When I arrived in Cannes on Tuesday afternoon, the red-carpet area in front of the Palais des Festivals was cordoned off. You expect that, of course; what good would it be otherwise? It also wasn't red yet. The soon-to-be-carpeted pavement was being treated with some kind of fixative, in an especially unattractive dull yellow reminiscent of ... well, never mind what. Yes, that's right; the most fabulous piece of real estate in the international cinema world, where Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Ron Howard would soon ascend for the world premiere of "The Da Vinci Code," was nothing but a field of sticky yellow goo.
There are those who say Cannes isn't really France, but those are the same people who say Las Vegas isn't really America. They're right, in a sort of humorless Protestant way, but they're also missing the point. Yes, more English than French is spoken at the Cannes Film Festival (at least during press conferences and other official events). But the uneasy liaison between Hollywood and Europe that this massive event represents expresses a central ambivalence in the French character, and you might say the same thing about this overgrown Riviera beach town with its palm trees, its rows of piss-elegant hotels and its flotilla of gargantuan yachts lolling in the harbor like so many old, white cats.
Away from the Croisette, the beachfront boulevard where the Palais, the big hotels and the tent city that surrounds them are found, Cannes itself is an ordinary French resort, overbuilt in places and run-down in others. Four blocks from Tom Hanks and the $600 hotel rooms, you can eat a cheese crêpe or a Tunisian sandwich, drink a café au lait, and still get change back from a 5-euro note. If it wasn't host to the international film industry's premier event, Cannes would just be another stop on the train from Nice to Marseille.
For two weeks each spring, Cannes provides the yellow goo that sticks big-budget, mass-market American moviemaking to the increasingly diverse and refracted realm of global cinema, which is essentially a niche art form for soi-disant sophisticates of all continents. Maybe that goo is called glamour, maybe it's called money. Whatever it is, there's plenty of it here, and the louche atmosphere of this region, along with the presence of roughly 4,000 of my media brethren (and some 30,000 or so other well-lubricated film industry professionals), make it seem at least temporarily important.
By the time you read this, the 59th Cannes festival will have launched, with the world premiere of a film almost everyone here has already dubbed irrelevant. (Press screenings of "The Da Vinci Code" began on Tuesday, and the earliest reviews are tepid or worse.) That said, somebody at Cannes decided to open this year's fete with Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's world-conquering and Catholic-enraging thriller, and that decision does capture the festival's tendency to vacillate wildly between the film world's magnetic poles.
Like the third "X-Men" movie, which also premieres here, "Da Vinci Code" is screening "out of competition," meaning it isn't up for the Palme d'Or (the grand jury prize) or any of Cannes' other awards. By unexpressed mutual consent, Hollywood studios don't usually submit their films in competition here, and festival organizers usually don't invite them. Part of this reflects the fact that while the Palme d'Or winner will attract worldwide media attention, it won't necessarily attract paying customers. Sure, such recent Palme d'Or films as "Pulp Fiction" (1994), "The Pianist" (2002) and "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) went on to become hits. But it's become customary to see winners like "Underground" (1995), "The Eel" (1997), "Rosetta" (1999) and last year's "L'Enfant" make almost no impression at the box office, especially in the United States.
This year's Palme d'Or jury is headed by the Chinese director Wong Kar-wai, a definite representative of the art-school sphere of world cinema. He was a calm, oracular presence, wearing his trademark aviator shades (but eschewing his trademark cigarette) during a contentious opening press conference on Wednesday afternoon. The question-answer period was dominated by disgruntled Asian journalists, many of whom wanted to know why, with an Asian filmmaker as jury president for the first time, there are so few movies here to represent the world's most populous continent. (Lou Ye's "Summer Palace," a romance set against the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, is the only Asian film in the main competition, and there are no films in any of the official categories at all from India, the world's largest producer.)
Wong deflected several such questions with implacable good humor, telling us (first in Mandarin and then in English), "I think the most difficult part of being president of the jury is giving a speech. After this it will be easy." He added, in a more serious tone, "I feel very honored to be the first Chinese jury president, but it's not an honor for me alone. It's an honor for all my colleagues in China and all through Asia. It's a big moment."
When an Indonesian journalist wondered whether Cannes bigwigs had explained to Wong why they had picked him, the festival official who was managing the press conference exploded. "Are you asking Wong Kar-wai whether he asked why he was chosen? Are his films not enough for you? Fellini is dead and Bergman doesn't travel."
English actress Helena Bonham Carter got the laugh lines, telling us that being on the jury would be fun "because people tend to suck up to you, and that's rather nice." Later she added, "I'm not sure how good a jury member I'll be. My taste in film is pretty bad, frankly." Other jury members include Samuel L. Jackson (who was reserved and serious), Tim Roth, Zhang Ziyi (another focus of the Asian reporters), the supernaturally beautiful Monica Bellucci, French director Patrice Leconte, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel and Palestinian director Elia Suleiman.
This year's roster of films in competition is an encouraging mixture of proven quantities and total unknowns. There's tremendous anticipation surrounding both Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (with Kirsten Dunst as the doomed queen and Jason Schwartzman as King Louis XVI) and Richard Kelly's long, long delayed follow-up to "Donnie Darko," a futuristic, nightmarish thriller-musical-spoof called "Southland Tales" in which the rotation of the earth is altered, reality is reversed, nuclear war is launched and Sarah Michelle Gellar gets to say the line, "Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted."
Other highlights will undoubtedly include Richard Linklater's "Fast Food Nation" (a fictional narrative film adapted from Eric Schlosser's nonfiction bestseller -- and one of two Linklater films at Cannes this year); Ken Loach's epic about revolutionary Ireland in the 1920s, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"; Nanni Moretti's anti-Berlusconi political satire "Il Caimano"; Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," a fantastical fairy tale set in World War II Spain; and Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel," a closely guarded film with a Middle Eastern setting, an intriguing international cast (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal) and dialogue in English, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese.
But Cannes juries are notoriously unpredictable, and no one here will be surprised if the winning film is something with little commercial future, like "Red Road," the debut film from English director Andrea Arnold; or "Selon Charlie," the latest little-moments-in-small-lives opus from Nicole Garcia, a French critics' darling; or "Crónica de Una Fuga," Israel Adrián Caetano's grueling tale of Argentina's fascist dictatorship.
If you want a hunch, I'll give you two: Rachid Bouchareb's "Indigènes," a purportedly rousing story of Algerians fighting for de Gaulle's French army against the Nazis (even though they've never been to France); and Aki Kaurismäki's "Lights in the Dusk," a whimsical, downbeat Finnish fairy tale about a Chaplinesque hero victimized by a vicious society. No, those don't sound like crowd-pleasers. But they do sound like the kind of serious moral fables this decadent atmosphere apparently demands.
Beyond the main competition, Cannes could be said to host three other film festivals -- the artier Un Certain Regard section, along with the International Critics' Week and the Directors' Fortnight -- as well as an anarchic marketplace for unmade, partly made and unsold films (most of which the rest of the world will, thankfully, never see). It's been said that more than 1,000 films will screen in whole or in part over the next two weeks, and I see no reason to doubt it. I feel almost certain that my most memorable moviegoing experiences here will arrive serendipitously, via something I've never heard of before and will never encounter again. I'll preview the other sections of Cannes in a future dispatch. But now it's time to go soak in that yellow goo, whatever it actually is.