Cannes opens with clean sweep

I knew I wasn’t at an American film festival when they starting vacuuming the stage as the event unfurled.

It was an odd segue — first a lone female Cirque du Soleil acrobat swinging entwined on a red cord attached to rafters to three folks expeditiously cleaning up the stage, which seemed immaculate to begin with.

One could be forgiven for thinking the clean-up brigade was part of the avant-garde act, since to the naked eye there was no debris to speak of on the stage. But then someone with a British accent exclaimed from the row behind me, “They’re actually Hoovering!”

All of this in order for the lights to dim Wednesday evening and the first film of the Cannes Film Festival to unspool.

It’s France and they definitely do things their way. And that way has its pluses.

Gone were the interminable, oft self-serving speeches by local dignitaries which so often mar such Euro fests. Instead we were treated to an elegant intro about the magic of movies by mistress of ceremonies Cecile de France, who thanks to her name and expressiveness, seemed perfect casting for the role.

Each of the 10 jurors was ushered on the stage to applause: president Emir Kusturica spoke a single sentence in French; Alexander Payne, who chairs the Un Certain Regard jury, and Aishwarya Rai were also paraded out to officially open the 58th edition of the fest. And that was that.

On the red carpet too it was clear that we were no longer in Kansas, or rather Tinseltown.

There were no aggressive microphones stuck in the faces of Catherine Deneuve or Charlotte Rampling; there were no inane questions from Gallic versions of Joan and Melissa Rivers. The paparazzi were in full snapping mode, but kept at a safe distance behind barricades and well-dressed in black tie.

The whole thing was unhurried and civilized, another reminder of just how in hock to broadcast contracts all U.S. events have become.

Still, like almost all events or venues where celebs are herded in front of the international press, the Cannes fest has gotten into bed with sponsors, so the glam faces of actresses like Aishwarya Rai are courtesy of L’Oreal and their jewelry by Chopard.

As for the opening film, Dominik Moll’s off-kilter rift on two intertwined couples called “Lemming,” I for one thought it set the right tone and raised the right expectations for what to expect from the 20-odd competition entries.

From the director who made “What’s the Trouble With Harry?”, this pic boasted some smart set pieces, including a dinner table scene for the annals, and a wonderfully amusing high-tech gadget.

Judging from conversations thereafter, the ambiguity-laden pic piqued the Anglos perhaps more than the French. Or perhaps the latter were just displaying reverse snobbism. All part of the Cannes game, no doubt.

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