Doing the Cannes can

Lavish musical opens familiar, art-driven fest lineup

LONDON — Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. … Despite a change in chief programmer after 23 years, the mighty Cannes Intl. Film Festival strides into its 54th edition (May 9-20) with only minor tweaks to its familiar, auteur-driven features.

Anyone expecting an immediate facelift under new artistic director Thierry Fremaux, 40, had better think again. Working under longtime boss, now fest president, Gilles Jacob, 70, Fremaux has come up with an official selection that’s as packed with Croisette favorites as any previous edition under Jacob.

Dominated geographically by France, the U.S. and East Asia (especially Japan), the Riviera’s self-styled international festival of film gives the general impression that world cinema has largely remained in the freezer for the past decade or more.

Despite much talk of Hollywood returning to Cannes, the actual number of features helmed or financed by Americans is, at 14, only up one on last year.

There is, however, an increased profile by the majors, with two productions in competition — Fox’s opener, “Moulin Rouge,” and DreamWork’s toon “Shrek,” the first animated pic to compete in 48 years) — compared with just one noncompeting title (“Mission to Mars”) in 2000.

France maintains its strong presence, with 11 majority-financed productions and the usual heavy sprinkling of Gallic coin in other pics.

The major changes this year are an unprecedented seven Japanese movies in official selection (up from three), four from Italy (up from one), and the complete absence of anything from the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia, Sub-Saharan Africa and last year’s hot country, South Korea. These no-shows are also echoed in the festival’s parallel sections, Directors Fortnight and Intl. Critics Week.

Fremaux denies the Japanese bounce-back is engineered to counterbalance last year’s strong Chinese-lingo showing.

“There’s no deliberate calculation by me or Gilles in that way,” Fremaux tells Variety. “The fact is every fortnight another strong Japanese movie would arrive at our office. And the seven movies are all very different in flavor.”

Asked about the lack of Brit movies, Fremaux sounds downcast. “No ambition …,” he murmurs simply.

Led by Taiwanese favorite Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo,” Chinese-lingo cinema maintains a solid enough presence, but Spain and Latin America are thinly repped, with only Catalan director Marc Recha’s existential drama, “Pau and His Brother,” holding the Spanish-lingo flag aloft in Competition.

Though Fremaux has many ideas for the future (see story page C6), he is clearly biding his time, content to add a curlicue here or there to the mighty fest lineup but not make any major course corrections. He does seem aware that, with so many established auteurs lining up each year, the Competition leaves little room to maneuver in the short term.

This year, the movies are certainly shorter (most are comfortably under two hours) but the directors get older: the Competition alone has one in his 90s (Manoel de Oliveira), four in their 60s or 70s (Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Shohei Imamura and Ermanno Olmi) and several more in their 50s.

The Baz Luhrmann-helmed “Moulin Rouge,” with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, assures the fest a splashy start, and the presence of Francis Ford Coppola (with a recut version of “Apocalypse Now”), his son Roman (with the Paris-set “C.Q.”) and a further American Zoetrope production, Hal Hartley’s Iceland-set fantasy “No Such Thing,” will further boost the impression of Hollywood “returning” to the Croisette. Martin Scorsese will also be on hand with the finished version of his docu on Italian cinema.

However, aside from Jack Nicholson, with Sean Penn’s drama “The Pledge,” A-list U.S. thesps could be thin on the ground: Many of the American movies, from Abel Ferrara’s “R’Xmas” to Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling,” are not primarily star-driven vehicles. And while thesps Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who co-helmed Un Certain Regard pic “The Anniversary Party,” will be jetting in to the fest, some of the ensembler’s talent, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Kline, are not likely to make it to the Croisette.

Much of the hot-ticket activity looks to be taking place on the fringes of the fest: New Line Intl. is screening footage from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” and will fly in cast including Liv Tyler, Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood –as well as parts of the pic’s set — for several days of press. “Rings” activities will culminate May 13 with what New Line Intl. chief Rolf Mittweg calls “a social gathering, not a party like some of the other New Line Cannes parties. It’ll be more specific, smaller — not 3,000 people.”

Also on May 13, the fest is pioneering a free, open-air screening near the Palais of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s hit fantasy-romance “Amelie From Montmartre.” It opened in France April 25 and had originally been offered to — but not nailed down by — Cannes back in January.

That same first weekend, on May 12, even the Hong Kong film industry is getting in on the act, with a dozen or more major stars and directors being flown in for a special night to tub-thump the industry’s renaissance and the presence of over 20 titles at the Cannes Market.

With veterans and familiar names dominating the official selection, the festival’s sections Directors Fortnight and Intl. Critics Week offer plenty of grazing ground for hard-core buffs.

This year’s Fortnight, again programmed by Marie-Pierre Macia, offers no less than 11 first-time features, including Ethan Hawke’s behind-camera debut, “Chelsea Walls,” an ensembler set in Gotham’s Chelsea Hotel with a cast including Uma Thurman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Corrigan and Kris Kristofferson.

Also moving into the director’s chair is thesp Arliss Howard, with the South-set drama “Big Bad Love,” starring his wife, Debra Winger, and Rosanna Arquette.

Critics Week, whose main lineup focuses exclusively on first- and second-time works, takes a pass on U.S. fare this year and features a tougher-than-usual selection. However, it continues to expand its program with special screenings (including Michel Piccoli’s “The Black Beach” and Marion Haensel’s docu “Clouds”) as well as continuing last year’s innovation of a celeb director to “godfather” the event. This time round, Ken Loach does the honors, with a screening of his 1970 “Kes” and meetings with fans.