CANNES, France -- One year I arrived in Cannes a little early, two days before the festival was scheduled to begin, and watched the waiters on the famous terrace of the Carlton Hotel as they loaded the good furniture into trucks and unloaded the weather-beaten rattan that I had come to know and love.
The expensive chairs are for rich tourists during the months when Cannes is the jewel of the Riviera. The rattan is for the 10 days when hordes of maddened paparazzi are likely to leap onto chairs to get a better angle for their shots of the French starlet Lolo Ferrari, whose breasts are much larger than necessary.
Cannes goes crazy during these days in May. Starting tonight and continuing until May 23, it is not merely the center of the movie world, but also of the publicity world. National TV networks park their trailer-trucks out behind the Palais des Festivals, pointing their big satellite dishes at the sky to beam back breathless reports to Madrid, London, Tokyo, Rome and Frankfort.
Limousines disgorge stars, who walk slowly up the red carpet of the outside staircase and turn to display the latest fashions from the Paris design houses. And the biggest star of all may be Harvey Weinstein, head honcho of Miramax Films, because he has the biggest checkbook for buying the kinds of films they show at Cannes.
They will not be showing "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace" or Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" this year, although in the past they've unveiled such blockbusters as "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and they do have this summer's third most talked-about film, "The Blair Witch Project." And they will be showing the new films of Takeshi Kitano, the hottest director in Japan right now; Canada's Atom Egoyan; Spain's Pedro Almodovar; Mexico's Arturo Ripstein, and Britain's Peter Greenaway.
The Cannes Film Festival has a tradition of discovering new American directors every year, and although this year's discoveries are, of course, still undiscovered, the 1999 selection includes an honor roll of leading U.S. independents. In competition are new films by Tim Robbins ("Cradle Will Rock"), Jim Jarmusch ("Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"), John Sayles ("Limbo") and David Lynch ("The Straight Story").
There will be special screenings out of competition for Kevin Smith, whose "Dogma" has already stirred controversy for its religious views; Jon Amiel ("Entrapment"), and Steven Soderbergh ("The Limey"). Ron Howard will see if his "EDTV" stirs up more excitement in Europe than it did in America. And Spike Lee will be playing in a sidebar event with "Summer Of Sam," about the serial killer "Son of Sam." The film has been dogged by rumors of a possible NC-17 rating; it will be one of the hottest films of the festival.
Some films cause shoving matches at the turnstiles, and they're usually the ones that have to do with the movie-making process. One of this year's most eagerly awaited films is "My Best Fiend" (yes, "fiend," not "friend"), a film about the legendary and creepy German actor Klaus Kinski by his friend and enemy Werner Herzog, who shipped him into the heart of the Amazon for "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," and made him into a vampire wraith in "Nosferatu the Vampyre." Perhaps this film will settle once and for all whether Herzog and Kinski actually plotted to murder each other during those steamy jungle ordeals.
Some films at Cannes are shown in the best venues in the world, the vast auditoriums inside the Palais; the theater Lumiere, named for the French inventor of the cinema, has the largest screen I have ever seen and is packed from the daily 8:30 a.m. press screening until the black-tie premieres late at night. Other films unspool all over town. The Director's Fortnight screenings are in a cavernous bunker beneath the Noga Hilton hotel, and you can see filmgoers trudging back and forth along the Boulevard Croisette, which follows the beach for a mile or so between the two venues.
Then there is the sidebar selection called Un Certain Regard, for films by directors that the festival has, yes, a certain regard. One of them is David Mamet, whose "The Winslow Boy," will be shown. And there is the Critics' Week, which is much too picky to have anything to do with the official festival, and this year sniffed that it could find no American films worthy of screening.
The Marketplace, home to about 5,000 buyers and sellers of more commercial films, holds screenings in the local theaters along the crowded shopping area on the Rue d'Antibes. Hotel suites are filled with VCR machines, playing films whose makers can't afford to rent theater space. And down in the basement of the Palais, there is a man who will sell you videotapes by the pound.
The head of the jury this year is the Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose "Existenz" and the Cannes entry "Crash" confused the movie ratings boards by presenting activities that looked like sex, but involved unfamiliar orifices (in "Existenz," the characters have Bio-Ports opening into their spines). The best-known of his jurors are actors Holly Hunter and Jeff Goldblum, filmmaker George Miller ("Babe: Pig in the City") and French director Andre Techine ("My Favorite Season," "Thieves (Les Voleurs)").
An estimated 50,000 people will attend the festival in one capacity or another. That includes pickpockets, hookers and the sidewalk salesmen of fake Gucci bags -- who all hold their annual conventions here.
"It's a funny thing," a veteran critic once said. "Every year, I can't wait to get here. And I can't wait to leave."