Cannes, France -- "Look at that harbor," says an old-timer. "Five years ago it had 50 mega-yachts. Now . . . two yachts and a garbage barge."
He's right. And the near-empty harbor just off the Palais du Festivals at the world's richest and most chaotic film festival is an apt metaphor for the ennui and sense of loss that seems to grip the two-week event in the south of France.
Oh, the tourists still throng the grand old Boulevard de Croisette, where the movie wars are waged and in whose bars and cafes and discos, it is rumored, the deals are made and the stars may be seen. But there's not much action, unless looking at men with baguettes under their arms is considered action, for even at the busiest moments, the French dart through the crowds with serious demeanors and tightly gripped lances of bread.
But where are the stars?
"Let's face it," opines "Rambling Reporter" Robert Osborn in the Cannes edition of Hollywood Reporter, "the absence of big, bigger, BIGGEST star names has definitely put a damper on Cannes '93."
Arnold Schwarzenegger -- whose posters for "Last Action Hero" struggle with Sylvester Stallone's "Cliffhanger" along the Croisette -- was in for one day, but he spent most of it at the exclusive, $1,000-a-day Hotel du Cap in Cap D'Antibes, rather than mixing with the print scum and the Eurotrash down in smelly, traffic-clotted Cannes. Robert De Niro was in for a day last week; Catherine Deneuve opened the movie celebration last week as well. Stallone was to appear at the world premiere of "Cliffhanger" last night. A lucky reporter caught a glimpse of a pallid Eric Idle, here to shill "Splitting Heirs," a British entry in the competition that has already failed miserably in its American release. And that's it.
It seems a shame for an event whose name has been synonymous with the most vivid of glamour for 46 years and whose official poster this year -- a glossy black-and-white image of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissing in Hitchcock's "Notorious" so many years ago -- forms almost a mocking irony to the banality along the Croisette.
Even the 23 films in contention for the not-very-coveted Golden Palm award seem to reflect an off year. Though a few have excited some buzz, the American entries are a particularly dim lot. "Falling Down," the Michael Douglas-Joel Schumacher collaboration that was a mild success in the United States last winter, is the biggest of them, though "Cliffhanger" will be screened out of competition as part of an AIDS benefit.
The other big American entry is unlikely to win much praise, and at a screening Wednesday, people were slipping out in ones and twos as the movie wore onward. It's Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill," a bittersweet re-creation of a Depression-era boyhood in St. Louis that stars no known American but only the Dutch transplant Joeren Crabbe. Four years back, Soderbergh leapt to national attention when his first film, "sex, lies and videotape," which was made for less than $1 million, won the big award and went on to become a minor hit. Judging from press reaction -- and the film itself -- that is not likely to happen with "King of the Hill."
Then there was Abel ("Bad Lieutenant") Ferrara's "Body Snatchers," whose violence evidently upset many people, so that the tough-talking director was greeted with indifferent applause at a post-screening news conference.
Front runner 'Piano'
Right now, the front runner seems to be Jane Campion's "The Piano." The romantic comedy starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel received a standing ovation at its official premiere Monday. It's strongest rival appeared Wednesday night in Chen Kaige's "Farewell to My Concubine." The only Chinese entry in the main competition, the film is a three-hour epic covering a half-century of China's cultural revolution.
"Toxic Affair," a French film starring Isabelle Adjani that is not part of the official competition, closes the festival Monday.
The most dynamic American film so far isn't even in the main competition, but rather in a subcategory called "Director's Fortnight." It's the taut urban tragedy "Menace II Society" by the 21-year-old Albert and Allen Hughes, twins raised in Detroit and Pomona, Calif., who have logged time learning their craft in the video business.
The movie, which co-stars former Baltimorean Jada Pinkett, may be the Next Big Thing. The French certainly think so. After the movie's world premiere in a theater not in the Palais but in the Noga Hilton down the street, crowds chanted for the Hughes brothers to come up on stage.
They did, somewhat shyly, and in one of those moments that could only happen in a truly surrealistic setting like the Cannes Film Festival, actually took pictures of the crowd taking pictures of them.
Twenty years old when they made their film for $2.5 million, they are the youngest directors to be entered in the Director's Fortnight, which was established in 1969. They were everywhere in Cannes the next day in their wool athletic windbreakers and "Menace II Society" baseball caps, posing for photographers, talking to reporters and generally allowing themselves to be lionized.
"It's Hollywood magnified a hundred times," said Albert Hughes. "You have to decompress your head after you leave here because of all the chaos."
'On the edge of panic'
He certainly got that right. The Cannes Film Festival is either the worst-run good festival in the world, or the best-run bad festival.
"The Germans," someone said, "run an efficient festival in Berlin in the winter. 'You vill zee da movies ven you are zupposed to see zem, ja?' But the French are always on the edge of panic. They work best with huge crowds, people screaming and lost, no one knowing what to do. It's a wonderful mess."
It is a wonderful mess. The focal point is the Palais, which sits between the old harbor and the new one. You can tell the !B difference easily enough: The old one has lots of boats in it; the new one used to.
The Palais itself looks a little like the Rouse Co. headquarters in Columbia, Md., a multitiered assemblage complete with terraces, several bars, a nightclub and a casino. Its centerpiece is the Grand Lumiere Theatre, reportedly the best movie house in the world, which is entered through a high, wide staircase toward a glass facade.
At night, this is the locale of much star-gazing as, limousine by limousine, what stars there are arrive to the snapping of a thousand camera flashes.
The theater itself is steeply raked with gigantic plush burgundy chairs that rock. But the auditorium is left strangely unfinished, with bare girders showing, to give it that artsy-mechanico look so beloved by the French.
From the Palais southward runs the famous Boulevard de Croisette, which is the setting for much of the drama and glamour of the festival.
Here, like motherships from the planet Wealth, the grand old resort hotels hold queenly court.
The oldest and most famous is the white marble Victorian dinosaur called the Carlton, which at festival time becomes known as the shrine of the bosom. It was here in the prim '50s on the Carlton's beach that any starlet who was willing to doff her top could become instantly famous. It's unlikely that a set of breasts would get anyone quite so far today: I actually saw a woman in a white see-through dress so sheer she was truly naked strolling haughtily down the Croisette. No one even stared, except me, and I was only doing so in the name of journalism.
It's the selling
It is in the hotels -- particularly the Carlton but also the Majestic and the Noga Hilton, where the true business of the Cannes Film Festival is accomplished: the selling. Think of it as the largest sales conference in the world.
"There's no place like it to launch a film," says Kevin Moreton, the executive producer of "Menace II Society." "We're using it as a place to legitimize the movie. If you can catch attention here as, say, 'Boyz N the Hood' did, you can go on to extreme success."
But movies backed by powerful entities really aren't the rule. In little suites on the upper floors of hotels along the Croisette and in the vast exhibit area under the Palais, everything is for sale. Movies you never heard of, from Europorn to the highest of high art. There was "Leon the Pig Farmer" and "The Custodian," with Anthony La Paglia, and "I Married My Mom" and "Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula."
The festival itself gets in on the selling, with an official souvenir shop where $30 or so buys you a T-shirt with the Golden Palm inscribed on it or a racy pair of suspenders made from actual film stock.
If it isn't nailed down, the French will sell it to you, and if it is, they'll negotiate.