CANNES, France-- Forty-one years after his "Breathless" swept in the French New Wave and helped herald the modern era of filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard is back at the Cannes Film Festival with a new movie. The onetime enfant terrible is now 71, and the 1960s "film generation" that marched under his banner is old and gray, but his very presence inspires a certain trembling in the air as the 54th Cannes festival opens. The giants are back in town.
Last year's festival was generally thought to be below par. This year's is anticipated with intense excitement by the moviegoers gathering on the French Riviera. Of course until we see the movies we won't know for sure, but on the basis of track records, preview screenings and buzz, important films are about to be seen.
One of the key events will be one of the first: The unveiling of the restored and expanded director's cut of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," which screens Friday. I was at Cannes for its world premiere in 1979, and that was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life. We did not suspect then that "Apocalypse Now" was not the beginning of something but the end_that wildly ambitious epic films would virtually disappear as Hollywood skewed toward no-brainer, block-booked multiplex Friday night specials. "Apocalypse Now /Redux" includes scenes shot but not used in the original cut, including a visit to a French plantation in Vietnam, and an encounter with Playboy playmates.
The festival's opening night film is traditionally French, but this year tradition falls, and Australian director Baz Luhrmann will be here with "Moulin Rouge," starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Maybe the French loophole is that it's set in Paris, in 1902. It's like a combination of a 19th century opera, a 1950s Hollywood musical and a 2001 music video, all drenched in lush colors with exuberant melodrama and wall-to-wall music.
The directors whose films are in the festival's official selection may not be familiar to casual moviegoers, but serious cineastes vibrate just at hearing the list of names: Not only Godard, but the veterans Shohei Imamura, Manoel De Oliveira, Jacques Rivette, Nanni Moretti, Ermanno Olmi and Raoul Ruiz. Leading world filmmakers such as Hirokazu Kore-Eda from Japan, Mohsen Makhmalbaf from Iran, Alexander Sokurov from Russia and Hou Hsiao-hsien from Taiwan. And cutting-edge Americans such as Sean Penn, David Lynch, Wayne Wang and the Coen brothers (plus Coppola's son Roman, whose "CQ" is in the competition only three years after daughter Sofia's "The Virgin Suicides" played here). Also honored by being selected: "Shrek," the much anticipated new animated feature from DreamWorks.
Some 3,000 critics and reporters will make their morning pilgrimages to the Palais des Cinema for the early press screening, and then double back for the second official selection in the afternoon. In the evening, black-tie audiences will promenade up the famous red-carpeted stairs while breathless French fashion commentators review the gowns. And somehow for 10 days we will all forget that "The Mummy Returns" grossed $70.1 million last weekend, and will line up eagerly for the latest work by directors such as de Oliveira, who is 93 and hardly ever finds that he needs to use special effects.
It wouldn't be Cannes without rumors, and the hottest is that Quentin Tarantino, whose "Pulp Fiction" won the Golden Palm in 1994, will unveil the surprise premiere of a Western that he filmed secretly in Mexico this year. That's the possibility being floated by the Web's well-connected Harry Knowles. Is it possible for Tarantino to make a film in secret? I say no. I hope yes.
In addition to the official selection, there are major sidebar programs at Cannes, including the Critics' Week, the Directors' Fortnight and Un Certain Regard; only in France would it be a compliment to hold a film in "a certain regard." The most eagerly awaited selection is "Storytelling," by Todd Solondz, whose "Happiness" was a sensation here three years ago. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming are presenting "The Anniversary Party," which they co-wrote and co-directed and which co-stars them, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Jennifer Beals, Jane Adams and Phoebe Cates, in a story that rips the lid off Beverly Hills and slams it down on the characters. The American indie Hal Hartley, another Cannes favorite, is here with "No Such Thing," starring Sarah Polley as a journalist who meets an Icelandic monster, and likes it. Growling, fearsome, beloved Abel Ferrara has the opening night film in "Un Certain Regard": "R-Xmas," of which next to nothing is known - not even its cast.
Among the Yank movies in the Directors' Fortnight: Scott McGehee and David Siegel's "The Deep End," a thriller starring Tilda Swinton as a mother protecting her son (I loved it at Sundance); Ethan Hawke's "Chelsea Walls," set in New York's fabled, seedy Chelsea Hotel, and starring his wife, Uma Thurman, and Arliss Howard's "Big Bad Love," starring his wife, Debra Winger, with Cannes regular Rosanna Arquette.
How many of these will I see? All of them, I hope. I'll be filing more or less daily reports from France - the only place on earth where you wait longer for the check than you wait for the meal.