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May 14, 1999 2:00 AM
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CANNES '99: Opening Day - Construction to Chaos

CANNES '99: Opening Day - Construction to Chaos

by Stephen Garrett



Boxes are strewn in the corridors, billboards are hoisted up hotel facades,
plastic is being ripped off computer consoles and thin blue carpeting, and
workers are snapping together aluminum-siding walls for makeshift screening
rooms with as few as 20 seats: the 52nd Cannes Film Festival has begun, and
with it the sunny coastal village of Cannes is getting its annual facelift
for the world's most prestigious showcase of world cinema.


Its radiance dampened by the loss of past fest faves like Jane Campion
("Holy Smoke") and Mike Leigh ("Topsy Turvy"), whose latest works are still
being finished, the festival is still scratching its head over Zhang Yimou's
"political" decision to withdraw his two new movies, but programming head
Gilles Jacob and his selection committee are basking in the glow of
premieres from some of the world's most esteemed directors.

Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose last Cannes appearance was with
the audacious prize-winning "Crash" in 1996, is the president of this year's
jury to select the best and boldest achievements in the festival's
competition lineup. Joining him to make the selections are fellow directors
like France's André Téchiné, Australia's George Miller, Germany's Dorris
Dorrie, and Italy's Maurizio Nichetti; American actors Holly Hunter (best
actress-winner at Cannes for 1993's "The Piano") and Jeff Goldblum; French
actress Dominique Blanc; French novelist Yasmina Reza; and Swedish opera
singer Barbara Hendricks.


Thousands of miles away from the cultural menace of George Lucas' latest
"Star Wars" installment, the festival press still repeatedly brought up the
galactic gigahit during the jury's press conference, to the consternation of
the judges. Cronenberg pointed out that even if the movie were playing in
the festival, its presence would be a moot point. "It wouldn't be in
competition, so I wouldn't get to see it anyway," he chortled. But Eurodiva
Hendricks was far more livid at the film's discussion. "There's another war
going on which is not 'Star Wars,' where there are real people getting
killed, raped, and plundered," she said, bringing up NATO's bombing of
Kosovo. Indeed, it's hard for any American festivalgoer to walk by a
newspaper stand and not notice the international papers all carrying
pictures of angry Chinese burning U.S. flags.


But movies are movies, and even the Herald-Tribune's screaming headlines
can't completely distract from the onslaught of people and film. Swollen to
almost 200,000 from its off-season population of 70,000, Cannes is nothing
less than cinema chaos, and the trade listings of market, competition, and
sidebar screenings has already grown from a few dozen to close to a hundred
in just twenty-four hours. Two days earlier, the festival was a different
beast: drinks in the bar of the swanky Majestic Hotel were a near-solitary
affair, with the quiet rustle of jury members Goldblum and Hunter chatting
leisurely in the almost desolate hotel lobby while workers were still laying
down bricks outside in the driveway. A walk past after-hours hotspots like
the Petit Majestic and the Petit Carlton revealed near-deserted taverns
until last night, which suddenly saw the popular bars transformed by
hundreds of happy revelers spilling out into the street.


The crowds are out, and so are the knives: opening night's Euro-premiere of
"The Barber of Siberia," directed by Nikita Mihkalkov, who directed the
Oscar winner "Burnt by the Sun," opened with his eagerly anticipated
three-hour romantic Russian epic -it fizzled quickly and found some
black tie attendees slipping out of the theater long before the film
finished. Variety's review headline declaimed "'Barber'
could use a shave," calling the film "overblown, overlong and decidedly
underwhelming" with most of the attention going to the sultry stars who
walked up the red carpet like Laetitia Casta, Virginie Ledoyen, and Claudia
Schiffer. And "Pola X," the first movie in eight years from French
wunderkind Leo Carax and the first competition film to unspool for the
public, drew both loud cheers and angry jeers at its 8:30am screening. Carax
still drew an eager crowd of loyal French fans at his press conference,
living up to his reclusive, enigmatic reputation, wearing sunglasses,
smoking a cigarette and looking just a bit too much like that former infant
terrible, Jean-Luc Godard. Meanwhile sizzling market screenings like Spike
Lee's "Summer of Sam" (premiering a few days from now in Director's
Fortnight) had the Rue D'Antibes' Star multiplex crammed with throngs of
international buyers. "I bought 'We Got Game' (sic) for Japan, so I
have to get in," sniffed one Asian player who elbowed her way to the front
of the line. In terms of that ever-hyped Asian presence at this year's
festival, Miramax is capitalizing early with an announcement of a
Singapore-based outfit to solidify connections with the east. Screen
International reported that the operation will "acquire, develop, co-produce
and finance projects in the region and boost relationships with local
talent.

[Anthony Kaufman contributed to this article.]

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