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Cannes lacks blockbuster start

CANNES, France -- If Gilles Jacob, the overlord of the Cannes Film Festival, had gotten his way, the Palais des Festivals would have been trembling Wednesday night with the THX soundtrack of "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace." Jacob likes to open his festival with a blockbuster, just to remind everyone what a movie is, before they disappear into intense screenings of tortured adaptations of obscure novels by Herman Melville.

But George Lucas and 20th Century Fox didn't grant Jacob his wish, preferring to hold the press premiere of the new "Star Wars" picture at a popcorn palace in Manhattan last weekend. I attended that screening, at a place so secret that the press had to be bused to an "undisclosed location," where we were greeted by the cameras of the TV gossip shows, which had somehow discovered it.

The picture and sound were indeed splendid at the screening (Lucas' producer, Rick McCallum, assured me "only 1 percent of the theaters in America meet our technical standards"). But it wasn't as overwhelming as it would have been at Cannes, in a vast 3,500-seat house with the largest screen I have ever seen, and the best sound. Perhaps "The Phantom Menace" would have been greeted more warmly here, where visual style is highly valued, than in New York, where many critics found the new movie lacking in its "human relationships."

Call me a hopeless innocent, but I don't go to a "Star Wars" movie to see human relationships, not even when they involve aliens and androids. I go to see amazing sights, real big and loud, one after another.

Denied "The Phantom Menace," along with the premiere of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," which Jacob would have liked to have screened, the festival was greeted by headlines such as "H'WOOD ABSENT IN FORCE" (Hollywood Reporter) and "U.S. GO HOME!" (Le Film Francais). But there is no absence of Americans at the 52nd festival, only of high-profile Hollywood megafilms.

"America is fast vanishing from Cannes," wrote the industry-centered Reporter. Yet this year's festival is like a roll call of the biggest names in independent North American filmmaking. Can a festival be said to lack Americans when it premieres new films by Spike Lee, John Sayles, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh and Tim Robbins? Not to mention Canada's Atom Egoyan? What's interesting is that most of those directors were first put on the map at Cannes, where their early films were successful. (It was here that I first saw "Do the Right Thing," "The Brother From Another Planet," "Blue Velvet," "Down by Law," "sex, lies, and videotape" and "Bob Roberts").

If "The Phantom Menace" had opened the festival Wednesday night, I would of course have gone to see it again. But it did not, and so it was off to La Pizza, down by the old yacht harbor, instead. Experience has taught me that after flying all night from America and arriving in a state of severe time dislocation, there is nothing like a comfortable seat at an evening movie for a deep sleep.

The opening night film I would have slumbered through was "The Barber of Siberia," by the Russian Nikita Milhalkov. It is a 19th century story about a beautiful young American woman (Julia Ormond), who poses as the daughter of the inventor of a gigantic machine to shave down the forests of Siberia; her assignment is to seduce the bureaucrat who could approve this project. How good was it? Thursday morning, I kept running into colleagues who found many different and colorful ways of telling me it was unbelievably bad.

My own festival kickoff was the 8:30 a.m. Thursday screening of "Pola X," by Leos Carax, a French update of Melville's Pierre, a 19th century story about a young man's idyllic relationship with his mother and his happy plans for marriage, all destroyed by the appearance of a strange dark woman who claims to be his father's secret daughter.

Strange, isn't it, how what seems gloriously melodramatic in a 19th century story has a way of becoming absurd in a modern context? Pierre, played by Gerard Depardieu's son, Guillaume, spends his days chatting with his seductive and often nude mother (Catherine Deneuve) and racing on his motorcycle to the bed of his fiancee before encountering his dark and wounded sister and running off to Paris with her, where they find quarters in an abandoned factory that is being used for recording sessions by an orchestra whose members pound 55-gallon drums while chickens run between their legs.

Young Depardieu's performance features the gradual destruction of his body in a series of beatings, woundings and motorcycle accidents (the family pasttime). He begins as a golden-haired Adonis and ends by lurching about Paris like the hunchback of Notre Dame. "Pola X" exists outside the categories of good and bad; it is a magnificent folly.

Cannes is preceded each year by an international TV convention in April, during which many visitors invariably find themselves robbed, kidnapped, assaulted or pickpocketed. The opening day's trade papers at Cannes are always filled with horror stories from the earlier event, giving newly arrived Americans the same apprehension that Europeans feel when they rent a car at the Miami airport. The new twist this year involves pirates on motorbikes who waylay luxury cars on the road to Cap d'Antibes. My theory is that anyone in a luxury car who can't run a motorbike off the road is just asking for trouble.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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