Cannes: French bread served with H’w’d whine

CANNES — Even among battle-hardened festgoers, an aura of incredulity permeates this always-frantic town.

Americans are incredulous over the degree to which festival director Gilles Jacob alienated Hollywood’s power players.

The Italians, Spaniards and Germans are incredulous that their films were not judged by French programmers to merit inclusion among contenders.

Hotel guests are incredulous that the town’s concierges — an upwardly mobile lot — have further heightened their under-the-table demands required to assure desirable accommodations.

Cash-rich European distributors are incredulous that the ever-strengthening dollar combined with soaring marketing costs are making it semi-prohibitive to bid up rights to Hollywood blockbusters.

Lastly, Cannes’ “c’est la vie” residents are incredulous that their local bureaucrats are demanding that parties end at 12:30 a.m., which is midday by local standards, and that lingerie fashion shows suddenly are off-limits. The town that invented the bikini has thus come out against underwear.

No film festival is complete without bruised egos and battered sensibilities, but along with these must come some pleasant surprises. The only surprise thus far has been the sheer lethargy radiating from the opening night selection, a period romance called “Vatel,” directed by Roland Joffe.

Cannes programmers were clearly hoping for a French-made sleeper, but all they came up with was a dozer. “Wit, style and emotional involvement are notable by their absence,” huffed Variety’s reviewer David Stratton.

THE CHOICE OF “VATEL” underscores anew the peculiar indifference that Gilles Jacob and his associates display toward the world at large. At his jammed opening press conference, Luc Besson, chairman of the jury, made no effort to conceal his abject boredom as questions were hurled his way. The conference opened with a warning that if any journalist’s cell phone sounded during the proceedings, it would be “smashed.”

“I’m used to being criticized,” Besson replied when asked what would happen if yet another obscure, audience-unfriendly film won the top award. Besson recently took a pummeling, of course, for his latest effort, “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.”

Some here argue that, in the best of all worlds, a more accessible film like “Gladiator” should have opened Cannes. Here was a truly international movie in the best sense —British director, Australian star, Italian setting, American financing, etc.

But pop movies like “Gladiator” aren’t particularly welcome here. Besides, its distributors, DreamWorks and Universal (for Europe), concluded that its lavish premiere in Rome was vastly less expensive than a Cannes event, especially when the mandatory local “favors” were thrown in.

To be sure, Gilles Jacob, once a frequent visitor to Hollywood, has not been there for several years, thus reinforcing the deep-seated mutual suspicion. Jacob hungers for Hollywood stars, but not for its pictures. The studios, meanwhile, covet a glitzy European launch for their films, but fret both about Cannes’ costs and its critics.

HENCE THE FESTIVAL that once gave a standing ovation to “ET” now turns a cold shoulder to the studios, which is a shame. Clearly the festival has several constituencies to serve, representing both the art of the cinema and the commerce.

This is not just a festival, but also a major market — one that is now fortified by the myriad dot-coms that claim to accelerate the dealmaking process.

In what may be the final year of Gilles Jacob’s reign, however, some constituencies are being served more successfully than others. And if Hollywood temporarily finds itself sitting on the sidelines, at least it can take comfort in the fact that it’s in good company: Witness those bikini-clad models that the town has so cavalierly spurned.

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