Commentary: Just when you think you've seen it all, here comes sobriety at Cannes

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CANNES -- There haven't been any extravagant fireworks displays at this year's Festival de Cannes -- at least, no literal fireworks.

It's a pity because lavish light shows that illuminate the night sky above the Port de Cannes and rain down on the attendant yachts anchored in the harbor are among the festival's ancillary delights.

Come to think of it, there doesn't appear to be quite as many ostentatious yachts on display, either.

Welcome to Cannes, recession-style.

As the media gathered for the annual celebration of film and the simultaneous buying and selling of what's simply called product, they naturally seized upon economic hard times as a story line for the fest's 62nd edition.

For despite all the champagne still flowing at the hotels and beach clubs that dot the Croisette, the party doesn't seem quite as freewheeling.

Disney's opening-night bash for Pixar's "Up," for example, didn't compare with legendary parties like Fox's bacchanalia for the 2001opening-night film "Moulin Rouge." That fete, with its working windmill, circus tents and can-can girls, made the prop at the "Up" festivities -- a miniature house hanging from a bunch of balloons -- look puny.

Similarly, the aisles at the Marche du Film, where rights to less celebrated films like the Russian spy spoof "Hitler Goes Kaput!" are hawked, aren't as bustling as in past years. Even as the festival heads into its homestretch, with high-profile films from Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino and Terry Gilliam yet to come, a number of high-profile buyers and sellers already are pulling up stakes.

"I think everyone is being very careful, and I don't think there is anything that requires an immediate response," one prominent U.S. distributor says after surveying projects in search of buyers. "There's been nothing that anyone is over the moon about."

That could be just a shrewd negotiating tactic, of course, but it also reflects a newfound sobriety that has spread throughout the film industry, with Cannes 2009 exemplifying the winnowing of the herd that has taken place.

Two years ago, New Line marked its 40th anniversary and the upcoming release of "The Golden Compass" with a typically luxe Cannes party on the grounds of the former Rothschild Villa. Now, New Line is nothing more than another production label within Warner Bros.

Three years ago, then-fledging Paramount Vantage made quite a splash here, launching Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" and the Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." But Vantage is gone, too, absorbed into its parent studio.

There's also a sense, yet to be fully tested, that more serious filmmakers are getting back to basics. Jane Campion, a Palme d'Or winner for "The Piano," seemed to go astray in 2003 when she directed Meg Ryan in the contemporary "In the Cut." But she is back in critical favor with her new period film, "Bright Star," in which poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) romances Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

As if to prove the indie world is constantly reinventing itself, the new company (still without a name) that former Warner Independent Pictures president Bob Berney and producer Bill Pohlad have formed snapped up the film, which it will release domestically Sept. 18.

Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola, who hasn't made a studio movie since 1997's "The Rainmaker," declined a red-carpet rollout for his self-financed "Tetro," opting for a more informal slot as the opening-night film in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar. The beautifully shot sibling drama, starring Vincent Gallo, drew mixed reviews, but Coppola is forging ahead, planning to distribute it himself June 11.

None of this should suggest that this year's Cannes crowd has abandoned black ties and ball gowns for sackcloth and ashes. Show business' natural affinity for self-promotion and hyperbole can't be so easily denied.

Just when things were getting a little boring, master provocateur Lars von Trier shocked everyone back to life with his new film "Anti¬christ." What begins as a Bergmanesque portrait of a devastated couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) dealing with the death of their child turns into a bloody allegory with hard-core images of his-and-hers sexual mutilation.

Defending the film, von Trier proclaimed himself "the best film director in the world."

On the more commercial side of things, Disney returned to the Croisette on Monday to tub-thump for its upcoming holiday release: Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture, 3-D "re-envisioning" (as he put it) of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which debuts stateside Nov. 6 in Disney Digital and Imax 3-D.

Carpeting the front of the Carlton Hotel with a blanket of artificial snow, the studio spared no expense, transporting Zemeckis and stars Jim Carrey and Colin Firth by horse-drawn carriage to meet the paparazzi.

Promising that the movie will combine adventure, comedy, drama and action, Disney chairman Dick Cook enthusiastically described it as "a multisensory thrill ride."

Turns out there have been some fireworks at this Cannes after all.
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