Cannes con

THE 53RD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, Cannes, France, May 10-21. Rating: NNNNNCANNES -- The sun's shining, the Mediterranean is glittering, and.

THE 53RD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, Cannes, France, May 10-21. Rating: NNNNN

CANNES — The sun’s shining, the Mediterranean is glittering, and I’m sitting in the basement of the Noga Hilton watching Iranian neo-realist films and Canadian movies about spiritual journeys. What can I say? I volunteered.

This year Cannes has seen the invasion of the dot-coms. They are here trying to get film companies to buy into them, now that Wall Street’s leery of anything online.

For all their reputation as hardened, cigar-chomping business pros, movie producers have the distressing habit of throwing millions of dollars at ideas, some of them alarmingly stupid. Three-hour Kevin Costner movies, for example. Or films like the British Wild About Harry, about “an alcoholic celebrity chef who, on the night before his divorce, receives a bump on the head and loses his memory and is forced to face the truth about who he has become and realizes that he has a chance to begin again.”

Crazy dreamer

What sort of dealmaker would put money into it? A crazy dreamer with really low sales resistance. Or someone who needs a tax break.

Consider Vatel, the opening-night film directed by Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Scarlet Letter, Goodbye, Lover talk about the law of diminishing returns). Gérard Depardieu stars as Charles Vatel, the legendary French chef who invented whipped cream at his employer’s castle at Chantilly.

There are a gang of English actors, notably Tim Roth and Julian Sands, running around in period outfits and wigs as French royalty, and Uma Thurman is the object of everyone’s desire. A bunch of French production companies put up the money for this plodding pageant. And then Harvey Weinstein, after seeing it, bought the American rights for Miramax.

Where is the audience for this?

Too physical

Vatel is too physical. The audience for bloated period melodrama doesn’t like to be reminded that we have any bodily functions at all. This isn’t Merchant-Ivory, though Merchant and Ivory are here with The Golden Bowl, a Henry James adaptation starring Uma Thurman.

I’m not seeing as much of the Competition this year. I’m on the FIPRESCI Jury (FIPRESCI is the Fédération Internationale de Presse Cinématographique, the international film critics association), which focuses on the Director’s Fortnight and Critics’ Week. This means I’m looking at an unusual number of films about teens (see On The Scene, page 45) and their burgeoning sexuality, most of which aren’t as good as two-year-old American fodder like Can’t Hardly Wait, and for fun, the occasional German movie about suicide.

I also volunteered for jury duty because the Competition has an unusual number of movies that run longer than 150 minutes and an unusual number of French period films, some of them three hours long.

Next-big-thingism is the most distressing part of film-festival pack journalism. We need themes, dammit, we’re often told: give us 500 words on Hollywood abandoning Cannes find us a hot new cinema every couple of years. But, of course, it doesn’t work like that.

We have a distressing habit of finding a country with one or two directors and declaring them a new wave, when they’re really just another ripple in the ocean of the cinema. Waves are the product of historical moments and a collision of talents, and aren’t produced on a cycle.

Ah, well. Off to the newest Chantal Akerman movie. Given Akerman’s history, it will either be dead brilliant or tedium-in-a-Cannes.

What I’m tempted to do is play hooky and catch that repeat Market screening of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a hilarious conflation of Homer, Preston Sturges and hillbilly music, with George Clooney playing Ulysses as Clark Gable newly escaped from a Mississippi chain gang and on his way home to stop his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), from remarrying.

Now that’s entertainment.

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