CANNES, France -- This city's celebrated film festival is usually like a hibernating bear, slow getting started and difficult to rouse from a season's protracted slumber. This year has been different.
The gala opening night film, for instance, often has little more than French origins or major names to recommend it: Consider that Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani's "Diabolique" was a serious contender this time around. Then saner heads selected Patrice Leconte's "Ridicule," which turned out to be an unusually intelligent, accomplished and bracing costume epic set in the court of Louis XVI, a pitiless world in which "vices are without consequence, but ridicule kills."
Even before "Ridicule" got to play to the black-tie portion of its audience, the chaotic film market coughed up its first pleasant little surprise. Australia's "Love and Other Catastrophes," just acquired by Fox Searchlight, is a high-spirited farce with its own captivating sense of fun. An insider's tale of the harum-scarum, chaotic nature of collegiate romance, it owes its breezy energy to Emma-Kate Croghan, a director who's but 23 years old herself.
And opening the prestigious Directors Fortnight is what may turn out to be the best of the new American films at Cannes, John Sayles' "Lone Star." The story of how a Texas border-town sheriff's (Kris Kristofferson) investigation of a decades-old murder uncovers the powerful ways the past makes itself felt in the present, "Lone Star" is the kind of thoughtful and involving Sayles film that caused one journalist to write that the director and his producing partner, Maggie Renzi, "will never be mistaken for the sort of couple who attract the 'paparazzi' in Cannes."
Yet here they are, doing what Sayles likes least, standing on a hotel roof getting his picture taken by a horde of photographers who "shout 'John, John,' even though they don't know who you are."
Sayles is at the festival, as he has been with four of his other films, because if his 10 features prove nothing else, it's that he's a practical man, the master of the possible, a director who rolls up his sleeves both literally and metaphorically to get the job done. "Determined is a good word for me," he says. "The best way to get me to do something is to tell me it can't be done."
And, just like he goes to Cannes because, practically speaking, "it's a very efficient way to get a lot of European stuff done," Sayles doesn't hesitate to work as a screenwriter and script doctor for hire on big-budget Hollywood movies.
"It's how I make a living," he says of his recent uncredited work on films like "The Quick and the Dead," where he beefed up and "Americanized" villain Gene Hackman's speeches, and Oscar-nominated "Apollo 13," where he rewrote scenes after casting and researched the historical reality. And it was work he did for director Rob Reiner that led to Castle Rock's financing of "Lone Star's" $5 million budget.
What Sayles doesn't do, however, is take jobs as a director for hire. "If you're spending a year of your life making a movie, it has to be a story you want to tell and it has to have your sensibility."
What continues to interest Sayles and characterizes much of his work, including "Lone Star," is a social consciousness in the broadest sense of the term, an interest in what is going on in real-world America that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries.
"What studio and even independent films increasingly connect to is other American films, that's their reference, kind of 'Chinatown' meets 'All About Eve,' " Sayles says. The more reality-referenced nature of his own movies, he says, can disconcert domestic viewers and "is sometimes a liability in selling in Europe."
"A Swedish buyer, for instance, told me that 'City of Hope' was too soft. 'Where are the Uzis, where are the crack babies on the sidewalks?' he asked. He'd never been to the United States, but he was convinced it was a place where lead was always flying and everyone looked twice before they stepped out the door."
Sayles' involvement with a more penetrating examination of America means that he's fascinated by issues of class in society, starting with the notion that "classical Hollywood was about the negation of class: Audrey Hepburn might fall in love with the chauffeur, but he would turn out to be Cary Grant. Class is something we don't like to think about, but I'm interested in how people define it, how it can shift, and how, because we don't live in a traditional society, we get to reinvent ourselves."
Sayles is also interested, to an extent even most writer-directors aren't, in making sure character moments get equal time with plot mechanisms. "It's a tough thing to juggle," he says. "Plot is an engine that drives you through the movie. In 'Lone Star,' a murder mystery is a way to bring audiences into this world of border culture, just like science fiction was a way to bring them into Harlem in 'Brother From Another Planet.'