Cutup in Cannes

'Barber of Siberia' raises Croisette curtain

CANNES — The Cannes Film Festival opened for business Wednesday, with the traditional hordes of locals and out-of-town fest fans bringing the Croisette to a standstill, as they waited for the showbiz world to mount the red-carpeted steps leading them to this year’s opening pic, Nikita Mikhalkov’s “The Barber of Siberia.”

As the crowds baked gently in front of the Palais, the biggest cheers Wednesday evening went to the female stars who glided in for the opening pic. A collection of femmes, including Chinese actress Gong Li, Gallic model-turned-actress Laetitia Casta, hot French actress Virginie Ledoyen — fresh from working on “The Beach” — and model/actress Claudia Schiffer sent the tuxedoed photographers into overdrive, helping to create the usual delay in the Opening Night ceremonies.

Competition jury president David Cronenberg firmly announced that he couldn’t wait to start seeing films, although critics who sat through a morning screening of “The Barber of Siberia” openly wondered whether Cronenberg’s enthusiasm would be as great after the three-hour experience.

Fest programmer Gilles Jacob, in what is widely expected to be his penultimate year in the job, gave a distinctly British feel to the opening ceremony, having chosen English actress Kristin Scott Thomas as master of ceremonies and by surprising Cronenberg with a special on-stage appearance of one of the director’s favorite thesps, Jeremy Irons.

Some things never change at Cannes, however, notably the refusal to make much of a linguistic concession to the non-French speakers attending the first night pic. Hence Scott Thomas, Irons and Faye Dunaway — who is presiding over a special retrospective of love films — all delivered their speeches in various forms of French.

Tipping its cap to a cinema great, the opening ceremony started with a tribute to Stanley Kubrick, who died this year. Respects were also paid to Dirk Bogarde, who spent much of his latter years in the south of France and who died last week.

On the Croisette, stargazers, who will be out in force as the bank holiday “weekend” kicks off in France Thursday, had to content themselves with firing off large quantities of photos of the array of posters that transform the Croisette hotel facades into a visual What’s What of the film industry. Drawing plenty of attention was boxoffice smash “The Mummy,” which secured the top spot in front of the Carlton hotel.

News camera crews appeared to have decided that, until the big names such as Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor or Gerard Depardieu, breeze into town, their time was best occupied shooting footage of Cannes attendees holding mid-street conversations on their mobile phones.

Stewart debut

Those same news crews will perk up on Thursday as singer/songwriter Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics fame, comes into town to unveil his debut directing project “Honest.” Stewart is set to be accompanied by three of the four-girl All Saints Brit pop group, who appear in the crime caper.

While cinema buffs have been slightly underwhelmed by this year’s competition selection, describing the choices as a tad jaded, Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without a handful of competition pics that are reckoned to be required viewing.

Among them are Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey”; John Sayles’ “Limbo,” which arrives on the Croisette armed with positive advance word; and Takeshi Kitano’s “Kikujiro.”

In the market, which was beginning to stretch its legs on Wednesday, a fair bit of buzz appeared to be centering on the clutch of French companies who are investing heavily in (and selling) English-lingo pics. They include the likes of Studio Canal Plus, which is backing a sizable slate of indie pics from the U.S., TF1 Intl., Pandora and Gaumont.

The world’s oldest film company, Gaumont, was making the early running here as U.S. buyers worked themselves into a lather over Pip Karmel’s debut pic “Me, Myself, I” which the company is selling worldwide. Word on the Croisette was that Miramax had already mentioned the figure of $6 million for U.S. rights even though Miramax supremo Harvey Weinstein has yet to see the pic.

Security in this Cote D’Azur resort is tighter than usual, with some 300 extra police being brought in to add their numbers to the local forces. The show of strength reflects the importance of Cannes for the international image of France, as well as a growing concern over security for the thousands of film types here, following the attempted kidnapping of a U.S. television exec at the recent Mip television market in Cannes.

Just 24 hours before the fest kicked off, Cannes police were called in to disarm an explosive device found in an office block. Nobody claimed responsibility for the bomb, but the police were clearly relieved that, in this case, the fest got off to a whimper, not a bang.