The good, the bad, the ugly

CANNES DIARY Norman Wisdom turned up, and the Hollywood stars stayed at home. But strong entries and the right decisions made this a Cannes Festival to remember. Sheila Johnston, our woman on the Croisette, took notes

DAY ONE: It will begin with Ridicule and end by Flirting with Disaster: a serious Cannes, a solid festival, a competition positively freighted with heavyweights. We have Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, Altman, Cronenberg and Bertolucci leading a stable of impressive pedigree. But, while the names of Julio Medem and Jaco Van Dormael, Hou Hsaio Hsien and Lars Van Trier will thrill the hearts of the international critical fraternity. they fail to cut much ice with news editors back home. Where, they want to know, are the big Hollywood names?

The trade papers promise glamour: Bruce and Demi, Tom and Nicole, Norman Wisdom. And Gilles Jacob, the Festival Director, remains quietly confident: "Something magical happens on the red carpet when the strains of Saint- Saens' Third Symphony announce the competition screenings," he hymns. "In Hollywood [at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion] there are only three or four steps. In Cannes, it's the ascent towards success, glory, Olympia."

DAY THREE: The fact remains that, of the 22 films in competition, no less than 14 come from Europe and three from the United States, of which only one, Michael Cimino's Sunchaser, is a major studio picture. And so far the celebs have managed to resist the lure of the red-felt-covered steps leading up to Olympia. The A-team is in town, it's true, but they are wearing business suits not tuxedos and black ties: Dustin Hoffman and Martin Landau are launching production companies, while Al Pacino and Anjelica Huston, each with an entry in the sidebar section, Un Certain Regard, sport directors' hats. Their films - respectively Looking For Richard, about Pacino's quest to make Richard III come alive for modern audiences, and Bastard Out of Carolina, a harrowing drama about child abuse - are both surprisingly good, and Pacino, that famously laconic mumbler, becomes eloquent in his passion for Shakespeare - why, it's barely possible to shut the man up on the subject. Gossip, scandal, bad behaviour: these, however, are thin on the ground.

DAY FIVE: A press lunch for Temptress Moon, a lush but faintly kitschy costume melodrama from the Chinese director Chen Kaige. "Lunch" is perhaps too grand a word for it; it's at these crowded, chaotic bunfights that reporters scavenge for crumbs of news. Leslie Cheung, the male lead, is scavenging too, for compliments: he asks three times if I liked his performance. Gong Li, meanwhile, reveals that, according to newspapers, she has died twice: once as a suicide following an unhappy love affair and again last month in an armed robbery. These unwanted attentions still seem enough of a novelty to amuse her. It is somehow obscurely comforting to learn that even the Chinese have their yellow press.

DAY SIX: Two films lead the critics' polls. Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh's return to more familiar territory after the sharp, bleak detour of Naked, has one of the director's spectacularly dysfunctional families sent reeling by the arrival of a self-possessed black woman who turns out to be the (white) mother's illegitimate daughter. The other favourite, Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, is a mystical love story set in a remote and strictly religious Scottish village and shot entirely using a hand-held camera with film processed - at enormous trouble and expense - to look like a cheap video. It is impressive and startlingly original. But, after the enthusiastic reception, a reported pounds 600,000 price tag now dangles on the British distribution rights.

There is a strong and confident entry from the Coen Brothers, Fargo, a comedic murder thriller out of snowy Minnesota; and there's another disappointment from the erratic Robert Altman, Kansas City, a thin kidnapping story placed against the backdrop of political corruption, organised crime and the exuberance of black jazz music in America, 1934. The French films are, for once, worth seeing, with Ridicule - an intelligently scripted costume drama from Patrice Leconte - and A Self-Made Hero, a fast, if formulaic comedy about a nerd who reinvents himself as a Second World War Resistance hero. Yet to come: Bertolucci, Cronenberg, Cimino. It is, we agree, a fine year, light on makeweights.

DAY EIGHT: Sex is hard to come by (we speak in terms of news gathering) unless one counts the numerous sightings of male members in the new Peter Greenaway. The bottom, so to speak, has dropped out of the adult-movie industry; the ads for forthcoming movies offer action, adventure, natural disasters, more SFX than sex. A boat moored in the harbour and marked "Private" promises "24-hour striptease, hot-oil wrestling, the latest news in leather, latex and adult toys, girls, girls, girls". But those who take the trip to Eden return only with reports of "a really sad affair, like a naff Essex pub". There are small(ish) compensations. Lola Ferrari, a nightclub entertainer whose three claims to fame are her 51" breasts and a pending lawsuit from the Italian sportscar manufacturer for infringement of its brand name, is promoting a Belgian art movie, and we read with contained excitement about the sizzling teaming of Bo Derek and Norman Wisdom in a forthcoming picture. By mid-fest several British tabloid hacks have hotfooted it back home.

DAY NINE: They could have stayed for Crash, David Cronenberg's ice-cold film about a couple who become erotically obsessed with death, disfigurement and disability after one of them has a car accident. With this, and Greenaway's film, The Pillow Book, whose heroine gets her kicks by writing all over the bodies of her lovers, at least it is a vintage year for bizarre fetishes. Both films violently divided critics and Crash, in particular, looks set for a rough ride with international censorship authorities. Cronenberg, who looks like a dentist, says that normally sex scenes are an interlude in a movie, but in Crash they are the movie. The author of the original novel, JG Ballard, who looks like a retired cavalry officer (and is presumably looking forward to a nice slice of the box-office) says Crash is one of the best films about sex and violence he has ever seen. James Spader, who like several of the other cast members, seemed as weird and out-there as the character he was playing, made an unprintable remark about the absence of male frontal nudity. All that was missing was Norman Wisdom.

DAY 10: The surprise film has been described by Gilles Jacob as a comedy by a well-known director who also plays the leading role. Mel Brooks? Woody Allen? No, a microbudget, experimental project by that well-known funny man, Steven Soderbergh. Since his meteoric success here six years ago with sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh has fallen off the map, a salutary warning for subsequent Golden Palm winners flushed by their five minutes of fame. His surprise arrives with no publicity material, no press conference, no Soderbergh and no credits, except for the title, Schizopolis, seen briefly on one character's T-shirt. It seems to have no story to speak of either; rather it's a series of surreal skits centred on a loser who leads several parallel lives. After the mass stampede for the exits had subsided, those left rather enjoyed it: it raises two fingers to the commercial film industry, and that is always admirable, even if it won't make a dime.

DAY 12: On the rain-washed Croisette, we few survivors lay bets on the winners. A Californian astrologist predicts a Palme for either Temptress Moon or Three Lives and a Death, a comedy described illuminatingly by its director, Raoul Ruiz, as "an attempt at structural cubism". Most people set more store by a persistent rumour that the French director Andre Techine has already been promised a (maybe even the) prize for his film, Thieves.

At the closing ceremony the smart guests gather to applaud the winners politely while the scruffy journalists, concealed discreetly in a room to one side, prepare to greet with hearty catcalls any choice which fails to meet with their entire approval. A certain amount of merriment is, as always, guaranteed by the shambolic proceedings - these are not exactly the Academy Awards - but there is, for once, no booing. The psychic's prophecies prove empty and Techine emerges without a single gong.

The jury President, Francis Coppola, presents Cronenberg with a special prize for "originality and daring", though the stony faces of several of his colleagues indicate that the vote was not a unanimous one. But, for the rest, it's a smooth ride, with prizes for Fargo and A Self-Made Hero, and an emotional climax is reached when Pascal Duquenne, a performer with Down's syndrome, is named Best Actor, with his co-star Daniel Auteuil, for the Belgian entry The Eighth Day. The film itself was stickily sentimental but Duquenne's warm and complex performance had been genuinely and widely admired; it was not just a poliquement correct decision. The critics' favourites take the two top awards, with the Grand Prix for Breaking the Waves; and the British contingent looks on with some satisfaction as Mike Leigh accepts the Palme d'Or and manages to crack a smile. It is, in short, a gratifyingly uplifting ceremony, a festival with few shocks or surprises and, as the journalists stampede towards the phones, the celebs, secure in that knowledge, hunker down in their seats to see the closing-night film: Flirting with Disaster. !

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