The man from Cannes says yes

It looks as if it will be a bumper year for Britain at the Cannes Film Festival, the programme of which was announced this week. Sheila Johnston surveys the line-up and (right) finds out how Pierre-Henri Deleau picks the films for the Directors' Fortnight
Around 9.00pm, in a large hotel just off Wardour Street, Pierre- Henri Deleau, the man behind the the Directors' Fortnight, orders himself a large drink. He has just spent four days, including the Easter weekend, watching several dozen British films back-to-back in Soho's subterranean warren of preview theatres, fuelled by nothing but several litres of coffee. He's bushed.

Next month in Cannes the Directors' Fortnight will unveil between 15 and 20 new films to the international press. To find them Deleau has been on the road since December and viewed about 600 films. He whips out a big ledger to prove it, pages and pages of titles, all transcribed in an impeccably tidy hand and all, it seems, marked with a damning "N". By last week, Deleau had said "oui" to just 11 films, eight of them by first-time directors. But he's still looking.

He prides himself on his independent status. "The Directors' Fortnight is my gallery: I put on the wall the paintings that I like. And if people don't like my choice, I really don't care. I want to be free to say 'bullshit' to the Minister of Culture." Discretion also forbids him from schmoozing with film folk: "Everyone starts out loving me. And everyone wants to kill me afterwards. I never take calls from producers; my life is simpler that way".

Deleau doesn't believe in relying on scouts to weed out the worst contenders, which means he has to suffer some terrible dogs - stuff that flies well below the radar, displaying levels of incompetence to which most film- goers are rarely exposed. He says he'll check out anything that's put forward, but doesn't pretend that he's always still there when the final credits roll.

British film-makers will be gratified to hear that this doesn't generally apply to them: "Sometimes there are no surprises in British films. But the quality is there. I don't see the kind of stupid movies I come across in France and Italy. The British are beginning to be proud of themselves again."

Deleau was 25 when he drove from his native Lille to Paris in a Deux- Chevaux, hoping to break into movies. His natural first port of call was the legendary Henri Langlois, the colourful and expansive character who headed the Paris Cinmathque for many years and who became a focal point for French film culture (he was unofficial godfather to Truffaut, Godard and the rest of the Nouvelle Vague generation). When Deleau accosted him, Langlois was by chance trying to find a taxi, and his eye fell on Deleau's car. "You can start," he said, "by being my driver."

And so for the next three months Deleau chauffered Langlois's substantial frame around Paris in his little 2CV, hanging out with him and the likes of John Ford: the crme de la crme of international cinema. Eventually, Langlois caught him crying at a Mizoguchi movie and told him he was sacked: he was ready to become a film-maker. Deleau quickly discovered he had no talent in that department. Soon, however, another opportunity presented itself.

In 1968, as the seismic shock from the vnements in Paris rippled south, protesters closed the Cannes Film Festival. It had, they said, become a bastion of reactionary bourgeois culture: always the same few countries, the same safe names. The next year Deleau set up the Directors' Fortnight to present an alternative point of view.

It remains separate from the official selection, based in a comfortable 900-seat cinema several hundred metres from the Palais des Festivals. Deleau says he hasn't spoken to the festival director, Gilles Jacob, in five years, though both men are based in Paris. A certain rivalry exists between them and, while Deleau's programme is by far the most prestigious of Cannes' many (too many) sidebar events, he knows that a producer will almost always prefer his film to be in the brighter glare of the competition.

Often, a new talent discovered by Deleau (he introduced festival-goers to Scorsese, Lucas, Fassbinder, Oshima, Angelopoulos, Mikhalkov, Spike Lee, Jarmusch) will abscond to the main festival for his next film, and it's not unknown for Jacob to poach some of the Fortnight's prize catches at the eleventh hour.

But Deleau believes that the smaller, less glitzy work will meet with a more appreciative response at his screenings, where people aren't busy rubbernecking for stars (Stephen Frears chose to return there with The Snapper when he was at the peak of his international fame). These aren't showbiz events: no paparazzi and strictly no black ties. And, exceptionally in Cannes, where the rest of the fest unfolds in a sealed and self-regarding vacuum, the locals are welcome: 33 per cent of the seats are reserved for them.

Like many film lovers, he's scornful of the media circus which the festival has become: "The most important thing now is the red carpet." This year, for instance, the closing film is The Quick and the Dead, a feminist western directed by Sam Raimi, who once had a certain cult following for The Evil Dead. But everyone knows Raimi isn't the real reason why the film (which got sniffy reviews in America) is playing on the Croisette. That reason is Sharon Stone. The selection also includes, for the first time in years, a film by the severe veteran Portuguese director Manuel de Oliveira: could is be a coincidence, Deleau wonders, that the star is Catherine Deneuve?

Deleau's own line-up this year includes work from Austria, Iran, Palestine and America. The jewel in his crown is a first film, Le Confessionel, a Hitchcockian thriller directed by the Qubecois theatre guru Robert Lepage: "a masterpiece, so classical it ought to be in competition. He has a great sense of bridges." Big names aren't guaranteed a place: he turned down Wim Wenders' new film, Lisbon Story, which now plays in the section Un Certain Regard.

The final choice won't be made until a couple of days before the festival: just long enough to get the programmes printed. "I was always last at school," Deleau says. "But my slaves [he has three members of staff] work very hard. And what do you gain by announcing it early? Some photos in the glossy monthlies. I don't care a damn about them."


The City of Lost Children by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (France), opening film

Ulysses' Regard by Theo Angelopoulos (Greece).

Stories of Kronen by Montxo Armendariz (Spain).

Don't Forget You Will Die by Xavier Beauvois (France).

La Haine (Hatred) by Mathieu Kassovitz (France).

Land and Freedom by Ken Loach (Britain).

Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch (US).

Jefferson in Paris by James Ivory (US).

Ed Wood by Tim Burton (US).

Beyond Rangoon by John Boorman (US).

The Madness of King George by Nicholas Hytner (Britain)

Waati by Souleymane Cisse (Mali).

Senatorul Melcilor by Mircea Daneliuc (Romania).

Kids by Larry Clark (US).

The Neon Bible by Terence Davies (Britain).

Angels and Insects by Philip Haas (US).

Carrington by Christopher Hampton (Britain).

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by Marion Hansel (Belgium).

Shanghai Triads by Zhang Yimou (China).

Good Men Good Women by Hou Hsiao Hsien (Taiwan).

Sharaku by Masahiro Shinoda (Japan).

Underground by Emir Kusturica (former Yugoslavia).

L'Amore Molesto by Mario Martone (Italy).

O Convento by Manuel de Oliviera (Portugal).

Sharaku by Masahiro Shinoda (Japan).

The Quick and the Dead by Sam Raimi (US), closing film