FILM / Cannes Festival: it's a wrap: Sheila Johnston believes that this year's Cannes Festival successes challenge the dull and conventional

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The Independent Culture
CONTRARY to popular belief among my colleagues, Cannes is not (well, all right, not just) a pretext to spend 12 sun-soaked days on the Cote d'Azur. It's an essential date in the film writer's calendar. The reason is simple: in Britain, critics find themselves confined to movies that happen (often for no visible reason) to have landed a commercial UK release.

A good 80 to 90 per cent of them are American, and either routine blockbusters or B-movies given a week in the cinema for contractual purposes before ending up in their rightful home on video. This state of affairs (which applies, by the way, a fortiori to critics outside London) springs from the fact that cinemas in Britain are more heavily colonised by Hollywood than in many other countries. But it bears no relation at all to the international state of the art.

This is where the major festivals come in. At Cannes, the two dozen or so films in competition are meant to provide a more balanced diet of the cream (and roughage) of world cinema. Meanwhile smaller sections like - in Cannes - the Critics' Week, the Directors' Fortnight and Un Certain Regard lay out a smorgasbord of oddball fare where critics can go grazing in search of tomorrow's top auteurs. It's a welcome reminder that there is life outside Hollywood.

This year's Cannes filled only part of its mandate. Usually the festival harbours a dark horse (Bob Roberts and Strictly Ballroom last year; Pedro Almodovar in previous ones) - a new film or director lurking in the market or one of the sidebar programmes that becomes the talk of the town. But there was none of that this year.

The wares on sale all seemed to be either dull little films which had already done the rounds of other markets, or what Hollywood calls 'tentpole movies' - forthcoming blockbusters like The Last Action Hero, Stallone's Demolition Man or Roland Joffe's Moby Dick which were being pre-sold, sight unseen, for stellar sums. As, indeed, were some of the big critical successes like the co-winner of this year's Palme D'Or, the Chinese film Farewell to My Concubine: the original asking price for the United Kingdom was said to be dollars 500,000 (it has not yet been sold here). So there wasn't the traditional excitement of a film festival - the discovery of tomorrow's surprise hits or household names.

As for the competition, it's true that it was not dominated by the usual suspects from America: there were just three entries, a dull, rather pointless remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers from Abel Ferrara, Falling Down, Joel Schumacher's much-debated chronicle of white middle-class disaffection in post-riots LA (more about this when it opens next Friday) and King of the Hill, a small charmer from Steven Soderbergh, who was the toast of Cannes four years ago with his first feature, sex, lies and videotape.

But the selection could scarcely claim to offer a comprehensive panorama of world cinema. Huge patches of the globe - South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, India, the Middle East - were barely represented in a spread heavily dominated by Europe and the Far East. That's partly due to the vagaries of local production: Latin America has been quiet on the film front for a long time now, as is Eastern Europe, for obvious reasons. It would be understandable, however - if about a million miles wide of the mark - if a foreign observer were to imagine the British film industry to be one of the most vibrant in the world: there were four British movies in competition, plus one UK / South African one, apart from Stephen Frears' The Snapper, chosen to open the Directors' Fortnight, and sundry smaller films in the sidebars.

And British films took a mighty bite of the prize cake, with three major awards going to Mike Leigh's Naked and Ken Loach's Raining Stones - the latter despite being given a rotten slot on the last Sunday of the festival (generally a dustbin for the duff stuff) and only a single screening. Several British critics felt that another of our entries, Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, had been unfairly neglected: it was, after all, one of the festival's more enjoyable entries, and presents a rather rosier aspect of British culture than Loach and Leigh, whose films (dark comedies set among, respectively, the unemployed and the homeless) jointly paint an excoriating portrait of Major's Britain. And critics in America (where it has already opened) have given it their seal of approval.

Indeed, as a whole, the winners were a heavyweight line-up. The festival's two undisputed succes d'estime (Jane Campion's The Piano and Chen Kaige's Farewell to My Concubine) were duly crowned with the highest glory. The second prize-winner, Wim Wenders' Faraway, So Close] was a less popular decision - there were grumbles that Wenders, who now has quite a collection of Cannes trophies for his mantelpiece, had been unfairly favoured (even though other former laureates like Soderbergh and the Taviani Brothers didn't win a sausage). One French newspaper even claimed that Louis Malle, the jury president, was so convinced of Faraway's merits that he prevailed upon his fellow jurors to sit through it again.

The joint third prize (with Raining Stones) went to the Taiwanese film The Puppetmaster, which may be respectfully reviewed when it surfaces here but, perhaps because it was screened late in the festival when patience and stamina were wearing thin, seemed to many like a long, hard slog.

The Americans went away empty- handed, although some had thought that Michael Douglas might be tossed the Best Actor Award as a sop to Hollywood sensibilities (and an incentive to keep those stars, notably absent this year, coming to the Croisette). All of which prompts the thought: it's very well for Cannes to present an alternative to Hollywood, but did this year's festival single out stodgy arthouse fare for its snob value and ignore the movies that the international film-going public really wants to see?

I'd answer that emphatically in the negative, and not just because my personal favourites won the top prize. These reflected - as usual - the jury president's personal tastes. But the choice seemed almost devoid of political manoeuvring (despite Malle's French nationality, there was only one minor prize for the home team, which usually swipes more than its share of the kitty) and of compromise decisions like last year's winner, Best Intentions, which few believed to be the strongest contender.

And commercial attractiveness shouldn't be the main criterion (although, as it happens, The Piano opened in the Paris area last week to excellent business). Work that is bold and strange and pushes back the envelope will have a harder time reaching an audience, but for me a film like Much Ado, while very engaging, remains a lesser achievement than, say, Leigh's savage, entirely original movie or Campion's spectacular and bizarre erotic triangle.

All festivals (especially Cannes) run to some extent on star power, while affecting to disdain it, but their true purpose should be to rise above the hot air and easy hype. After all, we get plenty of that back home, and perhaps the keenest pleasure in Cannes this year was being able to miss out on the London launch of Planet Hollywood.

(Photographs omitted)