Wot, no kitsch?

Sheila Johnston finds an alarming dearth of vulgarity at Cannes

This year, Cannes hitches itself to the French celebrations of the centenary of cinema, an occasion that has inspired what, by general agreement, is the kitschiest festival poster in years: a seascape composed of classic movie stills with a gurgling baby crawling out of the waves to herald the new century. Otherwise, though, the town seems a bit short of the glorious Cannes vulgarity we know and love. No giant inflatable Arnold Schwarzenegger bobbing in the bay (sorely missed), no big names to launch the revelries: the opening night film, The City of Lost Children, starred a galaxy of special effects and little else. The unseasonably horrible weather - wet, cold - means that any starlet dumb enough to take her bra off is more likely to get pneumonia than the female lead in the new Jean-Claude van Damme movie. Thanks to M Chirac, the franc is worth a king's ransom, which is somewhat cramping the style of the carousers: for the price of a demi-pression on the Croisette, you could practically make a low-budget movie.

A brisk dash of glamour was supplied by Jeanne Moreau who introduced the jury she will lead this year. Here, too, the press conference was unusually serious. The producer Norma Heyman, who was to have represented Britain, had resigned on the grounds that her next project involved several people with films in competition. There was talk of loss of integrity, all firmly quashed by Moreau (who herself has plans to work with Merchant- Ivory, competing here with Jefferson in Paris). What, she said, would be the point of a jury with no connections with cinema? There was further talk of truth and politics, and of whether cinema can change the world. A couple of things became clear: Madame la Presidente will be a force to conjure with. And this year's Pulp Fiction will be unlikely to carry off the Palme d'Or.

Not that there are many likely contenders. Most of the American genre films are tucked away in midnight screenings: the competition menu includes apartheid and famine in Africa, opium wars in China, revolution in Paris, Civil War in Spain, totalitarianism in Burma and Bulgaria, bloody conflict in Yugoslavia and HIV-positive teenagers in America. Two French entries are called Hatred and (another Aids-themed movie) Don't Forget You Are Going to Die. Where, we all wondered, was the light relief?

The Directors' Fortnight kicked off with Le Confessionel, a first film by the French-Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage. It's that diciest of ventures, an homage to Hitchcock - a modern riff on I Confess set, like that film, in Quebec City. Lepage acquits himself honourably although the complex plotlines and themes don't quite resonate as they should.

Back in competition, Waati, from Africa, deserves a little attention. It has been eight years since Yeelen, the last work by its director, Souleymane Cisse, a reminder of the huge difficulties confronting Third World film- makers and, perhaps, an explanation of why Waati went wrong. It seems as if, after all the wait, Cisse had wanted to cram everything into this ambitious, pan-Continental story about a young woman who grows up in South Africaand confronts social deprivation on the fringes on Timbuktu, in Mali. A schematic, sometimes naive screenplay stocked with vicious white racists and noble blacks is studded with flashes of startling lyrical brilliance.

No great finds yet, then, but the heavy hitters, including Ken Loach, Zhang Yimou, and Emir Kusterica, come next week.

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