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The business of controversy

CANNES, France -- Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Tom Hanks, Michael Moore, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Shrek are converging on this balmy Riviera resort town today, and there may be trainloads of striking French show-biz workers to picket them. The 57th Cannes Film Festival is open for business.

Behind the hulking Palais du Cinema and on nearby side streets, armored buses contain an alleged 1,000 riot police, prepared to confront the strikers, who are protesting a cut in their unemployment benefits. You might therefore assume that the city is vibrating with anxiety, but no: There's a strike most years at Cannes. The festival focuses the eyes of the world here for nine days, and strikers convene to bathe in the spotlight.

One year medical students in their lab coats pelted the Palais with plastic bags of blood. For several years, the hotel maids went on strike, and the municipal workers have been known to turn off the power. In 1968, a year of turmoil, the entire festival was shut down by a general strike; Godard and Truffaut appeared on the steps of the Old Palais to declare a revolution, and thus the Director's Fortnight was born, featuring films more to their liking than the official entries.

Tarantino is the head of this year's jury, which also includes the actors Tilda Swinton, Emmanuelle Beart and Kathleen Turner, and a QT favorite, the celebrated Hong Kong horror director Tsui Hark ("Chinese Ghost Story"). The French may not like Americans, but they like QT, whose "Pulp Fiction" is one of the most popular of all the Palme d'Or winners.

What film will win the golden palm this year? If Tarantino were choosing, it might be "2046" (2005) by the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wei, or "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," an animated film by Japan's Mamoru Oshii. But presidents do not necessarily control their juries, and last year Dogma founder Lars von Trier was astonished when his three-hour "Dogville" was passed over by a jury that gave the Palme to Gus Van Sant's low-budget indie production "Elephant." Both were said to be anti-American, but "Dogville" was additionally boring.

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," described as an attack on the Bush administration, will be in the official competition; his "Bowling for Columbine" won the "Prize of the 55th Anniversary of the Festival" in 2002, although since the prize is only given every 55 years, it is a little hard to assess its significance. Moore arrives on the Croisette, trailing clouds of controversy somewhat dissipated by his cheerful admission that he stirred them up himself. He charged Disney had forbidden Miramax to distribute the film, fearing repercussions on Disney World from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. A lively story, until it was pointed out that Disney had informed Moore a year ago that it would not be distributing the film, and Moore confessed that he'd generated the controversy for publicity. Whether Disney was any more noble for avoiding the controversial film a year ago instead of last week was lost in the fog.

Cannes loves stars, and Brad Pitt will march up the red carpet for an out-of-competition screening of his new epic, "Troy." Also out of competition: The zombie-fest "Dawn of the Dead" (2004). "Shrek 2" is in competition, providing a faceoff between the two dominant schools of animation, Hollywood and Japan. There'll be boos if "Shrek 2" wins something and "Ghost in the Shell" doesn't.

In the official competition, one of the most anticipated films is "Nobody Knows," by Hirokazu Kore-Eda ("Maborosi," "After Life"), considered the best of Japan's young directors. It's about four children with different fathers, whose mother raises them secretly in a Tokyo apartment before leaving them on their own one day.

There's a lot of buzz, too, about "Old Boy," by the Korean director Chan-wook Park, about a man who is held in a private prison while his wife is murdered. Will he ever discover who imprisoned him?

Canada, which won the Palme d'Or last year with Denys Arcand's wonderful "The Barbarian Invasions," is back in the official competition with Olivier Assayas' "Clean," a Franco-Canadian co-production starring Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte and Don McKellar in the story of a woman trying to regain possession of her son from her in-laws.

The Coen brothers shared the best director prize in 2001 for "The Man Who Wasn't There" and won it outright for "Fargo" (1996) and "Barton Fink" (1991), which also won the Palme d'Or. They're in competition this year with "The Ladykillers," and Tom Hanks will come along.

There's good talk about Stephen Hopkins' "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," with Geoffrey Rush and Charlize Theron in the story of the unhappy funnyman, and "The Motorcycle Diaries," a South American odyssey by Brazilian director Walter Salles ("Central Station"). "Sud Pralad," by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is the first film from Thailand ever shown in the official competition. It's about a beast in the jungle, said to be a transmuted human soul.

Only at Cannes would it be an honor for a film to be held in "a certain regard," but this year's Un Certain Regard sidebar looks as intriguing as the main event. Among the titles: Niels Mueller's "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts; Shona Auerback's "Dear Frankie," with Emily Mortimer as a mother who protects her deaf son from the fact that they're on the run from his father, and "10 on Ten," by the celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, a documentary about his 2002 film "Ten," describing his method, which was reportedly to coach actors and then send them out on their own in the front seat of a car, while a video camera recorded their scenes.

When I first went to Cannes, in 1972, most of the press representatives were serious critics, filing assessments of the new Bergman or Altman. Now the "entertainment press" blankets the festival, and there will be a riot as photographers elbow one another to shoot the tragically underphotographed Brad Pitt.

There are two press screenings of "Fahrenheit 9/11," both at exactly the same time, both in smallish venues in the Palais instead of the 2,500-seat Lumiere Auditorium, where most of the press screenings are held. Since Moore's film is the one title that every journalist in town will feel compelled to view, there'll be an ugly scrimmage outside those screenings, and I am informing my editors right now that I will not risk my life to see it. An arm or a leg, maybe.

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