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Opening film hardly a night to remember

CANNES, France -- I am sure that the opening of this year's Cannes Film Festival will be a night to remember, but I will not remember it, because I will be elsewhere. I will not attend the inaugural screening of Roland Joffe's "Vatel," even though it does star Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman, and even though I am invited to the party afterward.

After many years at the world's most glamorous film festival, there is one thing I know for sure about the opening-night movie: I always sleep through it. After the all-night flight to London, after the flight to Nice, after the taxi driver who wants to pay for his Mercedes with just one trip to Cannes, after being greeted by Madame Cagnet at the Hotel Splendid and feasting on the gigantic strawberries that are her welcome gift, I will fall immediately into a profound slumber. Three or four hours later, I will awaken.

So this year, as the opening-night patrons in their tuxedos march up the red carpet of the Palais des Festivals, my wife and I will be marching in the opposite direction down to La Pizza, by the old yacht harbor.

This is an old tradition, meeting your friends at La Pizza on opening night. It was started by a legendary publicist named Renee Furst, who would fire off faxes for days in advance about her fabulous party at La Pizza, and then arrange for you to sit next to the directors of the great but obscure films she was promoting. Now the critics call the opening-night gathering the Renee Furst Memorial Dinner, but it is so informal that nobody reserves a table, or even knows when it begins.

Sleep comes like a thief and steals your reason in the fest's first few days. Morning screenings are fine. Toward evening, the step slows and the mind crawls. A documentary about the midnight parties after the late screenings could be titled "Night of the Living Dead."

Quelle scandale: Gilles Jacob, the festival director, is embroiled in a messy lawsuit brought by Oliver Barrot, the man who seemed destined to be his successor. As an old French proverb goes, there is many a slip between the successor and the succession.

For as long as I can remember, the quiet, diplomatic and iron-willed M. Jacob has been the festival director, and the quiet, diplomatic and diplomatically quiet Pierre Viot has been the president. Jacob chooses all the films in the official competition, appoints the chairman of the jury, oversees its deliberations, hosts official dinners and has the last word on everything.

In January, M. Viot announced that he would be retiring. It was then announced (this is a little murky) that after a transitional year, Jacob would become president, and Oliver Barrot, a TV journalist, would, or might, or could possibly, become director, although not this year, or perhaps ever. In the meantime, Barrot was given a one-year appointment as a something or other.

Then, in April, as he was blissfully luxuriating at the movies (where else?) Barrot was told he no longer had the job. Only three months had passed since his appointment. What had he done wrong? It was a "psychological phenomenon" on Jacob's part, Barrot told Variety's Alison James. He did not explain this diagnosis, but I will: Jacob was constitutionally incapable of envisioning Barrot in the job he had held for so long.

One of the changes Barrot supposedly suggested was moving the festival from May, when the Hollywood studios offer mostly dim-witted summer thrillers, to September, the opening of the good movie season. This change would be fraught with hazard, since the Toronto and Venice festivals already own the autumn, and it is likely that if push came to shove, Toronto would be king of the hill.

This year, the official competition offers such usually interesting directors as Joffe, Joel Coen ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), James Ivory ("The Golden Bowl"), Neil Labute ("Nurse Betty"), Ken Loach ("Bread And Roses"), Nagisa Oshima ("Tabou"), Liv Ullmann ("The Faithless") and Lars Von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark").

The jury is headed by the French director Luc Besson, most recently responsible for the dud "The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc." The festival still is shell-shocked after last year's jury, headed by Canada's David Cronenberg, honored a selection of winners that were as uncommercial as they were honorable and indeed worthy; a little attention to the box office, on the part of the jury, is not entirely frowned upon.

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