Cannes Film Festival Diary: Planet Cannes - the next big thing?

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At 50, Cannes still can't quite make up its mind whether it wants to be a grande dame or a media tart. Tonight a glittering assembly of as many former Golden Palm winners who are able and care to attend will celebrate the Festival's official half-century (Ingmar Bergman obstinately declined to budge from his island retreat to receive an honorary gong). But, with nearly 4,000 accredited journalists in town - nearly double last year's figure - for the humbler among us, the main business of the day consists of fighting our way along the narrow pavements and even, with a good deal of luck, into the screenings.

Gilles Jacob, the Festival director, has assembled a major league jury: headed by the French actress Isabelle Adjani, it also includes Mike Leigh, Tim Burton, Nanni Moretti, Michael Ondaatje and Gong Li. It's not matched, however, by the competition line-up, on paper at least. There has apparently been some difficulty mustering a quorum, and when several films dropped out at the eleventh hour, the numbers were made up with some hasty promotions from the sidebars.

Among the heavy hitters are Wim Wenders, Francesco Rosi, Ang Lee and the Canadian Atom Egoyan, while Johnny Depp will appear - as the director and leading man of The Brave, a film about a man who agrees to star in a snuff movie.

In what looks like a slightly desperate publicity stunt, Jacob has ordered a blanket ban on preview screenings of an obscure Austrian film, Funny Games, as well as red warning stickers to be slapped on tickets. Still, the last film to which the latter occurred was Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (or as one French paper has inadvertently renamed him: Quentin Quarantino), so watch this space.

Cannes and Hollywood are ancient enemies, and Luc Besson's Festival curtain- raiser, The Fifth Element, was a perfect pretext for re-opening hostilities. Reputed to be the most expensive French film ever made (budget $70m), the picture, which I thought an enjoyable and witty no-brainer, has received a robust hammering from the US press. "A largely misfired European attempt to make an American-style sci-fi spectacular," sniffed the trade paper Variety. The French took against it for the same reason. It was clear that, in hoping to beat Hollywood at its own game, Besson was on a hiding to nothing. The soundest counsel came from Gary Oldman, who plays a neo- Hitlerite villain. He told the press: "You can't do Method acting. It's not David Mamet. You have to surrender to the size of it."

Exactly the opposite is true of Nil By Mouth, Oldman's own film, which he directed (but appears in only in a cameo). His bleak portrait of a working-class family caught in a vicious circle of drug abuse and domestic violence is distinguished by knock-out performances, notably from Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke. The other British film screened so far, Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, breathes fresh life into a mini-genre - Western journalist in political trouble-spot - customarily riddled with cliches. Both movies have met with a respectful, if mixed, reception.

The American presence this year is even thinner than usual. Clint Eastwood, normally a regular on the Croisette, will not make it here for the premiere of his film Absolute Power, which closes the Festival. Instead we must content ourselves with such film giants as Howard Stern, Michael Jackson and Beavis and Butt-Head.

The gigantic billboard for the latter outside the Carlton Hotel makes a token nod to Euro sensibilities. "Huh-huh," runs the copyline. "You just said oui oui." Cool.

As I sit here writing on a windswept terrace the air is echoing to a million screams as, far below on a square overlooking the Old Port, Bruce Willis opens the latest jewel in Cannes' crown, a branch of Planet Hollywood. Meanwhile, British culture will be represented by those publicity- shy violets, the Spice Girls. The French have a phrase for it all: quel cinema. And they are not talking about movies.