CANNES DIARY / Cause for effect: Sheila Johnston finds that stars are choosing guarded seclusion over the estival's glare

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The Independent Culture
At last, a star. Elizabeth Taylor is in town, though not for a movie: she is hosting an exclusive, Fr13,000 (about pounds 1,500) a plate supper at the Moulin des Mougins to benefit 'Cinema against Aids'.

It looks like the first day of the Christmas sales outside the office dispensing passes for the photocall, for this has been a lean year for celebrity pickings, with the few stars that have shown up so far hunkered down in strictly bodyguarded seclusion at the Hotel du Cap along the coast in Antibes. Many of the British paparazzi are wondering if they'd have done better to stay in London for the launch of Planet Hollywood - after all, an international film festival amounts to little more than a sidetrip for stars more preoccupied with hyping a fast-food joint.

One player here to hawk his wares is Joel Silver. The ebullient producer of the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series is in for the first time and has no doubts about the nature of the beast: 'It's very aggressive, bold and brash, but the movies are too, so I suppose that's OK,' he says. He has two projects, one being Demolition Man, an action comedy with Sylvester Stallone set 30 years hence - not the tech noir future of Terminator 2 or Total Recall but a 'user-friendly world where no one smokes or drinks' (sounds much like LA today).

But the main object of the exercise is to pitch an unlikely alliance. On the one hand, the king of the genre picture ('Movies today are completely concept-driven. If Schwarzenegger made the story of Louis Pasteur's life, no one would come.'). On the other, there is the Coen brothers, masters of the offbeat comedy, whose Barton Fink swept the board at Cannes two years ago. The fruit of their union is something called The Hudsucker Proxy, a satirical comedy with Tim Robbins and Paul Newman, and it will be a tough call for Silver to parley the Coens' undisputed succes d'estime into a big commercial hit. But he's giving it his best shot. 'There are always ways of selling a picture in a fashion that can mandate its success,' he says frankly. In a way, Silver's presence sums up Hollywood's current view of Cannes. In a business sense it's imperative - he has, after all, flown the Atlantic for a single day's visit. But, at the same time, the critics appear peripheral - Hudsucker's promo reel was barred to the press and Silver was decidedly vague on whether the completed film would eventually get a festival unveiling.

The official competition has thrown up another pearl: Chen Kaige's well-received Farewell to My Concubine. This is a sumptuously mounted epic spanning 50 years of Chinese history and centred on two actors in the Peking opera and their love triangle with a prostitute. The film is riveting on many levels. It's a Chinese view of the events that led from the Japanese invasion in 1931 to the Cultural Revolution and its effect on the artistic community. One of the most powerful sequences, in which the three central characters betray one another at a show trial, is rooted in Chen's own memories of how he denounced his father. Another strand follows the trio's tortured psychosexual entanglements: the singer who specialises in female roles becomes gay, almost by force of circumstances, while his leading man and lover yields to social pressure and marries the prostitute. This side of the story, explored and performed with immense force and subtlety, works better than the historical fresco which, despite the film's running time of nearly three hours, sometimes feels a little rushed. But the film should shine at international arthouses.

Elsewhere there were disappointments, from the Taviani brothers (although their new film, Fiorile, about a family undone by gold-lust, was much liked by some critics) and from Wim Wenders. His movie, Far Away, So Close], was a rambling companion piece to Wings of Desire which featured a brief and rather pointless cameo from Mikhail Gorbachev and lacked much of the earlier film's beauty and its dense, poetic script.

The festival's original plans for a Masters programme foundered on the sad dearth of Masters to put in it, but in any case the remnants of this section - two films, by Kurosawa and Greenaway, now simply showing hors concours - only seemed to prove malicious rumours that it was always intended as a ghetto for big names whose new work wasn't up to scratch. Kurosawa's Madadayo, a tribute to his old teacher, had some lovely moments and was by no means without interest, but long tracts of it were very dull. It looks unlikely to open in the United Kingdom.

Greenaway, who made no bones about the fact that he'd have preferred to be in competition, weighed in with The Baby of Macon. This was a kind of ornate oratorio set in the 17th century and structured as a play-within-a-film about a 'miraculous' child born into a barren community. The baby's teenage sister claims it as her own and attempts to canonise it for big profits. But the affair ends very badly - and bloodily - for all concerned. Unfolding in a dark, claustrophobic (in fact, rather womb-like) world draped in red brocade, glowing with candle light and echoing with the sound of ritual chanting, the film is meant as a critique of exploitation of and violence done to children from the infamous Benetton baby ad to the Jamie Bulger murder, but it comes across as stiflingly artificial and not a little repetitive.

That's Greenaway, of course. At a rather muted press conference he pointed out that he'd always rejected the 'psychodrama of the 19th century which dominates world cinema' adding that a lot of purists hadn't liked his Tempest - 'they think you should tackle Shakespeare the way that Kenneth Branagh treats Shakespeare' he said with the merest hint of disdain, in what sounded like a preemptive strike against Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing which was chosen for the competition and plays here tomorrow. And he made light of the technical gremlin that interrupted Baby's projection and inspired a flurry of walk-outs: 'The film is divided into three acts and one-third of the audience had disappeared by Act 3. I'm a great numerologist and take some comfort from this concatenation.' But it seemed like an elegant and witty intellectualisation of the fact that, despite Greenaway's cult status in Cannes, his new film hadn't been enjoyed by a large section of his audience.

And that 'Cinema against Aids' press conference in full. Well, we were all given a ton of very expensive literature: an over-designed booklet publicising HBO, a leaflet plugging Gap, a glossy and embossed brochure promoting the Moulin Rouge and a string of coloured plastic beads ('Wear them or share them with blue jeans and love'), and an amulet whose protection against Aids seems dubious. Liz Taylor, a tiny woman in white with huge bouffant hair, stood up and told the throng of reporters and batteries of television crews that she was, in fact, present not as an actress but as 'the voice of the needle user in the inner city'. HBO did some heavy pitching for its forthcoming Aids movie, And the Band Played On. The disease itself was generally lamented. And then they all went off to watch Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger.

(Photograph omitted)