia.

THE BUSINESS OF CANNES, circa 1997, consists of selling off territories and ancillary rights, hustling new projects, and, most of all, self-promotion. Its almost embarrassing to be caught talking about the art of filmmaking.

Hence the peril: Having allowed itself to become a carnival, the Cannes Fest runs the risk of obliterating its original raison detre. Without a strong lineup of movies, without the sense of discovery, Cannes may simply melt into a hype factory.

These portents were readily apparent at the fests gala events when officials tried to immerse their guests in nostalgia. The original notion was to invite former Palme DOr winners plus Ingmar Bergman to receive a sort of super Palme DOr. While Bergman opted not to show, many others did — everyone from an aged Michelangelo Antonioni to such semi-forgotten winners as Jerry Schatzberg and Alan Bridges.

The nostalgia soon bogged down in the sort of anarchic confusion in which the French excel: chaotic crowd control, inordinate delays and recurrent hints of cultural protectionism. Every utterance at every event was in French with the exception, to be sure, of the two featured movies, which were in English, despite being directed by Europeans (The Fifth Element and Wim WendersThe End of Violence).

NO ONE IN OFFICIALDOM could effectively explain the Felliniesque artistic effusions that were interspersed amid the long speeches and languid celebrity processions — the ferocious Senegalese drum corps or the modern dance numbers that seemed like outtakes from underwear commercials. It was, as they say, all very French.

In the end, fest organizers got what they wanted. They turned out the stars, even Stallone, De Niro and Lollobrigida. They got a cameo from Michael Jackson and impromptu concerts from the Spice Girls. By selecting star-laden vehicles, they were rewarded with celebrity press conferences.

The result was a mind-boggling fusillade of press coverage, but also a pervasive impression among visitors that the fest was as exploitative as it was nostalgic. Clearly Cannes knows how to respond to the demands of a celeb-obsessed society. But does it still understand and venerate the art and commerce of film?

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