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Film: 50th Cannes Film Festival

Back in 1946, when Cannes staged its first film festival, Britain was represented by David Lean's Brief Encounter. The sight of Home Counties heroine Celia Johnson sobbing into her hanky to the accompaniment of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto clearly didn't much impress that year's jury, who awarded the main prizes elsewhere.

Given Francois Truffaut's old jibe about the "incompatibility between the terms 'cinema' and 'Britain'", it is perhaps not surprising that British film-makers have often returned empty-handed from Cannes. Although Mike Leigh won the Palme D'Or last year for Secrets and Lies (French-funded admittedly), the announcement earlier this week of the 1997 festival selection suggests the Brits won't make much of a show at this year's 50th anniversary.

British hopes of a second successive Palme D'Or lie with Gary Oldman, who takes his place behind the camera with Nil By Mouth, a rites-of-passage story set in south-east London that has already earned him the sobriquet of "the Deptford De Niro", and with Michael Winterbottom, whose Welcome to Sarajevo offers a dramatised account of how ITN journalist Michael Nicholson came to adopt a Bosnian child. Oldman also appears alongside Bruce Willis in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, which opens the festival.

Outside the main competition, Judi Dench and Billy Connolly enjoy a knees- up in Victorian mufti in John Madden's comedy, His Majesty, Mrs Brown, Hanif Kureishi figures as scriptwriter for Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic, the ubiquitous Ewan McGregor pops up in Philippe Rousselot's The Serpent's Kiss, and Sean Mathias's Bent features in The Critics' Week.

Even if they have precious few pictures in the festival, the Brits in Cannes will still have plenty to gossip about. They'll be waiting on tenterhooks to hear how the Arts Council has decided to divide the pounds 156m of National Lottery cash promised to the film industry, and they'll all want to catch a glimpse of the new Heritage Secretary, who ought to be in town.

While the international critics try to judge the relative merits of new films by Wim Wenders, Matthieu Kassovitz, Wong-Kar Wai and Atom Egoyan, and wait to see if Johnny Depp can direct as prettily as he acts (his directorial debut, The Brave, is in competition), the photographers will be on the look-out for starlets who can emulate Bardot and the 1996 cynosure, Liv Tyler. Lately, Cannes has lost out to Venice in the battle for Hollywood glitter, but Gilles Jacob's decision to close the festival with Clint Eastwood's thriller Absolute Power should ensure that at least Clint turns up.

In 1946, delegates enjoyed a leisurely glass of champagne in the gardens of the Grand Hotel as fireworks exploded above them. In 1997, the celebrations are likely to be rather wilder. After all, it has taken Cannes a long while to reach its 50th anniversary. The first festival was planned to open at the beginning of September 1939, with Mae West as special guest, but Hitler sabotaged the event by ordering the Nazi invasion of Poland. The 1948 and 1950 festivals were cancelled. Only in 1951 was Cannes put on a firm footing. It has run uninterrupted since then, with just one notable blip: in May 1968, Godard, Truffaut and co closed down the 21st festival after a week as a gesture of solidarity with the students and striking workers. (Which film-makers these days would be politicised enough to make such a gesture?)

This year's films are in danger of being relegated to sideshow status: competition won't hinge so much on winning the Palme D'Or as on throwing the most lavish party. All the accommodation in the little seaside town for the first two weeks in May has long since gone. Not even politicians can pull rank to get themselves a room. (Reportedly, one British sales company provoked the wrath of Jacques Chirac by booking the Imperial Suite in the hotel where the French President intended to stay.)

Although industry pundits like to boast about how easy it is to set up meetings when so many producers, directors, sellers and buyers are in town, Cannes has always been as much about hedonism as hard work. One veteran sales agent grumbles about "the very, very long period of immense expense with nobody ever really doing their business very seriously".

The enduring fascination of the festival lies in its carnivalesque clash of opposites. Complementing the official competition (or, depending on your point of view, its bastard younger brother) is the Cannes Market, Le Marche International Du Film as it proclaims itself, which was officially established in 1961 and now attracts hundreds of films, some from "reputable" sales companies, many from hucksters and mountebanks. You can watch the latest masterpieces of world cinema in the vast, Escorial-like Palais Du Cinema, then slope off to some backstreet, shoebox-sized screening- room to catch up on Bugged! (its best scene is a killer cockroach devouring an innocent squirrel) or some other monstrosity from low-budget schlockmeisters, Troma. There are even the "Hot D'Or" awards for the best sex films. It seems that Cannes in May is one honeypot that the flies just can't resist.