Cannes festival is for the pros, not the fans


Opening Wednesday, the 59th Festival de Cannes unfurls its red carpet just in time for a planned municipal police strike. It won't be the first strike scheduled around festival time in the French Riviera town famous for being famous, and for being beautiful, and for treating the motion picture arts and sciences like cultural gold.

But if the cops walk, will anyone notice?

The Cannes film festival - the premier show business pileup of art, commerce, cleavage and Brad Pitt stubble - promises its customary blend of Hollywood and international cinema. Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou will be there with The Da Vinci Code.

Samuel L. Jackson will be there, too, in his capacity as one of the 2006 Cannes jurors. (Chinese director Wong Kar Wai, who made In the Mood for Love, serves as jury president.)

No regular citizens

It's an industry-only affair, not open to the general movie-loving public, so you probably won't be there. Few have actually been to the festival. But millions have followed its fortunes for years, even decades, debating its occasionally insane selections for the Palme d'Or. (The Mission? Twenty years later, I feel as if I'm still watching it.) Cannes watchers have plunked down good money for the ad-packed Variety issue devoted to the marketplace component of the festival. Most of the films never come to a theater near you.

When a film in competition finds a warm reception at Cannes, its global future solidifies like that. Directors from Korea or Ireland or Algeria or America may be whisked from obscurity to celebrity in an eye-blink.

"People go to Cannes for a lot of different reasons," says Milos Stehlik, founder and director of Facets Cinematheque and Videotheque in Chicago. He's been going for nearly two decades.

"There is no other place that offers the potential for seeing so many good films. The business people don't go to many of them; they're there to have dinner or whatever. As you soon discover, not that many people see a lot of the movies. The most disgusting example of what I'm talking about are the American TV network people, who are only concerned with American stars and nothing else. It's painful.

"That said, the festival is many things. And it's the one that can mean the most for a film on the verge of discovery."

Cannes is not the highest-volume festival going, merely the most prestigious and sun-stroked. This year's slate offers 55 films from 30 different countries, 48 of them world premieres. Twenty of those films compete for this year's Palme d'Or (best in show).

Those selected by the jury represent a preponderance of Cannes newcomers, including Richard Linklater (Slacker, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), one of three American directors in this year's running for the Palme d'Or. The other two are Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), coming to Cannes with her Marie-Antoinette, and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), whose Southland Tales imagines a futuristic hellhole version of Los Angeles.

Linklater, a Texas native, will be represented by Fast Food Nation, based on the compulsively readable Eric Schlosser book about the American gut and those who cater to its baser impulses. Linklater will also compete in the category of "Un Certain Regard" - have any three words better captured the essence of a Gallic shrug? - with his animated/live-action fantasia A Scanner Darkly.

Barbara Scharres, programming director of the Gene Siskel Film Center, has attended the festival for nearly 20 years. As with most Cannes veterans, when she talks about the experience, the words "exhausting" and "grueling" and "a grind" recur with distressing regularity.

"I try to see between five and seven films a day," she says, adding that "as a programmer attending Cannes it's helpful to have a press pass. It's invaluable, in fact. That's why every film programmer around the world scrambles to get some kind of media affiliation to qualify for a press pass."

Stehlik has learned to live with the festival feeling that "you're always missing something" while seeing something else. But for a programmer on the lookout for the best new work from all around the world, there is no better place than Cannes.

Michael Phillips is a movie critic for the Chicago Tribune.

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