Deconstructing Cannes

Common misconceptions that may plague festgoers

First-time and even veteran attendees still get confused about certain things when it comes to the Cannes Film Festival. Below, we’ve tried to demystify some common misconceptions related to the sometimes baffling, always exhausting and frequently glorious circus that is Cannes.

Misconception: Cannes rhymes with fans.

Reality: Nope. Think “Cannes” as in Genghis or James.

Misconception: The festival’s opening slot is always risky because if the critics don’t like your film, you’re dead in the adjacent water.

Reality: “Le grand bleu” opened the fest in 1988 and was laughed off the Croisette — straight into a seemingly endless run that sold over 9 million tickets (a record that only two other French releases have surpassed). Luc Besson’s English-lingo ode to free-diving also turned Rosanna Arquette into a Gallic fave.

Misconception: There’s only one Palme d’Or winner every year.

Reality: Venice has its Golden Lion, Berlin has its Golden Bear and Cannes has its Golden Palm — make that palms. A Palme d’Or, which in some years has gone to two titles in a tie, is awarded to the feature judged best by the jury. A Palme d’Or is also bestowed upon the best short film in the official shorts competition. In addition to the Palms, all first features in all sections of the festival are eligible for the Camera d’Or, which is designated by a separate Camera d’Or jury.

Misconception: Official Selection is the festival’s Competition section.

Reality: Official Selection encompasses films in and out of Competition. It comprises Competition, Out of Competition, Un Certain Regard, the Short Film Competition and CineFondation. This year, 18 Competition titles will be shown in the Palais des Festivals’ main Lumiere auditorium (red-carpeted stairs) and vie for the Golden Palm and other jury awards. A few additional noncompeting films will enjoy the undeniable prestige of being shown in that theater as part of the official lineup. (Evening shows at the Lumiere are black-tie affairs — daytime screenings can be tie-dye so long as you have the appropriate accreditation badge or a counterfeit-proof ticket.)

The slightly smaller Debussy auditorium next door (blue-carpeted stairs) houses Un Certain Regard (which is French for “a particular way of looking at things” and not an admission of uncertainty), the 20-plus title companion to the Competition. In recent years, CineFondation, devoted to work by promising film students, has joined the official realm.

In 1989, “sex, lies and videotape” was elevated at the last minute from Un Certain Regard — where it would not have been eligible for a Palme d’Or — to the Competition, where it won the fest’s top prize.

Misconception: Official Selection is all I need to pay attention to, right?

Reality: Hardly. Two other venerable sections are important to Cannes: Intl. Critics Week (43rd edition in 2004) is the fest’s oldest sidebar. Bernardo Bertolucci (1964), Barbet Schroeder (1969), Ken Loach (1970) and Denys Arcand (1972) first showed films at Cannes in this highly selective lineup of first and second films. In 1997 alone, two of those films were Dutchman Mike Van Diem’s “Karakter,” which went on to win the foreign-lingo Oscar, and Norway’s “Insomnia,” which was remade by Christopher Nolan. When two-time Intl. Critics Week winner Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was chosen for the 2002 Competition, French Critics Union president Gerard Lenne wrote, “The natural order of things is this: Critics Week discovers talent and the festival proper consecrates it.”

The Quinzaine (“Canz-ehn”), or Directors Fortnight, housed in the basement of the Noga Hilton, began in 1969 to show films that might be too small or too daring for the Official Selection. For three decades, Pierre-Henri Deleau ran the meaty section, which is now has its third programmer in as many years. The rapid shifts are apparently due to displeasure at the SRF, France’s Society of Film Directors, which oversees the event. Michael Haneke’s early work, “Ma vie en Rose” and last year’s “Osama” are a few Quinzaine highlights.

By the way, it’s far easier for rank-and-file film buffs to get into these two so-called parallel sections than it is to penetrate the closed trade-show regulations that make Official Selection titles difficult — though not impossible — to see.

Misconception: Cannes is the king of film festivals, so it always shows great movies, right?

Reality: Although the festival has launched many a now-classic movie (“Taxi Driver,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Pulp Fiction”), Cannes is not synonymous with the Best Films on Earth — nor could it be. The Competition is drawn from new feature films from all over the world that will be completed and available during 10 days in May. If established or emerging filmmakers don’t happen to have made outstanding pics before the Cannes deadline, Cannes still has to fill those slots.

Misconception: Cannes doesn’t treat Hollywood right. The Coen brothers and Tarantino aside, they only go for commie pinko Yank-bashing stuff like “Bowling for Columbine” and “Elephant.”

Reality: Cannes is an international event and as such shows films from all around the world — not just those from the most dominant filmmaking nations. It’s also important to remember that France embraces cinema culture, while America promotes showbiz culture. In 2003 in Gaul, films from 44 countries got theatrical releases. Many of these play for months — if not years — on end.

Misconception: Cannes 2003 was “the worst festival ever.”

Reality: Piffle and balderdash. Many people — buyers, sellers, screenwriters, actors, producers, junketeers — enjoyed a very productive festival. Among the films that made their debut at the fest last year: “Mystic River,” “The Barbarian Invasions,” “The Triplets of Belleville,” “Swimming Pool” and “Dogville.” Even the notoriously ill-received “Brown Bunny” is drawing praise now that it’s 30 minutes leaner.

Misconception: Cannes is outrageously expensive.

Reality: Well, yeah, for the most part it is, especially if you’re paying in U.S. dollars. Last year brought a startling innovation: Since airline deregulation has made it possible to find really cheap flights throughout Europe, a surprising number of attendees from neighboring countries saved a bundle by commuting to nearby Nice by plane from cities like London, Paris and Rome, avoiding the inflated price of a Cannes hotel room.