FILM / Cannes Diary: Naked launch: Sheila Johnston reports on the opening of the 1993 film festival

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THE first thing we clapped eyes on at Nice airport was a large placard announcing something called 'Brainshare'. This was rather alarming: we were by no means sure that we'd like to mix grey cells with most of the characters hereabouts, but the sign proved an eerie forecast of things to come - it does seem a brainier Cannes than usual this year. It's tempting to put that down to the muted Hollywood presence - only three films in competition, although the media were tossed a crumb in the shape of a short extract from Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero. There are no multi-plane flypasts and a refreshing dearth of billboards along the seafront, even if the entrance to the Carlton Hotel is, as usual, straddled by a colossus. Once this was James Bond, in 1992 it was the Pink Panther and this year a dinosaur heralds Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Gilles Jacob, a festival director, did his darndest to bag this movie for the closing night gala, but no dice - we must make do instead with a cheapo Roger Corman clone, Carnosaur. In short, it's all quiet on the Cote d'Azure - the local paper led with the memorable non- headline 'A peaceful opening'. And with Louis Malle, the jury president, hinting that the Palme d'Or will not fall to a commercial picture, the prospects are good for a meaty festival.

Two films stand out so far in competition. Strategically previewed to critics in London and Paris, Jane Campion's magnificent The Piano is already strongly favoured. If Campion wins, she will be the first woman to take the top prize and will also win a triumphant victory over all those who booed her powerful first film, Sweetie, here a couple of years ago. The Piano is a passionate gothic love story set in New Zealand in the early 19th century. In an almost frighteningly intense performance, Holly Hunter plays a Scottish woman who arrives there with her daughter for an arranged marriage and is drawn into an all-engulfing affair with another settler (Harvey Keitel). The twist is that, for reasons that remain mysterious, Hunter can't speak; she expresses her emotions through her most precious possession, her piano. When Keitel requests lessons from her, these become the pretext for a finely coded and fiercely erotic courtship, played out against an extraordinary landscape that seems like a mud and rain- steeped fallen Eden. Full of astonishing imagery and rich intricate symbolism, it's the most perfectly achieved film yet from a remarkable director.

Mike Leigh is in Cannes for the first time and unknown to many foreign critics, but his explosive new film, Naked, establishes him at a blow as a name to conjure with. This comedy (of sorts), set among London's homeless, is a sharp break with his previous work (although still an inimitable Leigh film) and one that many will find strong meat, particularly in its violent view of relations between the sexes. It opens with a bang - a rape in a dark alley - and you soon realise that the perpetrator (played by David Thewlis) is to be our leading man. The film charts his pilgrim's progress through a decaying, recession-locked, nocturnal London and his encounters with a series of sharply but sympathetically etched drifters and marginals. Leigh is a master of creating characters who seem at first foolish or repulsive but who gradually emerge as engaging. That can't quite be said of Thewlis, but he's a fascinating figure, by turns sardonically witty, a sad case and a dangerous, deeply unpleasant man. One's pride at the reception here - it's a front-runner in the daily polls of international critics - is tempered by shame at its tough, bleak vision ('Is England really that bad?' was one of the first questions at the press conference). Naked forms a powerful companion- piece to Ken Loach's competition entry, Raining Stones (playing here next weekend), as a bitterly comic portrait of the way too many people now live.