Skewed selection

Critics sharpen knives for Jacob's lopsided lineup

LONDON – If a Martian landed on the Croisette this month and took a cursory glance at this year’s Cannes competition lineup, his report back to his mother ship might read as follows: “The planet’s major filmmaking region is Asia; the average running time of a movie is well over two hours.”

As the world’s media descends on the Riviera for the 53rd edition of the Cannes Intl. Film Festival (May 10-21), that’s exactly the perception that Gilles Jacob, in his 23rd and (reportedly) final stint at the programming helm, will need to justify.

In addition to slew of Asian product, this year’s Competition is stuffed with Riviera regulars (Ken Loach, Lars von Trier, Ruy Guerra, Liv Ullmann, James Ivory) that gives the lineup something of a dutiful feel — a cinematic train in which many of the seats are already marked “reserved” in advance.

Of the 681 features auditioned this year, are the 53 in Official Selection really the most exciting and innovative of the bunch? Many observers are starting to ask such questions.

Though every festival is hostage to the titles available, Cannes’ elevated position in the circuit does bring with it certain responsibilities. In some respects — such as modern-day cross-financing — the Competition does mirror current trends in international cinema; but in others, there is a growing feeling that the grand dame of festivals is starting to lose touch with the international pulse and is defending a concept of cinema that is already artificial.

For the second year running, non-U.S. movies bookend the event, though both are English-lingo pics with a sprinkling of Hollywood names. The curtain rings up May 10 with Gaumont’s $30 million costumer “Vatel,” directed by Roland Joffe and co-scripted by Tom Stoppard, with a mixed Anglo-French-American cast including Gerard Depardieu, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Julian Sands and Arielle Dombasle. Closing-night spot is occupied by Canadian helmer Denys Arcand’s “Stardom,” with Dan Aykroyd and Frank Langella.

Jacob attributes the decreasing presence of U.S. studio fare at Cannes not to a declining lack in interest in the increasingly conservative, hidebound nature of major Hollywood films but rather to timing reasons.

“Since 1992-93, there have been less major studio films principally because of our dates and also because of a fear of reviews appearing prior to their June opening in the U.S.,” says Jacob. “The budgets of these summer movies has now become colossal. This year, as well as last year, we have some big studio films, and there’s no reason why that should stop.”

He adds, “Don’t forget that at Cannes we’re looking not just for quality movies but also for ones that are original, intriguing and innovative, rather than films that just repeat a well-established formula. Hollywood also has such filmmakers, Spike Jonze, for example.”

The fact remains, however, that ties between the festival and Hollywood are perceived as weaker than in the past. Though he rarely travels anywhere nowadays, Jacob has not visited Tinseltown for four years, relying on the opinions of scouts or waiting for prints to arrive in Paris.

His erstwhile “artistic adviser” and putative heir to the throne, Olivier Barrot (peremptorily ditched in April), visited L.A. in the spring and viewed a handful of titles, but his one recommendation was turned down by Jacob.

In fact, the only major budget, big-studio picture at Cannes this year is Brian De Palma’s sci-fi epic for Touchstone “Mission to Mars,” which is getting a noncompeting slot.

Mini-major Miramax is repped by James Gray’s drama “The Yards” and, as U.S. distrib, by Merchant Ivory’s Henry James pic “The Golden Bowl.” MGM/UA’s “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her,” which opens Un Certain Regard, is borderline indie in flavor.

Other fare by U.S. filmers is largely indie financed (Artisan’s “Requiem for a Dream,” helmed by Darren Aronofsky) or features Euro coin in the mix: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was produced by Britain’s Working Title, and Neil LaBute’s “Nurse Betty,” starring Renee Zellweger, includes German coin in the budget.

After a growing trend of the past decade, Gallic money is present in a surprising number of Anglophone titles, including John Waters’ “Cecil B. DeMented,” Amos Kollek’s “Fast Food Fast Women,” and Stephen Hopkins’ “Under Suspicion,” with Gene Hackman, a remake of Claude Miller’s 1981 crime classic, “Garde a Vue.”

However, the dominant flavor of Cannes this year is neither American nor European but Asian, with an unprecedented one-third of the titles in Competition hailing from the Far and Middle East. Jacob calls it a “confirmation of the phenomenon that has already been evident at festivals for several years — a perception that this region has industries full of vitality, creative invention and talent. We saw signs of this in past years, but it’s this year that there’s been a real explosion.”

However, he stresses again that timing also plays an important part in Cannes’ annual selection, with “countries that are traditional providers not having films ready at this time of year. And around April, when there’s only three or four slots left in Competition, things can become really contentious.”

“This year Asia is under the spotlight. Tomorrow, I’m sure, it will be Argentina and Latin America,” he says. “In the future, India or Greece. Who knows? It’s our job to remain vigilant, like sentries lying in wait for talent to appear.”

Jacob’s Asian selection groups Croisette favorites (Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, Taiwan’s Edward Yang) with veterans (Japan’s Nagisa Oshima, with his first feature in 14 years, and South Korea’s Im Kwon-taek, debuting at Cannes) and relative newcomers (China’s actor-director Jiang Wen, and Iran’s 20-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf). Surprisingly, in a noncompeting slot is Taiwanese Ang Lee’s long-planned martial arts costumer, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” with Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh.

With one of the most geographically unbalanced Competitions in memory, and a slew of long, potentially difficult pics already making critics nervous, how can Jacob defend his claim that this year’s selection still provides a “value-added” element to his championing of “popular auteurist cinema”?

“The line I’ve always defended is that of ‘auteurist’ cinema for a mass public: the kinds of films that Hitchcock once made or Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood nowadays. The ‘value-added’ element (a joking reference to Europe’s VAT tax on goods) comes from the spectacle, pleasure and emotion.

“In other words, cinema isn’t divided just into heavy-duty intellectual works on the one hand and popcorn movies on the other. One should have the courage to say that there are plenty of intelligent crowd-pleasers as well as a lot of boring auteur films.”

The reaction to this year’s festival could well play a part in Cannes’ evolution over the coming decade, with the 69-year-old Jacob already under fire for his perceived mishandling of the Barrot affair. Cannes’ other two sections, the Directors Fortnight and Critics Week, already have new, younger heads: Marie-Pierre Macia, in her sophomore spell at Fortnight, and Paris-based Spanish critic Jose Maria Riba at Critics. Macia, especially, travels widely in her search for movies.

Both are clearly trying to bring “added value” to their events as well. Macia has innovated a program of avant garde shorts, dubbed “En Avant!”, as well as a special screening of a TV interview with Ingmar Bergman, and last year even included “The War Zone” (earlier shown at the Berlin Intl. Film Festival) simply because she liked it so much.

Riba has added a world premiere screening of Melvin Van Peebles’ digitally shot “Bellyful” to the traditional lineup of seven pics by first- and/or second-time helmers, as well as inviting Bernardo Bertolucci to “godfather” this year’s Critics Week with a personal appearance.

Though lacking a work by a big-name filmmaker to headline the event (like Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam” in 1999), the Fortnight is again geographically and stylistically well balanced. The U.K. renaissance — with which Jacob has never really come to grips — is well repped by three movies with regional, working-class backgrounds (“Purely Belter,” “Dancer,” “Some Voices”) and Macia certainly hasn’t overdosed on Asia.

“We screened about 1,000 titles and the average quality was as good as last year, though in some areas we didn’t find strong enough films. We would actually have liked to have more Asian movies, but they were already taken,” Macia admits, perhaps referring to the fact that after a cordial first year in her relations with Jacob, the gloves are now off when it comes to fighting for titles.

After last year’s popular hit “East Is East,” Macia is touting Sundance Film Festival prizewinner “Girlfight,” about a wannabe femme boxer, as this year’s potential crowd-pleaser.

Over in Critics Week, Riba has more difficulty choosing a potential hit, though he says that one aim of the seven-member committee was to break the image of the section as a collection of niche art movies. This year’s septet, which includes two Gallic titles as well as a U.S. indie, reps a 180-degree turnabout to last year’s, which completely excluded the two countries.

“There’s been a very good level of young French cinema this year,” opines Riba, adding that the Yank entry, Frank Novak’s “Housekeeping,” which already has good word of mouth, will surprise people with its “different vision of the U.S. middle-class family, compared with, say, ‘American Beauty.'”

Riba is cautious about predicting in what other ways Critics Week could enhance its format. “We’ll see from the experience this year,” he says. “It’s still important that we stay quite small, quite serious, and at the service of directors, press and industry.

“After all,” he jokes, “we’re all full-time critics. We’re not paid to do this job.”

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