Cannes, France -- "Look at that harbor," says an old-timer. "Five years ago it had 50 mega-yachts. Now . . . two yachts and a garbage barge."
He's right. And the near-empty harbor just off the Palais du Festivals at the world's richest and most chaotic film festival is an apt metaphor for the ennui and sense of loss that seems to grip the two-week event in the south of France.
Oh, the tourists still throng the grand old Boulevard de Croisette, where the movie wars are waged and in whose bars and cafes and discos, it is rumored, the deals are made and the stars may be seen. But there's not much action, unless looking at men with baguettes under their arms is considered action, for even at the busiest moments, the French dart through the crowds with serious demeanors and tightly gripped lances of bread.
But where are the stars?
"Let's face it," opines "Rambling Reporter" Robert Osborn in the Cannes edition of Hollywood Reporter, "the absence of big, bigger, BIGGEST star names has definitely put a damper on Cannes '93."
Arnold Schwarzenegger -- whose posters for "Last Action Hero" struggle with Sylvester Stallone's "Cliffhanger" along the Croisette -- was in for one day, but he spent most of it at the exclusive, $1,000-a-day Hotel du Cap in Cap D'Antibes, rather than mixing with the print scum and the Eurotrash down in smelly, traffic-clotted Cannes. Robert De Niro was in for a day last week; Catherine Deneuve opened the movie celebration last week as well. Stallone was to appear at the world premiere of "Cliffhanger" last night. A lucky reporter caught a glimpse of a pallid Eric Idle, here to shill "Splitting Heirs," a British entry in the competition that has already failed miserably in its American release. And that's it.
It seems a shame for an event whose name has been synonymous with the most vivid of glamour for 46 years and whose official poster this year -- a glossy black-and-white image of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissing in Hitchcock's "Notorious" so many years ago -- forms almost a mocking irony to the banality along the Croisette.
Even the 23 films in contention for the not-very-coveted Golden Palm award seem to reflect an off year. Though a few have excited some buzz, the American entries are a particularly dim lot. "Falling Down," the Michael Douglas-Joel Schumacher collaboration that was a mild success in the United States last winter, is the biggest of them, though "Cliffhanger" will be screened out of competition as part of an AIDS benefit.
The other big American entry is unlikely to win much praise, and at a screening Wednesday, people were slipping out in ones and twos as the movie wore onward. It's Steven Soderbergh's "King of the Hill," a bittersweet re-creation of a Depression-era boyhood in St. Louis that stars no known American but only the Dutch transplant Joeren Crabbe. Four years back, Soderbergh leapt to national attention when his first film, "sex, lies and videotape," which was made for less than $1 million, won the big award and went on to become a minor hit. Judging from press reaction -- and the film itself -- that is not likely to happen with "King of the Hill."
Then there was Abel ("Bad Lieutenant") Ferrara's "Body Snatchers," whose violence evidently upset many people, so that the tough-talking director was greeted with indifferent applause at a post-screening news conference.
Front runner 'Piano'
Right now, the front runner seems to be Jane Campion's "The Piano." The romantic comedy starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel received a standing ovation at its official premiere Monday. It's strongest rival appeared Wednesday night in Chen Kaige's "Farewell to My Concubine." The only Chinese entry in the main competition, the film is a three-hour epic covering a half-century of China's cultural revolution.
"Toxic Affair," a French film starring Isabelle Adjani that is not part of the official competition, closes the festival Monday.
The most dynamic American film so far isn't even in the main competition, but rather in a subcategory called "Director's Fortnight." It's the taut urban tragedy "Menace II Society" by the 21-year-old Albert and Allen Hughes, twins raised in Detroit and Pomona, Calif., who have logged time learning their craft in the video business.
The movie, which co-stars former Baltimorean Jada Pinkett, may be the Next Big Thing. The French certainly think so. After the movie's world premiere in a theater not in the Palais but in the Noga Hilton down the street, crowds chanted for the Hughes brothers to come up on stage.
They did, somewhat shyly, and in one of those moments that could only happen in a truly surrealistic setting like the Cannes Film Festival, actually took pictures of the crowd taking pictures of them.