On the waterfront

Tomorrow, the film world gathers in the south of France for its most glamorous festival. There'll be famous directors, furious competition and glittering prizes. But don't get the impression that Cannes is ever just about the movies. By David Thomson
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The Independent Culture

This year's Cannes Film Festival begins tomorrow, with Woody Allen's new film as its opening-night attraction. It's called Hollywood Ending – not Hollywood Ending? – and the title may be significant, for despite every outward and secret indication that France could adjust happily to the much reduced power and reputation of Hollywood, Cannes 2002 is unlikely to usher in a new world order in film. After all, the day after Hollywood Ending, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones opens throughout the universe. And now that Spider-Man has broken the old record for American box office on a first weekend (cleaning up to the extent of $114m), plenty of people at Cannes will be looking for even more sensational numbers.

Never mind; Cannes is a secure working holiday in the lives and minds of those who keep it going. It is spring, after all, when the Côte d'Azure can look and feel as fresh as the world has ever done. There might be warmth and lengthening days to encourage the thought of a drive into the mountains of Provence and the discovery of some unexpected restaurant as inviting as the euro exchange rate. But Cannes addicts are not that kind to themselves.

No, they'd sooner spend 10 hours in the dark, watching five films, with any time over devoted to battling the dense crowds at the Carlton Hotel (where so much of the business is done) or lining up for the kind of between-movies snack (a croque monsieur that has croaked and the most expensive beer you've ever seen) that will leave you fat, unhappy and broke. There are people who go to Cannes every year and do not know the south of France, who have never seen Nice, Grasse or Vence – people who feel uneasy unless they're sitting in the dark with subtitles, trying to resist sleep.

So "festival" is not exactly the word that springs to mind. And after 55 years, the air of habit or ordeal has crept in. All too many people who go to Cannes admit that – in America, Europe and the world at large – the quality of movies to be seen there has not kept pace with the intensification of the business. But you never know. Cannes has a real history of achievement and breakthrough. There have been festivals that introduced – and gave the top prize, the Palme d'Or, to – The Third Man, La Dolce Vita, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Blowup, Taxi Driver, Farewell, My Concubine, The Piano and Pulp Fiction.

There are other prizes, too – for acting and best direction, and the one-off awards that Cannes juries often bestow on controversial films. Last year, David Lynch won the directing prize for Mulholland Drive. He won the Palme d'Or in 1990 for Wild at Heart. He is exactly the kind of American director the French film establishment adores, so this year Lynch is president of the jury. Some see that as a sign that this year's top prize will go to something unusually innovative. Others argue that Lynch is so shy and so disinclined to argument that his jury could easily be taken over by a stronger force. Like Sharon Stone, perhaps?

The prizes and the competition are not everything. There are plenty of people who go to Cannes and hardly see any of the featured films. They are attending to that wide-open section of events known as the Market that fills some of the screens in the Nouveau Palais des Festivals (which opened in 1983) as well as every movie theatre in the back streets and any hotel room with a VCR. They are dealing in rights and properties, and they are happily making contracts on any and every kind of film – martial arts, exploitation and pornography as well as high art, and sometimes all of those categories traded off in package deals. So they have to know the going rate for the cassette market in the countries of the old Soviet Union, plus what the television rights in the Philippines will bear.

In the same spirit, some people come to Cannes with scripts or treatments, a letter of vague interest from this actor or actress, a sketch of a budget and the driving need to raise funds wherever they can by selling off sections of the market. That business can get very excited over new films, but for the real entrepreneurs new films are done and settled. The future is always more appealing. This year at Cannes, one of the highlights may be the 20-minute promo reel for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, already the subject of fierce controversy. Is it finished? When will it open? Will there be re-shooting? Will Scorsese or the producer Harvey Weinstein come out ahead in the struggle for responsibility? And – the biggest question of all – will that responsibility turn into credit or blame?

Why has Cannes held its position so steadily? Don't rule out the charms of that Matisse sea and all the Victorian buildings in white, cream and ivory. It's an elegant place, even if you may wish for the emptiness of winter on a bright day. Then consider the sensible, steady support of the French government and its vision of a film meeting-place where art and commerce could sit side by side without shame, irony or farce. Not that those responses are denied to the many spectators. Beginning after the Second World War, and impelled by Europe's longing for recovery, fun and importance, the Riviera setting drew tourists, artists and speculators in equal measure.

Cannes had not been much wounded by war. It seemed to stand for the past and the future. And in the post-war years there were bursts of film creativity in so many countries – for 20 years Cannes thrilled to Italian neo-realism, Japanese cinema, the French New Wave, the breakthrough of Poland and Czechoslovakia, the inventiveness of America in the early Seventies.

In those early days, in the settled moods of censorship, there was also room for naughty outrages, carefully staged for corps of photographers – it was at Cannes in the early Fifties that the hunk known as Robert Mitchum was to be seen with a beauty in a pink top, Simone Silva, except that suddenly the filmy pink top vanished – those beach breezes – and the gallant Mitchum could think of nothing to do but cover the lady's breasts with his large hands.

What was the blonde beach at Cannes for, if not cheesecake pictures involving starlets? So it was natural, a few years later, for Brigitte Bardot – an icon founded in St Tropez beach culture – to be a photo-opportunity. That still goes on, of course, and the Cannes audience is especially adoring of French movie stars. But there are too many breasts on the screen for the real article to have the old magic.

Nevertheless, the government, the hotel-keepers of Cannes and the long-term artistic director of the festival, Gilles Jacob, have made sure that Cannes's place is unquestioned. Nearly every large city in the world has its festival, but no one intrudes on May – that is springtime, and Cannes the essential date. The timing is clever, for pictures that open at Cannes, and attract notice and even prizes, will open wide in the late summer or autumn, with festivals such as those of New York and London happily taking on the big hits from Cannes.

What will those hits be this year? It looks pretty open. Britain has three pictures in the main competition: Mike Leigh's All or Nothing (and Leigh is a Cannes favourite, the Palme d'Or winner in 1996 with Secrets and Lies); another frequent visitor, Ken Loach, is back with Sweet Sixteen; and the rather younger Michael Winterbottom will introduce 24 Hour Party People – a lifestyle that goes down very well at Cannes.

Woody Allen's film is not in competition, but the United States has three intriguing pictures on show. The first is a documentary by Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine, which apparently relates America's worst school shooting disaster to the international arms trade. For an America so intent on the hardware and rhetoric of re-arming, and in a Europe afraid of America's hunt for enemies, this could be controversial. A documentary has not won since 1956 and Silent World by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle.

Rather than look for established hits from America, and frustrated in not being able to show a finished Gangs of New York, the new artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, has gone for two very promising outsiders: About Schmidt, from Alexander Payne (who made Election, with Reese Witherspoon), which happens to star Jack Nicholson; and Punch-Drunk Love, from Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. That stars Emily Watson and Adam Sandler – which isn't a misprint, just the hint of surprise.

There are plenty of contenders from the rest of the world. Roman Polanski is in competition with The Pianist, a Second World War story. Polanski lives in France, of course, though many reckon he has been in a kind of limbo ever since quitting America. Does he have another great film left?

From Korea, Im Kwon-taek delivers Strokes of Fire. The Israeli maverick director, Amos Gitai, has made Kedma. The great Iranian artist, Abbas Kiarostami, a winner with The Taste of Cherry, is bringing a video film, 10. The Italian, Marco Bellocchio – a sensation 20 years ago with Fists in the Pocket and The Eyes, the Mouth – is back with The Religion Hour. From Finland, Aki Kaurismaki presents Man Without a Past. David Cronenberg has a movie about schizophrenia, Spider, starring Gabriel Byrne. The Russian poet of calm, Alexander Sokurov, has Russian Ark. Olivier Assayas of France has Demonlover.

There are other contenders, and dark horses and newcomers. To say nothing of films I long to see – Rosanna Arquette's documentary, Searching for Debra Winger, and another documentary on the legendary and infamous producer, Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture. There are several debut works, including Tomorrow La Scala! by Britain's Francesca Joseph.

These are the lists Cannes veterans scan in advance, working out their schedule, hoping for an easy flight, trusting that Cannes will not seem a tempting target for the many kinds of terrorist we now face. More or less, Cannes will still offer alternatives to the Hollywood way – small, difficult films, made with great intensity or idealism. One thinks of Quentin Tarantino in Cannes with Pulp Fiction, one of the festival's true sensations. The French fell upon "Quentin" – he was as film-mad as the French New Wave, and as resolved to make a new kind of film. But Tarantino has been too close to being becalmed since then, with only one subsequent film, Jackie Brown.

All too often, the independent spirit in America goes Hollywood. Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d'Or in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape, but now Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven seem like mainstream films. That mainstream is very inviting, and it offers rewards – not just money, but don't forget money – that can leave independence looking quaint.

So Hollywood isn't ending yet, and Cannes is driven by American ideas and money. At the same time, the world film audience is desperate for new risks. And Cannes is as prone to that uncertainty as it is to a filmy pink top in a beach breeze. So breathe deeply and hope for the best.

The Palme D'Or, the roll of honour

1949 The Third Man (Carol Reed, GB)
1951 Miss Julie (Alf Sjoberg, Sweden);
Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica, Italy)
1952 Othello (Orson Welles, Italy/ Morocco)
1952 Two Cents' Worth of Hope (Renato Castellani, Italy)
1953 Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France)
1954 Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan)
1955 Marty (Delbert Mann, US)
1956 World of Silence (Jacques Cousteau, France)
1957 Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, US)
1958 The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, Russia)
1959 Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus France/Italy/Brazil)
1960 La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, Italy)
1961 The Long Absence (Henri Colpi, France) Viridiana (Luis Bunuel, Spain)
1962 The Given Word (Anselmo Duarte, Brazil)
1963 The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, Italy)
1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, France)
1965 The Knack... And How To Get It Richard Lester, GB)
1966 The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (Pietro Germi, Italy)
1966 A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch, France)
1967 Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, (GB/Italy)
1969 If... (Lindsay Anderson, GB)
1970 M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, US)
1971 The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, GB)
1972 The Mattei Affair (Francesco Rosi, Italy)
1972 The Working Class go to Heaven (...lio Petri, Italy)
1973 The Hireling (Alan Bridges, GB)
Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, US)
1974 The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, US)
1975 Chronicle of the Burning Years (Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, Algeria)
1976 Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, US)
1977 Padre Padrone (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy)
1978 The Tree of Wooden Clogs (...rmanno Olmi, Italy)
1979 Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, US)
The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff, Germany)
1980 All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, US)
Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, Japan)
1981 Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda, Poland)
1982 Yol (Yilmaz Guney, Turkey) Missing (Costa-Gavras, US)
1983 The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, Japan)
1984 Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, US/Germany)
1985 When Father was Away on Business (...mir Kusturica, Yugoslavia)
1986 The Mission (Roland Joffe, GB)
1987 Under Satan's Sun (Maurice Pialat, France)
1988 Pelle the Conqueror (Bille August, Sweden)
1989 sex, lies and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, US)
1990 Wild at Heart (David Lynch, US)
1991 Barton Fink (...than Coen, US)
1992 Best Intentions (Bille August, Sweden)
1993 Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige, China)
1993 The Piano (Jane Campion, Australia)
1994 Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, US)
1995 Underground (...mir Kusturica, France/Germany/Hungary)
1996 Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh, GB)
1997 A Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
1998 Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece/France/ Italy/Germany)
1999 Rosetta (Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium/ France)
2000 Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden)
2001 The Son's Room (Nanni Moretti, Italy)