Cannes Diary: That's no movie, it's a dirty trick

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The Independent Culture

As a critic in Cannes, you put yourself into a weird artificial state in which time seems to stretch elastically, the world outside never existed, and your body convinces your brain that you're in a fit state to take anything that the image factory can throw at you: it's a bit like living inside The Matrix. At any rate, neither the human organism nor the makers of The Matrix Reloaded really meant you to be sitting in a screening theatre watching Carrie-Ann Moss somersault in full-blast Dolby stereo through a plate glass window – at 8.30 on a Thursday morning.

As a critic in Cannes, you put yourself into a weird artificial state in which time seems to stretch elastically, the world outside never existed, and your body convinces your brain that you're in a fit state to take anything that the image factory can throw at you: it's a bit like living inside The Matrix. At any rate, neither the human organism nor the makers of The Matrix Reloaded really meant you to be sitting in a screening theatre watching Carrie-Ann Moss somersault in full-blast Dolby stereo through a plate glass window – at 8.30 on a Thursday morning.

The Matrix sequel may prove to be the liveliest and most hotly-discussed item in this festival. So far, portents are not good. Usually, there's some sort of buzz in the air about what items are hotly awaited. But few punters here are wildly excited about any festival prospects, although we should probably get ready for a crush outside the Von Trier press show.

And as for kicking off with Fanfan la Tulipe... Regulars have long tended to steer clear of the opening night film, especially if it's a French costume drama. But no one expected such a dud as this, denounced as "calamitous" in the French press. A Luc Besson-produced remake of a 1952 romp, this witless 18th-century vehicle for Vincent Perez and Penélope Cruz was so lame – imagine a French Carry On Blackadder – that the following morning, the critics of newspaper Libération published their own apology, in the name of "critical dignity and the human condition", to anyone who'd sat through it. It didn't help that the film was prefaced by the latest episode of festival president Gilles Jacob's documentary assemblage of Cannes' starriest moments. Oh, and for those of us who care about these things, the predicted opening night razzle-dazzle – ie an appearance by Tom Cruise on the arm of la Penélope – didn't take place.

How does a dead horse like Fanfan get to open such a prestigious festival? One theory would chime with the prevalent rumour that the Americans intended to stay away this year because of war anxiety and anti-French feeling. Whether you believe that or no, the most likely explanation of Fanfan's presence was that it was engineered into Cannes by American interests, as a way of discrediting both the festival and France in general. If Penélope Cruz is unmasked as a CIA operative, don't be surprised.

Come Wednesday evening, the mood among the critics was already so sluggish that when the sound broke down for ten minutes in the so-so new Raul Ruiz film, the crowd – usually extravagantly vocal about these matters – could barely muster a slow hand-clap. And the usual meat-market atmosphere, with "talent" of all nations widely available to be interviewed, photographed, stalked by all comers, is simply not here this year. The most heavily-promoted new movies are ones being launched outside the festival proper – one a British comedy about naked WI ladies starring Julie Walters, the other the third Terminator film, the excuse for a massively publicised MTV party on Saturday night. One likes to imagine Julie and Arnie getting together over a plate of fondant fancies to mull over the whole sorry affair.

Perhaps they'll also share a snigger over the item in the Market that's already brought the most light relief, purely on the strength of its title: a Bollywood romance entitled Jism: The Dark Side of Desire. One hesitates to say it's making a splash.

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