Cannes Diary: Episode LVIII: A New Hope

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Today marks the opening of the 58th Cannes Film Festival, the world's largest annual convention, art exhibit and international debating society. For 32 of those years, we have made our pilgrimage to this Riviera redoubt to hobnob with stars and directors, renew old friendships, sample the superb wines and cuisine under cloudless Cote d'Azur skies and, when there's time, see movies.

That's a joke, friends. It's hard work. We're in the Grand Palais at eight each morning for the day's first feature, which is followed by three to six more "unmissable" films, most of which will never get to a U.S. multiplex. We slog to press conferences and roundtable luncheons with the filmmakers. With a mountain of multilingual booklets and press releases clogging our mailboxes, we sift through more documents than the 9/11 Commission. Then we rush to our computers to bat out stories like this for magazines, newspapers and websites around the world.

We, the Corlisses, wouldn't have it any other way. For us, the opening of a May film festival triggers a renewal of faith in film. Optimism surges with the spring; hope springs vernal. This is where the seeds are planted in a garden of film that will bloom for the rest of the year. This is where Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, The Pianist, Mystic River, Fahrenheit 9/11 and many other Oscar winners were first seen. Film is our religion, and Cannes marks the beginning of our liturgical calendar.

To some observers, the list of 20 films in competition this year for the Palme d'Or — the Golden Palm, Cannes' top prize — may represent the second rank of world directors. The names Michael Haneke and Hiner Saleem, Hou Hsaio-hsien and Wang Xiaoshuai, the Dardenne brothers and the Larrieu brothers, may not light up the marquee in your movie awareness. The prospect a new Lars von Trier (Manderlay, with Bryce Dallas Howard, Willem Dafoe and Danny Glover) may make you squirm.

But it's May, so we hope. Like baseball fans looking at a player's best year and finding reasons to predict he'll return to form, film professionals cross their fingers for the new works from directors who have pleased, bored or infuriated us in the past. The great thing about movies is: you never know.

The proof is in one of the films being shown out of competition: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The finale of this space opus has already been heralded as the best film George Lucas has directed since the original Star Wars in 1977. Would TIME have put Sith on the cover if it weren't? (That's Richard's remark, not mine. —Mary)

Armed with optimism, we imagine that Wim Wenders will return to form with Don't Come Knocking, his first collaboration with playwright-actor Sam Shepherd since their Paris, Texas won the Palme d'Or in 1984. Or that there will be a special savor to Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, written by Guillermo Arriaga, of Amores Perros and 21 Grams fame. Or that Broken Flowers, with Jim Jarmusch directing Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone and Tilda Swinton, will launch that indie icon into the movie mainstream. Woody Allen's last film, Melinda Melinda, was a little better than his recent dogs. Perhaps Match Point, with Scarlett Johansson, will signal a return to his old ... competence.

You'll note that we speak of American films here. That's because, for most of its history, Cannes has been defined by its love-hate relationship to America and American movies. This itchy feeling is an acknowledgment that the U.S. is the unquestioned superpower both in politics and movies. The festival enjoys and exploits the Hollywood stars whose glamorous renown brings so much free publicity. The slow march of a Tom Cruise or Clint Eastwood up the Grand Palais' famous red carpet, to the click of paparazzi cameras and the shouts of thousands of fans, is cinema's equivalent of a Broadway ticker-tape parade.

Often U.S. films have won the Palme d'Or: everything from Disney's Dumbo at the first festival in 1946 to three consecutive American indies of the late 80s and early 90s (sex, lies, and videotape, Wild at Heart, Barton Fink). In the last two years, with American political domination a sore point to much of the world, Cannes pinned its crowning laurels on Gus Van Sant's Elephant, with its evocation of the Columbine High School massacre, and Fahrenheit 9/11. The prizes were as much messages to the world's only superpower as they were nods to the films' craftsmanship and power.

Maybe this year's Zeitgeist movie will be another Van Sant crypto-history, Last Days, with Michael Pitt as a doomed rock star in the mold of Kurt Cobain. A few days ago we heard an unsolicited rave on the film from Christopher Doyle, the Australian cinematographer and poet, who thinks Van Sant is one of the few directors today pushing toward a cinema of tomorrow. That recommendation would be enough to have us queueing for the film, if it weren't our job to see it and a hundred other "unmissables."

For the next 10 days, we'll be sending you electronic postcards from the Festival. May all our hopes be realized.

Mary Corliss, who ran the Museum of Modern Art's Film Stills Archive for nearly 35 years, and Richard Corliss, a TIME movie critic, have written separately about the Cannes Film Festival since 1973. This is their first joint effort at reporting from the festival.