Cultural invasion

Cannes is capitulating to Hollywood - and it's stirring up trouble, says Tom Charity
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The Independent Culture

Film festivals are supposed to foster greater cultural understanding between nations and goodwill to all men - but with the 57th Cannes about to get under way, the organisers must be praying for an end to the ruction and distemper that had last year's event labelled "the worst ever" even before the halfway mark. It may prove a forlorn hope.

Film festivals are supposed to foster greater cultural understanding between nations and goodwill to all men - but with the 57th Cannes about to get under way, the organisers must be praying for an end to the ruction and distemper that had last year's event labelled "the worst ever" even before the halfway mark. It may prove a forlorn hope.

Festivals everywhere are struggling to define their role in a global marketplace dominated by the blockbuster-megaplex mentality. And while it may be an oversimplification to equate Hollywood with the United States, such nuances are easily overlooked in the polarised political climate post-September 11, and particularly in the aftermath of President Chirac's resolute objections to the war in Iraq.

The trade paper Variety made the link explicit even before last year's festival kicked off. Bush and Blair "may have undertaken Operation Iraqi Freedom without a French partner," wrote Steven Gaydos, "but try launching an assault on the Cannes Film Festival competition sans partenaire Français and you'll probably never get past the beach."

Gaydos pointed out that 86 per cent of the films selected for competition in Cannes over the previous three years already had a French distributor attached. The implication was that the competition selection was in the pocket of local interests - or, in Variety-speak, "If your film has no French dough, no go."

Variety's chief critic, Todd McCarthy, continued his attack on the art-house sector throughout the festival. Ironically, his harshest criticism was reserved for three films set in the US, two of them American: Vincent Gallo's notorious The Brown Bunny, Gus Van Sant's "gross and exploitative" Elephant, and Lars von Trier's Dogville, "an ideologically apocalyptic blast at American values."

As Sight and Sound editor Nick James observes: "Americans, unlike us, are unused to being seen as the world's bad guys. People like McCarthy overreacted to the slightest hint of anti-Americanism in the selected films. I suspect they may be more paranoid this year, whatever the niceties of the selections."

It's surely no coincidence that among the first titles confirmed for this year's competition were Shrek 2 (a cartoon, and a sequel to boot) and The Ladykillers (a decidedly inferior remake of the Ealing classic, albeit under the imprimatur of the Coens).

With The Motorcycle Diaries, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, that makes five US productions in contention, against only three French thoroughbreds. (Let's put aside the fact that Moore's film, already causing problems between Miramax and its parent company, Disney, is avowedly "anti-Bush".) Consider, too, that the closing night's film is De-lovely, with Kevin Kline as Cole Porter, and that there are six more US titles showing out of competition, including Troy, Dawn of the Dead, Bad Santa and Kill Bill: Vol 2 (Quentin Tarantino is head of the jury this year). Never mind the quality, feel the width. If this is not quite wholesale capitulation, it's certainly a brave stab at entente cordiale.

Whether it satisfies critics such as McCarthy remains to be seen. Last year, he pointed out that the films most beloved by the French (which included even The Brown Bunny) would, together, not earn as much money as The Matrix Reloaded does in a single day.

The reference to the box office encapsulates the great divide between prevailing French and American critical attitudes. Ultimately, what's at issue is not Iraq, or the national origin of competition entries, but the kind of cinema being celebrated at Cannes. Variety's bottom-line McCarthyism just won't tolerate the kind of ambiguous, formally innovative cinema that's traditionally found a home here.

As Jean-Michel Frodon, editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, says: "It seems that, in a very diplomatic strategy, the festival's artistic director has this year organised the field for a gentleman's re-agreement. But I am not sure the American industry really wants to make friends."

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