Cannes: a user's guide

Starlets! Scandal! Reputations won and lost! The world's greatest film festival is nearly upon us -and this year's looks like it will provide a vintage crop of cinema and controversy. Let Jonathan Romney mark your card for two weeks of celluloid fever on the Côte d'Azur

It's a recognised illness: Cannes Fever. In its most extreme form, it affects people while they're actually at the festival, and it manifests itself as a terrible delusion: that nothing in the world matters except events on a short strip of beachfront promenade a few miles from Nice.

However, early forms of the disease take a grip months ahead of the festivities, beginning with ardent speculation about what might possibly turn up on the competition list. Then, as things hot up, with the competition films announced only a month ahead, anxious publicists try to establish which films they'll be representing and which capricious "talent" might turn up to accompany them; journalists calculate how many snatched 10-minute round-table interviews (with a star and up to 20 other interviewers of varying languages) they'll need to break even on their visit; and no doubt star-spotters draw up minute charts to determine precisely where outside the Hotel Martinez they need to stand in order to catch a glimpse of Kirsten Dunst's shoulders.

But for those who fancy themselves as celebrants of that grandly arcane cult le cinéma, Cannes Fever is a justifiable frenzy, because it's at Cannes, as at no other festival - not even Berlin, Venice or Sundance - that history is made, reputedly at least. The real history of world cinema may be written behind the scenes, in the offices of sales agents, or at business lunches in TriBeCa, but Cannes-goers still like to think that it's only here that the marble slabs of posterity are really carved.

There's something to be said for this supposition: certainly Cannes, like no other festival, is known for making and breaking reputations.

There's a taste for scandal in the air, a smack of La Scala Milan in the press screenings, where even the highest-minded crowds can turn feral and start baying for blood. It happens to the strangest films, and for this reason: in a festival where you routinely expect every other film to be a masterpiece or a catastrophe, people get testy and impatient. They often get it wrong too, sometimes shamefully so: as witness the barracking that notoriously greeted Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (a history-changing film if ever there was one) in 1960, or indeed Jane Campion's Sweetie in 1989. Sometimes mere indifference can be as bad: one of the most extraordinary films I ever saw in Cannes, Alexei Guerman's barmy, visionary epic of Stalinism, Khroustaliev, My Car! played to the resounding clatter of seats popping up as the auditorium emptied.

But there's something about the Cannes competition, the air of pomp and expectation that surrounds it, that means a working director gets to be, if only for one night, a bona fide red carpet auteur. The competition is massively important because the eyes of the world are on it, or appear to be: a well-respected film-maker can be promoted overnight into a world-class director, and a world-class director can become a demi-god - or a laughing stock.

There's a terrible cultural phenomenon called Cannes Crash-and-Burn Syndrome, which particularly befalls highly rated, usually young, French film-makers: after one or two critically esteemed films, they come to Cannes, over-reach with a grand statement, and are showered with critical bile from which some never recover. It happened to Jean-Jacques Beineix with The Moon in the Gutter, to Leos Carax with Pola X, to Mathieu (La Haine) Kassovitz with his truly appalling Assassin(s) [sic] - all grossly indulgent films that resulted from the film-maker's own version of Cannes Fever, the need to take the Croisette by storm. This year, it could happen to young French directors Xavier Giannoli and Lucas Belvaux; but let's hope it doesn't, because they're good directors, and because, honestly, who wants to sit through a bad film in competition?

Actually, many do: when things are flagging, there's nothing like a really bad film to raise the spirits, and there was certainly nothing like Vincent Gallo's notorious The Brown Bunny. I say, not without a degree of shame, that I wouldn't have missed the euphoria, indeed hysteria, of its press screening for anything. What provoked the critics was that Gallo's rampant ego radiated in every shot, and the film's savaging revealed a great truth about Cannes. To wit, although the festival loves a maestro - a creative monster with the swagger of a Fellini or a Kusturica and Almodóvar - it also warms to the humble, the straightforward, the cheerful. That's why Cannes welcomes the bonhomie of Almodóvar, the quiet modesty of the twice-winning Dardennes brothers, the lucidity of David Cronenberg, or the hopeful earnestness of the youngish film-makers who might find themselves deservedly rocketed into the pantheon.

Among the latter, in this year's competition, I'd tip the extraordinary Turkish film-maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who made the wonderful, contemplative Uzak in 2002. Ceylan is so unassumingly go-it-alone that the reason he was so hard to track down for interviews on Uzak was not standoffishness, but a full schedule: he was working single-handedly as his own sales agent and producer. This year he co-stars with his wife Ebru Ceylan in Climates, a relationship drama that could be the most moving, and most personal film in competition.

Another to watch is Friend of the Family, by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose existential thriller The Consequences of Love was one of the revelations of 2004. This year, Sorrentino's high-risk ploy is to tell the story of a 60-year-old, physically repulsive loan shark and child-molester who has an incestuous relationship with his 86-year-old mother - and to make him sympathetic. Expect it to be at the very least a succès de scandale - this year's incumbent of the competition slot occupied last year by Mexican sex-death-and-metaphysics drama Battle in Heaven.

Another new name in the spotlight is Britain's Andrea Arnold, who won an Oscar with her short Wasp. Her debut feature Red Road stars Natalie Press (from My Summer of Love) as a Glaswegian CCTV operator. Having a debut in competition is a rare and enviable honour - or a poisoned chalice. Because of the attention, people will be expecting a revelation, and just plain "good" might not be enough for some. But then look what a competition slot did for a certain debut US indie director in 1989 - Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape won the Palme d'Or, so nothing is impossible.

Apart from these new and newish talents, this year's competition is solidly packed with major names - not just prestige auteurs but exciting directors who might genuinely be expected to come up with something extraordinary. By far the glitziest attraction is Sofia Coppola's historical extravaganza Marie-Antoinette, with Kirsten Dunst doling out the petit fours, and a supporting cast including Rip Torn, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento and Marianne Faithfull. Equally starry is another multi-strander from the Mexican master of jigsaw fiction Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who follows Amores Perros and 21 Grams with Babel, set in Japan, Mexico, the US and Morocco, and starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and ubiquitous Cannes poster boy Gael Garcia Bernal.

In fact, in a year where Asia is unusually all but absent from the competition, Spanish-language films are on the up: others include Pan's Labyrinth, from erratic but often inspired fantasy master Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Hellboy). Set in post-Civil War Spain, it features Sergi Lopez and, no doubt, abundant special effects. Also, lately bumped into competition, is one from highly rated - but as yet, little known - Argentinian director Adrian Caetano, Cronica de una fuga, with Rodrigo de la Serna, who stole the show in The Motorcycle Diaries.

There will be political controversy too, both in and out of festival. Expect a very heated press conference around Ken Loach's confrontational IRA drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, set in the 1920s; Nanni Moretti's The Caiman, a cheerfully angry demolition of Silvio Berlusconi; and from China, Lou Ye's Summer Palace, a relationship drama set against Tiananmen Square, that is predictably attracting ominous scrutiny from the Chinese authorities. The first of the coming wave of 9/11 dramas also plays out of competition: Paul Greengrass's vivid docudrama-style United 93.

This year's competition is so packed - and let's not even mention blockbuster unveilings such as The Da Vinci Code and X-Men: The Last Stand - that critics might not even have much time left for the festival's other sections. But no doubt there'll be a crowded house for the all-star opener of the Un Certain Regard sidebar: Paris je t'aime.

In it, 20 film-makers (including Olivier Assayas, Gurinder Chadha, the Coens, Wes Craven and Gus Van Sant) pay smitten respects to France's true capital of cinematic dreams - and not to Paris Hilton, although the way Cannes has been going in recent years, that wouldn't have been a surprise...

The Cannes Film Festival, from Wednesday to 28 May, www.festival-cannes.fr

Cannes 2006: the close-up

Good Guy, Bad Guy

This year's competition includes arguably the most-loved and least-loved directors in the biz. The French director Bruno Dumont - possibly the surliest man in the business - made a superb debut with La Vie de Jésus in 1997, then blew his credit with the overblown L'Humanité (loved by some, derided by many). It didn't help to issue a staggeringly self-important press kit crammed with Dumont's cinemetaphysical pensées. But let's be fair and keep an open mind: given the brilliance of his debut, his new film Flandres, about the horrors of war, could be dazzling, although you can bet it won't be fun. No less a master of misery is Finland's bloodhound-like Aki Kaurismäki (inset) whose hangman's demeanour belies the fact that his ostensibly glum realist comedy-dramas can lift the heart like little else. Lights in the Dusk is the last in his so-called "unemployment trilogy", but could well leave punters beaming - especially if one of Aki's pet dogs gets the usual cameo.

Head-scratchers and stomach-turners

Finding it hard these days to know where film ends and art begins? Try these crossovers: the British artist Douglas Gordon co-directs a portrait of Zinedine Zidane, Zidane: un portrait, while assorted provocateurs from both film and gallery worlds get together for the (reputedly very mixed) hard-core sex anthology Destricted: directors include Sam Taylor-Wood (inset), Matthew Barney, Larry Clark, Marina Abramovic and Gaspar Noé. And if that seems too tame, then you'll probably want to try Taxidermia - an allegedly jaw-dropping Hungarian film about murder, mutants, obesity, and taxidermy that, according to Variety, "one-ups David Cronenberg's worst nightmare".

The hardest working man in showbiz

This could be a good Cannes for the indefatigable, unpredictable Texan hipster Richard Linklater, who's equally likely to turn in a crowd-pleaser ( School of Rock) or an art-house experiment such as the dreamy animation piece Waking Life. This year, he has two films in Cannes: his competition entry is Fast Food Nation, a fictionalised version of Eric Schlosser's bestselling exposé of the horrors of the burger biz. But the one to tickle jaded palates may be A Scanner Darkly in the Un Certain Regard section - it's an exotic hybrid of live action and animation based on the novel by Philip K Dick. Keanu Reeves stars, giving audiences another chance to wonder, is he real, or just drawn?

The hottest ticket in town

Without a doubt, the competition film surrounded by the most question marks is Southland Tales, the second feature by precocious Donnie Darko whiz Richard Kelly. This one is set in LA in 2008, is described as "part musical, part comedy, part thriller, part science fiction". A bizarre cast includes the Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Miranda Richardson , Kevin ( Clerks) Smith and Justin Timberlake, and the tag line is "Warning: You are entering a domain of chaos." In other words, expect the exotic - or be afraid, be very afraid.

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