American films take a back seat at the world's swankiest film fest


CANNES, France -- Cannes, the queen of the international film festivals, has not been very kind to American suitors this year. And some of them, including Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, are unhappy about it.

This year, only two official U.S. entries are even in competition for the last Cannes Palme d'Or (or Grand Prize) of the 20th century. When the black-tie crowds gather for the competition screenings at the world's swankiest movie theater,the glittering Palais du Cinema, they'll have only a handful of Yanks to cheer on. After a stretch in the late '80s and early '90s when the U.S. regularly took home the top prize -- with winners such as 1989's "sex. lies and videotape," 1990's "Wild at Heart" and 1991's "Barton Fink" -- a drought seems to have set in.

On the other hand, the world's most prestigious movie soiree, which opened yesterday evening with a gala premiere screening of Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov's "The Barber of Siberia" and closes May 23 with British filmmaker Oliver Parker's highly regarded Oscar Wilde adaptation "An Ideal Husband," has been very generous to cinematic great names from the rest of the world. The four official Cannes series include selections from France to Hong Kong, Russia to Israel.

Fittingly Mikhalkov's "Barber" is an international co-production from Russia, France, Italy and the Czech Republic.

But for the Americans, pickings are lean. And though the major U.S. studios don't much mind this since some of them are reluctant to "ghettoize" their movies as "art films," it will bother Cannes-conscious distributors such as Weinstein -- a big American indie supporter, who scooped up last year's Jury Prize winner, Roberto Benigni's Italian World War II comedy "Life Is Beautiful," to great success back home.

Cannes is a highlight of any U.S. movie critic's year: both the most delightfully French and internationally exciting and prestigious of all film fests. For the knowledgeable movie-lover, it's a wondrous two-week pageant of endless film-going, incessant film debates in the open air cafes and great sunlit walks along the resort city's famous main drag, the Croisette, with luxury hotels on one side, a packed Mediterranean beach on the other and huge movie posters all around.

So it feels funny to see America so unrepresented.

Among the 22 main competitors, there are only two U.S. selections: director Tim Robbins' bio film "The Cradle Will Rock" (about a famous incident in the early theatrical career of Orson Welles), and John Sayles' tense survivalist adventure "Limbo."

Two other top American filmmakers, both former major winners at Cannes, also have films on the competition roster: mordant experimentalist Jim Jarmusch with "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" and nightmare master David Lynch with "The Straight Story."

But both those movies are listed as U.S.-French co-productions and they're very far from typical American major studio or even independent fare.

Indeed, both longtime Cannes Festival head Gilles Jacob and Jean Roy, a French critic and committee chairman, have publicly lamented the poor selection this year from the much-ballyhooed American independents.

There are faint suspicions that Jacob was miffed because Twentieth Century Fox failed to give him the closing film he most coveted: George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace." Instead, big-budget American moviemaking will be represented this year only by Ron Howard's slightly labored media satire "EdTV," and the wildly implausible Sean Connery heist thriller "Entrapment."

Jacob and Roy's complaints surfaced earlier this year at that prime American indie showcase, the Sundance Film Festival. This year, American independent fiction features were the weakest shows on the schedule. (Two Sundance films will show up, in Cannes, though: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's horror mockumentary "The Blair Witch Project" and Eric Mendelsohn's "Judy Berlin."

In addition, David Mamet and Spike Lee also have films showing, as does Francis Coppola's one-time maligned actress-daughter Sofia Coppola: Mamet's theatrical adaptation "The Winslow Boy," Lee's "Summer of Sam" (on the horrific New York City "Son of Sam" serial killings) and Coppola's directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides."

But the rest of the world is well represented this year. New films by widely recognized and admired international filmmakers are in ample supply: Spain's flamboyant Pedro Almodovar ("All About My Mother"), China's epic-master Chen Kaige ("The Emperor and the Assassin"), Canada's subtle Atom Egoyan ("Felicia's Journey"), Britain's acid-tongued Peter Greenaway ("8 1/2 Women"), Japan's rough-and-tough Takeshi Kitano ("Kikujiro"), Russia's introverted Aleksandr Sokhurov ("Moloch"), and the wondrously eccentric Chilean-French maverick Raoul Ruiz ("Time Regained").

What does it mean? Probably nothing much. In previous years, Cannes saw its top English-language winners, like "Secrets & Lies" and "Breaking the Waves," launched toward Oscar nominations.

That seems unlikely this year, though there's a sneaking suspicion that Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock" will be a sentimental favorite.

An earlier version of "Cradle Will Rock" was one of the last projects Welles saw rejected by financiers before his 1985 death.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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