Fanfare for ‘Fanfan’

Gallic swashbuckler opens Cannes fest

CANNES — Formality and tradition were the watchwords as the 56th annual Cannes Film Festival opened Wednesday with a burst of “Fanfan” fanfare.

In an atmosphere that was neither especially festive nor lackluster, celebs, judges and industry reps climbed the red-carpeted steps of the Palais des Festivals to view the Luc Besson-produced “Fanfan La Tulipe” in the Grand Lumiere Theater.

But the big excitement didn’t happen: Tom Cruise was a no-show. Instead, “Fanfan” star Penelope Cruz was flanked by the pic’s helmer, Gerard Krawczyk, and her co-star, Vincent Perez. Cruz, heavily jeweled and in a black lacy Spanish dress with flamenco touches, received the loudest cheers from the crowded Boulevard de la Croisette.

Cruz, Perez and Krawczyk were the main attractions.

Waiting at the top of the Palais steps were the fest welcome committee — prexy Gilles Jacob, artistic director Thierry Fremaux and managing director Veronique Cayla.

Jurors Meg Ryan, Steven Soderbergh, “Intimacy” director Patrice Chereau and Aishwariya Rai received lengthy ovations from the crowd as they climbed the steps.

The soiree had its usual quota of cheering fans, but by Cannes standards, it was unexceptional. The mood reinforced some of the apprehensions of attendees at the fest and, especially, the market: That this might be a fairly quiet Cannes.

Unusual for Cannes, guests were met at the theater entrance by security guards with metal scanners, and women’s bags were searched. (Security paled in comparison to the Kodak Theater on Oscar night, for example, when squadrons of riot police traversed the neighborhood.)

A romantic romp with anti-war overtones, “Fanfan” launched the festival on a lighthearted note — an interesting choice in a time of political strife.

Monica Bellucci, this year’s mistress of ceremonies at Cannes, emphasized the message of peace when introducing the screening, telling the audience “Cinema is without frontiers.”

Insiders say the fest nixed the idea of opening with the apocalyptic “Matrix: Reloaded,” which screens out of competition tonight.

Aside from Ryan, fellow juror Steven Soderbergh and actress Andie MacDowell, few U.S. reps climbed the red carpet. In the past two years, “Moulin Rouge” and “Hollywood Ending” opened the fest, but this year, Hollywood is a low-heat presence in the main competition.

“Fanfan” is a $25 million remake of an oft-remade French classic. The first “Fanfan” was made in 1907.

Gina Lollobrigida, who played Penelope Cruz’s role in the 1952 Christian-Jacque “Fanfan,” attended the screening with French Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon.

The studios are using this festival as a press junket, with tentpoles like Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Reloaded” and WB-Sony Intl.’s “Terminator 3” scheduling an unprecedented number of PR events.

In addition, the majors are in force at the market, offering a lot of high-profile offerings.

Wednesday night’s ceremony included a dance by Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Carolyn Carlson, followed by the second 26-minute installment in Gilles Jacob’s history of the Cannes festival, a montage of scenes from galas past and archival footage of the French resort town.

The evening was rounded off with dinner in the Palais’ top floor Les Ambassadeurs restaurant.

Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, which produced the pic, is hawking U.S. rights at the fest.

“Fanfan,” which was still available for U.S. distribution Wednesday, was generating interest among acquisition execs. Pic screened at Cannes for the first time that morning.

Wednesday afternoon, distribs described the film as entertaining but wondered about its marketability in the U.S.

The original, directed by Christian-Jacque, scooped both the Berlin Silver Bear and the best direction prize at Cannes in the same year. However the new “Fanfan,” a long-cherished project of Besson’s, is not up for a prize, screening out of competition as with most opening night films.

For better or worse, there was no evidence of most of the fears — or excitement — about this year’s fest. Potential festgoers had recently fretted about the effects of the Iraq war, political tensions, SARS and even Tuesday’s transport strike. But the opening was business as usual.

However, market organizers said Chinese and Thai attendance at the Cannes Film Market has fallen 50%, with South Korean participants down 36%, due to the SARS epidemic. Overall, market attendance was slightly up, with a big bump from more British marketgoers.