Film: What a swell location to sell films in

European arthouse meets Hollywood blockbuster at the Venice Film Festival.
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The Independent Culture
THE VENICE Film Festival is the oldest and most elegant of the three major European film bazaars. Founded in the Mussolini era, it has none of the seaside town tackiness of Cannes in May, and is nowhere near as cold and forbidding as Berlin in February. Everything about the Venice Lido suggests luxury and fading grandeur. The tone is set by the two main festival hotels, the Hotel Des Bains, where Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice, and the Excelsior, where a round of Bellinis (the drink of choice for well-heeled festival-goers) costs about as much as the budget for a small European film.

One of the recurring joys of Venice is the clash between Hollywood and European art-house cinema. The studios see the festival as the ideal autumn launch-pad for their big movies. They're capable of the most ludicrous publicity stunts. In 1995, Denzel Washington popped up out of the Venice lagoon in an Italian Navy submarine to publicise The Crimson Tide. This year, the Hollywood invasion was led by Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

In the Private Ryan press conference, Tom Hanks paid light-hearted tribute to Spielberg, "the great artist and industrialist". Spielberg in turn paid homage to European cinema, talking about Fellini, whom he met when he came to Italy as a 23-year-old with his film Duel, and Antonioni. His next film, which has already been cast, will be Memoirs of a Geisha, an adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel.

It was striking to compare the rapturous reception given Spielberg, Hanks and co with the lack of interest shown in the Polish auteur, Andrzej Wajda, who had appeared on stage a few minutes before. Ditto Akira Kurosawa, who had the misfortune to pass away on the day Jim Carrey was in town.

Whatever distractions the Hollywood publicity bandwagon provided, it was still possible to watch up to eight new films a day. There were some pleasant surprises. Susanna Styron's Shadrach, a nostalgic, depression- era tale adapted from one of William Styron's stories, boasts a funny and warm-hearted performance from the usually irascible Harvey Keitel. John Dahl's Rounders, a low-key but cleverly scripted drama about poker, also hit the mark. Matt Damon, the film's lead, disconcerted interviewers by introducing them to his mother. Another young star with a parent in tow was the precocious 15-year-old Lelee Sobieski, who appears in James Ivory's A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. Among Sobieski's forthcoming projects is the new Stanley Kubrick effort, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick has sworn her to secrecy about the yet-to-be-completed film, but she offers an intriguing thumbnail sketch of the reclusive director. "He's not this weird guy. He dresses in the same clothes every day, which is fine because he doesn't smell bad - he probably has duplicates."

Kris Kristofferson, who also appears in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, wouldn't be drawn on the travails of a fellow Rhodes Scholar. "I inhaled, he didn't," was all he had to say about Clinton.

Amazingly, some journalists booed during the press screening of the one British film in competition this year, Anand Tucker's Hilary And Jackie. This hugely moving account of the relationship between the cellist Jacqueline du Pre (Emily Watson) and her sister Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) shatters for ever the old cliches about British cinema being emotionally repressed. Yves Angelo's austere, beautifully shot Voleur de Vie was also about the troubled relationship between two sisters (Emmanuelle Beart and Sandrine Bonnaire) while Claude Lelouch's Hasards ou Coinci-dences dealt with the grief and loneliness of a beautiful young dancer who loses her child.

With so many films striking such an introspective, mournful note, Tom Tykwer's wildly energetic Run Lola Run, in which a young, shock-haired punk races through the Berlin streets for a rendezvous she dare not miss, provided a welcome rush of adrenaline. Eric Rohmer's An Autumn's Tale, a perfectly constructed comedy with just a hint of melancholy about it, was another antidote to the gloom.

The festival doesn't finish until Sunday. With Pat O'Connor's Dancing At Lughnasa (which offers the intriguing pairing of Kathy Burke and Meryl Streep), Emir Kusturica's White Cat, Black Cat and Warren Beatty's Bulworth still to be screened, it is too early to say where the major prizes will go. Regardless of who wins the Golden Lion, though, it is still safe to assume that Hollywood will benefit the most from the fortnight on the Lido. For the Europeans, Venice may be about celebrating cinema as art, but, for the studios, the festival is one big publicity junket: a gilt- edged opportunity to sell their movies in one of the most scenic locations imaginable.