U.S.-centric lineup highlights role of pop spectacle


There are two ways of looking at the Official Selection of films for the 60th Festival de Cannes. One is that the culture war between Europe and America, whose skirmishes have so often broken out in the courtyards and beach pavilions of that overgrown Riviera resort town, is over -- and that Europe lost. The other is that Quentin Tarantino's friendly rivalry with Robert Rodriguez has just escalated to the next level, and it's time for the two to begin pursuing each other like antagonists in a genuine grindhouse film, armed with implausible weaponry, one-eyed female sidekicks and '70s slang.

Both contain a germ of truth. This year's Cannes lineup features new movies from such heroes of world cinema as Sarajevo-born Emir Kusturica (a two-time winner of the Palme d'Or), South Korea's Kim Ki-duk, Hungary's Bela Tarr, Russia's Aleksandr Sokurov and French provocatrix Catherine Breillat. Still, 2007 is likely to be remembered as an overwhelmingly American year.

No film on the calendar symbolizes the strangeness -- or the heady promise -- of this moment more clearly than Tarantino's "Death Proof," which will be uprooted from its pastiche context within the Weinstein Co.'s "Grindhouse," recut to feature length (with 10 minutes or so of unseen footage) and presented to crowds on the Croisette as a new work from America's middle-aged cinematic maverick.

Since it first became a jet set destination, Cannes has been the setting for a confluence of Hollywood glamour and European cinephilia, and in its silliest and most ineffable moments, it has effortlessly fused the two. When a bikini-clad Brigitte Bardot stretched out on the beach in the early '50s, or when Francois Truffaut and friends lounged around the pool at St. Paul de Vence's Colombe d'Or hotel a few years later, a style of transatlantic celebrity cool was born. Its penumbra has stretched from Sophia Loren to Sharon Stone, from Burt Lancaster to Johnny Depp.

Cannes has nurtured that style ever since, and over the years a recipe has emerged: enough star-studded premieres of popcorn flicks to keep the paparazzi and tourists buzzing, enough serious cinema to keep the critics murmuring among themselves, and enough sun and sand and dry Bandol rose to make the whole thing seem like a hazy seaside dream.

As the old-school cinephilia of the '60s and '70s has been swamped by a tsunami of pop culture and an explosion of new media (all of it devoted to entertainment in bite-sized portions), this balancing act has become ever more difficult. But the consummate Cannes experience remains that rare film that captures worldwide media attention while giving the chattering classes something to argue about. Think "Pulp Fiction" in 1994 or "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004.

Judged by these standards, the pictures set to unspool on the Cote d'Azur this spring -- beginning May 16 with the Weinstein Co.'s "My Blueberry Nights" from Wong Kar-Wai -- appears to be one of the most appealing lineups in years. Some 14 of the 49 films in the festival's Official Selection for 2007 (a few titles had yet to be announced at press time) were directed by Americans. (The Official Selection encompasses the main Competition, several Out-of-Competition slots and Un Certain Regard, the sidebar competition for less mainstream fare.)

There are no British films in any competition category: Michael Winterbottom's Paramount Vantage drama "A Mighty Heart," starring Angelina Jolie as the widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, will screen Out of Competition, though English director Stephen Frears will serve as jury president. Italy and Spain landed just one film apiece, and Germany two. There are 10 French films in the selection, which speaks both to Cannes' home-country bias and the relative strength of the French industry.

Even more strikingly, four of the American pictures in Cannes' main Competition -- Paramount's serial-killer drama "Zodiac" from David Fincher, Tarantino's "Death Proof," Universal's mob saga "We Own the Night" from James Gray and the Coen brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" for Miramax -- are essentially thrillers, their roots firmly planted in classic Hollywood genre cinema. The festival's artistic director Thierry Fremaux has been characteristically unapologetic, observing that genre films also can be artful works.

Given the underwhelming international reputation of the U.S. at present, it's certainly possible that Euro-cinema purists will seek to pillory Cannes 2007 as a celebration of Americanism. Of course, that wouldn't be fair: The Yankee directors represented are an eclectic group of craftspeople, artistically ambitious, diverse in temperament and international in outlook. Even this year's most star-studded event, the Out-of-Competition premiere of Steven Soderbergh's Warner Bros. Pictures release "Ocean's Thirteen," with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Al Pacino, should involve capable entertainment.

Once one moves past the hand-wringing over national pride and cultural imperialism, it looks as if Cannes' 60th edition will deliver what it's supposed to: brand-new films from a cluster of the world's most respected directors and an intriguing collection of surprises, dark horses and new discoveries.

The Weinstein Co.'s "Sicko," Michael Moore's takedown of the U.S. health care industry, will be one of the biggest Cannes premieres -- despite the director's refusal to don anything approaching formalwear -- but it's Out of Competition, so Moore cannot repeat his 2004 Palme d'Or win. Gus Van Sant, who won for "Elephant" in 2003, is back with Yari Film Group's "Paranoid Park," a story about a skateboarder who accidentally kills a security guard. Joel and Ethan Coen took home the Palme d'Or 16 years ago for "Barton Fink," and "No Country for Old Men," a tale of murder, drugs and money in Texas, appears to represent their return to serious filmmaking.

The leveling effect of Cannes is always instructive. "No Country for Old Men" and "We Own the Night," a $28 million drama that stars Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall, are competing against "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a no-budget tale of abortion from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. Industry insiders might see Fincher's serial-killer metamovie "Zodiac" one night, and the next take in "The Forest of Mogari" from Japanese author and director Naomi Kawase, who won the Camera d'Or prize for her first feature, "Moe No Suzaku," in 1997.

If cineastes are mortified by the absence of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's "The Red Balloon" In Competition -- it will serve as the opening night film of Un Certain Regard instead -- the resurfacing of two-time Palme d'Or victor Kusturica (for "When Father Was Away on Business" in 1985 and "Underground" in 1995) might make up for it. Kusturica's bravura filmmaking will surely be on display in "Promise Me This," a comedy-drama about a man who sends his son into Belgrade to find a wife.

Other titles that seem likely to strike a deeper cultural nerve include Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis," Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi's animated adaptation (co-directed and co-written with Vincent Paronnaud) of her graphic novel about life under the mullahs, and Focus Features' "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the true story of a paralyzed magazine editor directed by Julian Schnabel.

Mexican director Carlos Reygadas made his new film "Silent Light" in Dutch (it's set inside a Mennonite community); fans of Reygadas' art house aesthetic also will need to see "The Banishment" from Andrei Zvyagintsev (who made 2004's father-son fable "The Return"), perhaps the finest cinematic talent to emerge from Russia in this decade.

Of course, the eventual winner of the Palme d'Or will likely be something grave from an established director with zero boxoffice appeal -- such as Tarr's "The Man From London," Kim's "Breath" or Sokurov's "Alexandra" -- rather than a clever fragment of commercial cinema such as "Zodiac" or "Death Proof." But the 2007 American invasion of Cannes, while it's far from the apocalypse for European art film, is more than a random accident. It signifies that old equations of cultural meaning don't compute in an economy based on pop spectacle, and that even the most puritanical of cinephiles must learn to hunt on the margins of Hollywood.
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