Gloom falls on Croisette

Fest organizers find U.S. selection short on innovation

LONDON – There’s that strange but unmistakable whiff of evolution in the air as the world’s best-known sprocket opera, the Cannes Film Festival, enters its 52nd edition (May 12-23) — and final bash of the millennium.

Apart from mutual animosity, the selectors of Cannes’ various sections rarely agree about anything. But this year, a remarkable consensus has emerged from their separate camps — not all of it good news. The subject matter of many pieces is on the grim side and there are fewer U.S. studio films crossing the pond. If Cannes is truly an annual litmus test of international cinema’s state of quality, its findings are thus: U.S. indie cinema suffers from a dangerous lack of inventiveness, Latin America is still in the doldrums, Central Europe and Scandinavia are hardly on the map and African cinema has all but toppled off it.

The good news is middle- and older-generation auteurs (on whom the Official Selection thrives) are still in employment, France remains a bastion of production in Europe as Italy and Spain wobble uncertainly, the U.K. renaissance is ongoing and East Asia, despite a recent economic meltdown, retains its inventiveness and vivacity.

The way in which the fest’s three biggest sections — Competition, Un Certain Regard and Directors Fortnight — have interpreted this landscape has resulted in the most distinct indication of their personalities for some years.

The Competition, bookended for the first time since 1993 by two Euro productions (Russian epic “The Barber of Siberia” and the tony Oscar Wilde adaptation “An Ideal Husband”), is laden with works by the usual suspects, as if section topper Gilles Jacob, 68, hopes to show that traditional, heavyweight cinema d’auteur is alive and well as the end of the century nears.

Big names are thick on the ground: Pedro Almodovar, Marco Bellocchio, Leos Carax, Atom Egoyan, Peter Greenaway, Jim Jarmusch, Takeshi Kitano, David Lynch, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Manoel de Oliveira, Arturo Ripstein, John Sayles. Even Werner Herzog and Steven Soderbergh pop up in the Out-of-Competition section. Almost the only sign of new blood is “Rosetta,” by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who are taking the big step up from Directors Fortnight three years ago with the well-received “The Promise.”

Though an aesthete to his fingertips, Jacob — whom many expect to retire after next year’s jamboree — categorically denies that he’s in permanent thrall to the same names every year. “To assemble a collection of creative artists like that, who resist uniformity and conformism, proves that Cannes has confidence in the future of cinema as an art form,” he says.

He’s also, on the cusp of the millennium, consciously striven to take account of “modernity.” “By that, I mean filmmakers who don’t just tell a story and move an audience’s emotions, but those who reflect on their own work, on new ways of storytelling and film grammar,” Jacob says.

Jacob is at pains to point out that although his Official Selection was the hardest to put together for some time, “There are many young, new directors who have a lot of talent and are ready to replace the older generation. It’s a question of style more closely fitting the subject matter. Take, for instance, British filmmakers, who for some time have been making realistic works about people entangled in everyday problems and catastrophic situations who finally pull themselves out of that — through sheer tenacity, resourcefulness and a sense of dignity. Audiences identify with these anti-heroes and leave the cinema with a newfound optimism — as in ‘Brassed Off’ or the French ‘Dreamlife of Angels.'”

Un Certain Regard, which too often has been an unfocused collection of also-rans, this year has more the feel of a genuine waiting room, with five first works (“Beautiful People,” “Away With Words,” “The Shade,” “Throne of Death” and “Ratcatcher”) as well as several fast-ripening talents (Taiwan’s Chen Kuo-fu and Lin Cheng-sheng, and China’s Wang Xiaoshuai).

Even more surprising is Directors Fortnight, which under new head Marie-Pierre Macia, has the look of a mini-fest within a fest — complete with a tribute (to late Senegalese helmer Djibril Diop Mambety), and screenings of films Macia considers important, despite being already shown at other Euro fests (“Scenery,” “The War Zone”). Rather than being largely composed of pics that were either interchangeable with Certain Regard or crumbs from Jacob’s table, this year’s Fortnight boasts an enviable geographical spread alongside controversial scoops (Spike Lee’s stygian serial-killer drama “Summer of Sam”), exotica (Bhutanese comedy “The Cup”) and some cutting-edge talent.

A Gaul who’s spent the past decade in San Francisco, Macia seems to have come to the job aware of past criticisms of the Fortnight. “It’s true that we see a lot of the same films (as Official Selection), but the difference lies in the different characters of the programmers,” she tells Variety, her diplomatic language fueling widespread rumors that she’s looking for a less combative relationship than her predecessor, Pierre-Henri Deleau, with Jacob and company. Looking to the long term, she adds, “Perhaps I’ll express more of myself in the coming years.”

The biggest loser at Cannes this year has been the U.S. majors, repped in Competition by only two works (Buena Vista’s “The Cradle Will Rock” and Columbia’s “Limbo”), and in noncompeting Special Screenings by a further two (Fox’s “Entrapment” and Universal’s “EDtv”). Even Miramax’s profile is low key, to Harvey Weinstein’s reported chagrin, the company has Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” in Special Screenings and U.S. distrib rights to closer “An Ideal Husband,” on which it was an associate producer. In the Fortnight, Buena Vista also has “Summer of Sam.” As in recent years, some U.S. names (David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch) are working under French-funded banners.

The biggest gainer has been East Asia. Though Korean features are notable by their absence this year (after three in 1998), no less than a dozen movies across all sections hail from the Far East, seven of them in Official Selection alone.

“Asia has its good and bad films like everywhere else,” opines Jacob. “But for several years there’s been a new generation of filmmakers who have an incredible energy that they manage to communicate through their movies, despite all the difficulties they have encountered during the past two years. This mania for filmmaking is also noticeable in our Cinefondation section, devoted mostly to student graduation films, where the Korean entries were particularly interesting.”

In Competition, the Asian charge is led by Kitano with “Kikujiro,” a road movie centered on an aging yakuza and a young boy, and Chen Kaige with his final re-edit of costumer “The Emperor and the Assassin” (after disastrous showings of earlier versions in Tokyo and Beijing). In Un Certain Regard, Taiwan is repped by Cannes scion Lin, taking his first step into Official Selection with “March of Happiness,” and Chen Kuo-fu with the finely honed, Hal Hartley-ish “The Personals”; China by Wang’s “So Close to Paradise,” finally past the censors after some three years; and Japan-Hong Kong by “Away with Words” the helming debut of Chen and Wong Karwai’s favorite d.p., Christopher Doyle.

Even Macia decided to include China indie “Scenery” in her selection, despite the fact that it already preemed at the Rotterdam fest in January. “It’s important,” she says, “to get behind and defend this film (made by a well-known Sixth Generation director under the pseudonym Zhao Jisong). I think it should be seen.”

Though the Fortnight is no stranger to courting Beijing’s ire (since its showing of “The Blue Kite” in 1993), even the Official Selection became involved in a public spat this year with mainland China director Zhang Yimou, who in an open letter informed Jacob that he was “withdrawing” his two new films, “Not One Less” and “The Road Home,” because of “a serious misunderstanding of the two films that I find unacceptable.” Zhang’s general point that Western festivals are too obsessed with politics when it comes to Chinese mainland movies had more than a grain of truth, though Jacob and other Cannes officials, politely pointed out that “Less” had been offered a slot in Certain Regard and “Road Home” actually had been rejected.

Over in Critics Week, all of the six selectors (who must agree unanimously on entries) say it’s been the toughest sled for years to find innovative first or second works, with the U.S. yielding nothing from the 100 or so titles submitted. “New American directors seem to be making either introspective films, talking to each other or glorified sitcoms,” one committee member tells Variety.

In all, the Week screened some 350 pics to come up with its usual seven. By general agreement, the breakout hit looks to be Aussie entry “Siam Sunday,” by actor John Polson, the tale of a man who creates colors for a paint company.

For the second year, the Week remains exiled from the Palais, with screenings split between the grungy Arcades hardtop and the classy Salle Miramar at the other end of the Croisette. “The upside is that at least we have our own identity away from Official Selection,” says one selector, “but we haven’t given up on getting back into the Palais next year.”

This year’s selection is dedicated to former committee member David Overbey, the veteran Asian specialist who died last year and has not been replaced yet on the committee out of respect.