FILM / It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it: Welcome to the Cannes Film Festival: the Sweet Smell of Success and The Day of the Locusts all in one. Sheila Johnston prepares for the invasion of the publicity snatchers

It started, as these things do, rather quietly.

MONDAY (72 hours to Zero Hour): Along the seafront the billboards were all still given over to a showjumping competition. The ladies-who-lunch, who seem to make up much of the town's 'normal' population, were still promenading sedately down the narrow pavements, and their toy poodles and Yorkshire terriers were still roaming free. In the chi-chi boutiques on the rue d'Antibes, the shopkeepers were still devising their festive window displays. Most contented themselves with a poster or two, or the odd desultory strip of celluloid, but, over there, two elegant women in stilettos and rubber gloves were gingerly spray-painting some palm fronds. Not everything lends itself readily to the filmic theme: my personal Golden Palm for ingenuity goes to the surgical appliance store which has dug up some stills of Jean-Louis Barrault as the mime artist in Les Enfants du Paradis to decorate its new range of hearing aids.

Cannes is used to being colonised. One hundred and sixty years ago Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor of England, came, saw, sampled the bouillabaisse and built himself a wonderful villa here. There are still many traces of those salad days when all of fashionable London would descend to winter on the French Riviera. But today no one cares about the past. At the festival, everyone's eyes are on the exciting new projects, the up-and-coming stars. And today the colonisers are American.

TUESDAY (48 hours to Zero Hour): Clint Eastwood, the President of the Jury, jetted into Nice and stayed just long enough on the runway for the local paper to snatch a blurry photo before he vanished to a villa high up in the hills. His eventual coming to the Croisette, reported Nice Matin, is awaited like that of a messiah.

Clint, it is believed, will be the salvation of this year's festival. Journalists covering the event can traditionally choose one of two angles: (a) Hollywood is taking over Cannes or (b) Hollywood is snubbing Cannes. In 1994 we are all checking box (b). There are no big Studio pictures in competition unless you count Mike Figgis' The Browning Version, a UK/US co-production with Albert Finney, and therefore the threat that there will be few stars. The talk is that the Americans, still smarting from the GATT dust-up, have retired in a sulk. This is officially denied.

The Palais was still locked shut, but you could slip inside through the stage door. There, men in baseball caps were wheeling around a small jungle of pot plants on little trolleys to the sound of hammering and the smell of floor polish and fresh paint. Nondescript corners and corridors were mutating into an Espace Ingmar Bergman or an Allee Akira Kurosawa.

'A couple of days ago this was just a patch of grass,' says Peter Cowie, the occupant of one of 80 identical white prefabs that have sprouted up behind the Palais. Now it's the base of Variety's 15-strong editorial team: the Hollywood paper is publishing one of the festival's four or five daily guides. The simple prefab houses a high-tech operation. 'We used to print in Nice,' Cowie says. 'And, once, the guy transporting the magazines had a blow-out on the Nice-Cannes autoroute. He had no portable phone and had to walk miles . . .' Those days are gone. Now everyone has a laptop, aPsion organiser, a portable fax and phone. In two days' time, the atmosphere will be positively electronic.

Over in the Carlton, Oscar Moore, editor of Variety's deadly rival, Screen International, was savouring the moment . 'The riff-raff start arriving tomorrow.'

WEDNESDAY (24 hours to Zero Hour): It was time for the has-beens and wannabes and (for those who can afford it) their personal publicity consultants to begin jockeying for position.

Time to make that call, place that 10 by 8 ad or press release somewhere, anywhere. 'I tell my clients: never mind the quality, feel the column inches,' says one harassed PR. Does be ever feel like Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success? 'Oh . . . yes.'

But Dennis Davidson uberpublicist of Cannes, is calmly sipping emergency rations of Marks & Spencer tea. Over the last 22 years he has made his PR office a regular pitstop for ravenous reporters, and can wait for them to come to him. In the Seventies, he arrived at the office one morning to see Jack Nicholson roll in from a night on the tiles and tumble straight into a press interview. That couldn't happen today. Today the media are here mobhanded and he is in the business of crowd management, 'It's like Day of the Locusts. There are 5000 accredited journalists. Even if Bruce Willis agrees to do 250 interviews, you're only covering five per cent of them.

'When I was 16 I wanted to be a banker or an accountant. Then I got a temporary job as a management trainee at my local cinema, the ABC Chester. And suddenly I had 40 staff, including some very attractive usherettes, all calling me 'Sir' or 'Mr Davidson', and I thought, who wants to be a banker?' International showbiz management . . . it's a dirty job but someone has to do it.

By the evening the riff raff were arriving in force, most of them making straight for Le Petit Carlton, noted watering hole of the hack pack. 'Our bar attracts people of taste,' says M Constantin, the genial patron. The place has been redecorated accordingly, but many a tired and emotional scene will be played out there in the small hours (closing time: 5am) and some regular clients of taste have noted a new fixture, a discreet video surveillance camera.

THURSDAY MORNING (12 hours to Zero Hour): The pedestrian flow was pelting along the Croisette. Seasoned locals had hot-footed it out of town (it was a public holiday) and the smarter lapdogs had long since run for cover. Conversations were rising in pitch and volume. And then Clint came down from the mountain . . .

SHEILA JOHNSTON'S 1994 CANNES PREDICTIONS

1 An American (independent) film will win the Golden Palm

2 Someone Very Important will be turned away by the gorillas guarding the Palais (cf Mike Leigh, '93)

3 Menahem Golem will throw a big party. It will turn out to be a press conference with no peanuts.

4 The French films in competition will be awful. But one will win a prize, to a chorus of booing.

5 Arnold Schwarzenegger will jet in 'unannounced'. No one will want to interview him. But they will.

6 Everyone will complain that the films aren't as good as last year.

7 Everyone will complain about the prices.

8 Everyone will complain that there aren't enough stars.

9 No one will complain about the food.

10 Everyone will complain, bitterly, as they put down their deposit on a hotel room for next year.

Sheila Johnston's next report from Cannes will apear on Tuesday

(Photographs omitted)

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