LONDON – In the most open field for some years, the 51st Cannes Film Festival (May 13-24) rolls into town bookended by two headline-generating Yank pix — starring a President and a giant lizard — and with veterans and youngsters going mano a mano over this year’s Palmes. It looks like this year’s jury, led by Martin Scorsese, will have a tough task in the Riviera sun, with no clear front-runners for the top awards and an unusually rich selection of actor-driven pix from which to prize thesps.
Though opener “Primary Colors” has generated more in change than dollars domestically, the pic is a typical example of what Eurofests like best — Hollywood glitz (John Travolta among the attendees) seasoned with the underbelly of American politics. In an equally canny choice, Official Selection topper Gilles Jacob has ensured that this year’s event will go out with a roar rather than a whimper, when “Godzilla” rings down the curtain May 24, four days after its U.S. preem.
With its roll-call of favorites and veterans — spiced with some hot product from relative newcomers — Cannes’ 51st lineup looks more like what Jacob would have wished for last year’s 50th. (He has already admitted that 1997 was not a good vintage.)
Frontloading the Official Selection are a large number of Croisette regulars, including Theo Angelopoulos (“An Eternity and a Day”), Ken Loach (Glasgow-set “My Name Is Joe”), nonagenar-ian Manoel de Oliveira (“Anxiety,” lensed in Spain), John Boorman (B&W Irish biopic “The General”), Roland Joffe (“Good-bye, Lover,” a comic thriller), Carlos Saura (dance-drama “Tango”), Hector Babenco (autobiographical “Foolish Heart”), 1997 Palme d’Or co-winner Shohei Imamura (“Kanzo sensei”), Hou Hsiao-hsien (period drama “The Flowers of Shanghai”), Nanni Moretti (political reverie “Aprile”), Lars Von Trier (black comedy “Idiots”) and Patrice Chereau (ensembler “Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train”).
Representing a generation of Official Selection newcomers is a sprinkling of names whose pix are already generating good word-of-mouth, for example, U.S. indie filmers Todd Haynes (British-shot glam-rock saga, “Velvet Goldmine,” with Ewan McGregor) and Lodge Kerrigan (French-financed “Claire Dolan,” with Katrin Cartlidge and Vincent D’Onofrio).
Making the traditional stepup from Berlin to Cannes are Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang with his two-hander, semi-musical “The Hole,” and (in Un Certain Regard sidebar) U.K. experimental filmer John Maybury with “Love Is the Devil,” about late painter Francis Bacon and his favorite male model, and Indonesia’s Garin Nugroho with “Leaf on a Pillow.”
“For several years, I’ve strived to provide a mix of big names, Cannes first-timers and brand new talents,” avers Jacob. “The same with the Competition jury (which this year includes French rapper MC Solaar), which is equally balanced between men and women.”
Jacob claims that, as he couldn’t squeeze everything into the Competition, there’s little difference this year between it and Certain Regard. Though that’s a moot point, the spillover to the Official Selection sidebar is certainly notable. Vets like Mexico’s Arturo Ripstein (“Divine”) and Ingmar Bergman (TV production “In the Presence of a Clown”) jostle in the sidebar alongside helming debuts from producer Jeremy Thomas (“All the Little Animals,” with John Hurt), actor Robert Duvall (“The Apostle”) and writer Paul Auster (“Lulu on the Bridge,” with Harvey Keitel and Mina Sorvino).
Filling the sandwich are a host of fest-tested names, from Portugal’s Teresa Villaverde (j.d. pic “The Mutants”) and Dutchman Alex van Warmerdam (triangle drama “Little Tony”) to Hungary’s Gyorgy Feher (“Passion,” a Magyar spin on “The Postman Only Rings Twice”) and South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo (“The Power of Kangwon Province”), the last known for the quirky “The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well.”
With out-of-competition screenings of “Blues Brothers 2000” and “Dark City” bolstering the U.S. mainstream selection, Hal Hartley leads the non-mainstream American charge with “Henry Fool,” showing in a slightly shorter, re-edited version than the 141-minute one preemed at the Toronto fest last September. “The version is Hal Hartley’s definitive one,” notes Jacob, “completely reworked. Because of its qualities, we reckoned that it deserved a chance to com-pete for a prize.”
Other Yanks shadowing Hartley for Palmes are both Terry Gilliam with “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and actor John Turturro with his directing debut, “Illuminata,” an erotic Italian costumer toplining Susan Sarandon. Other U.S. fare is buried away in Certain Regard, including Jake Kasdan’s private-eye riff “Zero Effect,” Stanley Tucci’s second pic, 1930s-set “The Imposters,” and out of left field indie entry, Ken Yunome’s “Island, Alicia.”
“The film arrived on cassette out of nowhere,” recalls Jacob, “and we even wondered if the director’s name was a pseudonym (‘You know me’). But since then, I’ve seen a photo of him, so I know he’s a real person!”
At three hours, Yunome’s pic clocks in as this year’s longest entry, with relative brevity being shown even by well-known epicists like Angelopoulos (130 minutes), Oliveira (110) and Von Trier (117). On average, however, most movies are still around the two-hour mark, a trend Jacob finds disturbing. “I was brought up on 90-minute films,” he says. “Now they’re increasingly two hours or over, even though they don’t have a (real) story to tell.”
Jacob quashes rumors that Cannes is planning a U.S. indies section for next year’s fest in order to do justice to the huge amount of product. “We don’t want to put American independents into a special box. They’ll continue to be spread throughout all the sections, according to their worth and our selectors’ opinions. This year, there were 120 first works alone submitted, from truly unknown indie directors.”
Jacob also strenuously denies the “false idea” that Cannes hasn’t done justice to the recent British Renaissance. “The films submitted to us this year confirmed that British cinema is alive and well and living in London,” he opines. “Of course, some weren’t up to the standard of a festival like Cannes, but at its best it is a cinema that has the knack of balancing quality and budgets.”
Geographically, both Latin America and Scandinavia — regions that have had poor fest profiles in recent years — are back on the map. Denmark is repped by two Competition entries: Von Trier’s quirky “Idiots” and Thomas Vinterberg’s sophomore pic, ensembler “The Celebration,” both products of Dogma ’95, a collective founded in Copenhagen three years ago dedicated to getting back to non-tech-heavy essentials in filmmaking.
For Jacob, Babenco and Ripstein represent a “beginning” to the re-emergence of Latino filming at Cannes, and Jacob says he’s particularly happy with the presence of Portugal, in with Oliveira’s “Anxiety,” Villaverde’s “The Mutants” and Paulo Rocha’s “The River of Gold.”
“Without seeming to be paternalistic,” opines Jacob, “we hope Cannes can showcase smaller countries that don’t normally have much of a profile.”
The major omission this year is the continent of Africa, which usually produces a couple of titles in the Official Selection’s slate. Notes Jacob, “The major problem with African production is economic, and this year the harvest simply hasn’t come in. But next year I think Africa will be represented again in the Official Selection.
“Happily for us, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine is giving this year’s ‘Lecon de Cinema’ talk, so Africa’s presence at Cannes will be maintained.”
Profile is also to the fore in Cannes’ latest invention, its “Salute to Producers” — 11 established names from seven countries — that will add extra glitz to the Croisette, with dinners, screenings of 30 back-catalog movies and stars also in attendance. Venue for the unspoolings is a new 300-seater in the Salon des Ambassadeurs, formerly a meeting room on the top floor of the Palais.
No Cannes festival would be complete without some politique and this year most of it is centered on the exiling of two of the fest’s parallel sections — Cinemas en France, run by the Directors Fortnight, and the Critics Week — from their regular Palais salles, effectively turning the Palais into a fortress for the Official Selection and its own spinoffs, like the producers’ nod.
Official word from Jacob & Co. is that the change will make the fest geographically clearer, as well as freeing up slots in the Salle Bazin for extra press screenings of Certain Regard pix. However, it’s done nothing to help the strained relations between Jacob and the fest’s parallel sections.
“We feel very offended to have been kicked out of the Palais,” says Critics Week topper Jean Roy, who was first informed, along with Fortnight reps, at a meeting with Jacob and fest prez Pierre Viot last November. “We came to a compromise for this year of using the Arcades theater across the park, which actually has more seats than our usual Palais salle (the Bory). But we’ve been a part of the Palais since we began in 1962, so we consider it a major snub.”
Despite that, Roy is bullish about the Week’s lineup, which this year is all first features. “Of the films we saw, more than usual — 80% — were first films, and unlike, say, last year with the two Norwegian movies (‘Insomnia’ and ‘Junk Mail’), I wouldn’t like to bet on which ones will turn into hits.
“We’ve got three provocative black comedies — Francois Ozon’s ‘Sitcom’ (nabbed from Berlin at the 11th hour), the Spanish ‘Torrente, the Dumb Arm of the Law,’ and the French ‘Seul contre tous’ — plus three more character-driven, intimate movies — New Zealander Niki Caro’s ‘Memory and Desire,’ the Dutch ‘Polish Bride’ and South Korean ‘Christmas in August.’ Between the two is a remarkable Czech film, ‘The Bed,’ shot in B&W and ‘Scope, which recalls classic Czech baroque surrealism from the ’60s.”
No U.S. indies this year? “We saw around 140 American features, but 90% of them weren’t interesting at all,” avers Roy. “They were more like studio calling cards, independent only in name. We don’t feel bound to include a U.S. film every year: Last year, we didn’t have any French movies, even though Cannes is a French festival; this year, we have two.”
In contrast, Directors Fortnight bulges with U.S. pix: Of the 15 features in the parallel section no less than four are American indies. Two are direct from Sundance – Grand Prix winner “Slam,” Marc Levin’s prison-ghetto drama, and best script winner “High Art,” Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian saga. The other two are both world preems, with weird coming-of-ager “Slums of Beverly Hills” from firsttimer Tamara Jenkins (whose script was in Sundance’s filmmakers’ lab), and “Happiness,” third feature of Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) centered on three sisters in a chic N.J. neighborhood.
Fortnight topper Pierre-Henri Deleau has again been sparing with his Brit selection, like last year citing his opinion that scripts are suffering as production coin flows more freely in Blighty. As in 1997, only one British pic has made the cut, “The Stringer,” a Russian-set love drama starring Anna Friel, directed by Polish-born BBC documaker Paul Pawlikowski.
Deleau has at least two other selections which he describes as “disturbing.” Oz helmer Ana Kokkinos’ first full-length feature, “Head On,” details a heavy night of gay sex by a Greek-Australian guy, while the Belgian-led “The Red Dwarf,” first feature by Yvan Le Moine, centers on a grotesque love story between a 30-something dwarf and a voluptuous giantess.
Nine of the Fortnight’s 15 features are first pix, with only Swiss veteran Alain Tanner (Lisbon-set fantasy “Requiem”) repping the older generation. Both Canadian entries – the apocalyptic “Last Night” and sexy “Babyface” – are by freshmen. Repping names already known on the fest circuit are Russia’s Aleksei Balabanov (“Brother,” 1997) with period drama “Of Freaks and Men,” and Italy’s Mimmo Calopresti (“The Second Time,” 1996) with “The Word Love Exists,” an intimate drama about a neurotic, lovelorn woman, played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, that opens the whole shebang.