Opening a Cannes of worms

Geoffrey Macnab sets the scene for another fortnight of film, fury and farce on the French Riveria

It cannot be said that Cannes had an especially propitious 50th birthday. Last year's festival was blighted by bad weather and disappointing films. Not even the appearance of the Spice Girls lent much colour to an event that seemed resolutely low-key.

This year, the omens are much more encouraging. Festival programmer Gilles Jacob claims that there has been a remarkable increase both in the number of films proposed and in their quality. On paper, he looks to have struck a happy balance between European art house and Hollywood hype. The festival opens with Mike Nichols' political satire, Primary Colors, which has already bombed at the US box office (but nobody will care as long as its star, John Travolta, is in town). The closing night treat is Roland Emmerich's multi-million-dollar monster mash, Godzilla. Sandwiched between are new films from such auteurs as Ingmar Bergman, Lars Von Trier, Theo Angelopoulos, Arturo Ripstein and Nanni Moretti. Bruce Willis, who upset all the hacks last year by claiming that newspaper critics were an outdated irrelevance and that British scones were disgusting (he prefers American doughnuts), will be back hawking his new film, Breakfast Of Champions, and no doubt goading journalists further. Other faces likely to be spotted over the fortnight include Hugh Grant, Farrah Fawcett, Mira Sorvino, Liv Tyler and Jeanne Moreau.

It remains to be seen what the festival has in store for the Brits. Films Minister Tom Clarke has cunningly improved our prospects by changing the statutory definition of what constitutes a British film. According to him, we have four films in competition this year - John Boorman's The General, Terry Gilliam's Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas, Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe and Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine - although two of these are directed and co-financed by Americans.

Outside the main competition, John Maybury's Francis Bacon biopic, Love Is The Devil, is already being talked up as one of the British films of the year (not least because it features a magnificently eccentric performance from Tilda Swinton as Soho hostess Muriel Belcher), and everyone is waiting to see if veteran producer Jeremy Thomas can direct (his debut feature, All The Little Animals, shows in Un Certain Regard). In theory, then, the much vaunted British renaissance is still going strong. But before Clarke and co gloat too much, they ought to listen to the grumblings of the selection committee that, although there were more British films on offer than ever before, the quality left much to be desired.

On the basis of Bean (which has made more than pounds 133 million worldwide) and Four Weddings alone, Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner have a fair claim as Britain's most successful moguls of recent years. They will be in Cannes at a special event honouring producers, and some of their best-known films are screening, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sid and Nancy among them.

After more than a decade of coming to Cannes, they still have mixed feelings about the festival. In the bad old days before mobile phones the experience was often sheer hell. The Croisette (the gaudy seafront thoroughfare) was invariably sprawling with buyers and sellers late for their next, all-important rendezvous. You were always running. From eight in the morning till four in the morning, says Fellner. All day, all night, echoes Bevan, two hours sleep maximum. Now it's a doddle. If you miss your meeting you just call up with your mobile and rearrange.

It should never be forgotten that Cannes is a market as well as a festival. For a fortnight every May, all the hustlers and mountebanks in the film world are set down within two square miles of a little French seaside town where normally nothing much happens other than tourists bathing topless while rich old women walk their poodles. It inevitably makes for a grotesque spectacle - sort of like a supermarket for films, observes young British actress Rachel Weisz, in Cannes last year as part of a publicity stunt featuring 20 up-and-coming British stars. "But I went to lots of parties and got drunk." That seems to be what people do mostly.

Veteran US director Bob Rafelson first visited Cannes in 1968 with his Monkees film Head but does not seem to have enjoyed the experience. "I was a bit appalled," he recently acknowledged. "It was much more of a marketplace than I expected, with showbiz stunts and advertisements everywhere. I had been expecting a more esoteric event." The French had no idea who The Monkees were but acclaimed the film a masterpiece anyway on the basis of its hallucinogenic imagery.

Last year, Culture Secretary Chris Smith was in town to announce which British companies were to be awarded the new Arts Council production franchises. The great and the good of the industry crammed into a backstreet cinema to hear him. One red-faced London critic was so enraged to learn that Government money was being awarded to a once bankrupt British company (now trading under a new name) that he refused to sit down, huffing and puffing like a man possessed. This provided undoubtedly the most theatrical moment of the festival. After the relentless parade of topless starlets, the photocalls, the blandishments from producers, PR agents and politicians and the endless parties, it was refreshing to see an old-fashioned display of moral indignation. Let's hope he finds something to get hot under the collar about this year, too.

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