Gerard Depardieu is trying to answer a female journalist's question about his "appetites" for food and love. "Are you proposing group sex?" he genially responds. Europe's most visible (and sizable) film presence is in town to promote Vatel, the $38 million epicurean epic about one of France's quixotic heroes: a 17th century steward who prepared a gastronomic and theatrical spectacle for King Louis XIV, then killed himself because, it is said, the fish didn't arrive on time for the final meal.
Yet this purely Gallic story, presented as the opening attraction at France's best-known annual cultural event, is in English, directed by Londoner Roland Joffe, from a screenplay adapted by Tom Stoppard; and the lords and ladies of the Sun King's court are played by such foreigners as Tim Roth and Uma Thurman. At the 53rd Cannes Film Festival, Depardieu may answer press questions in French, but in Vatel he must kneel before the gods of international commerce and try to speak English.
Hollywood, boisterous Mecca for anglophone cinema, has won the battle for the loyalty of moviegoers around the world. But as it is bigger than ever in Tokyo and Rio — and Paris — it is less evident than ever at the world's largest film festival. Gilles Jacob, Cannes' program director, has not visited Los Angeles in four years. There are no giant-size, major-studio films here — no Gladiator or Mission: Impossible 2 or The Patriot. Jacob's selection, of mostly European and Asian minor masters, is perverse or heroic or irrelevant, depending on your taste. He wants the universe of movie people in Cannes to believe there is artistic life, and perhaps even commercial vitality, beyond Hollywood.
Jacob may not be going Hollywood, but foreign-language directors are going English. Some, like many of their talented countrymen in the '20s and '30s, are even going to America. When Denmark's most notorious director (Lars von Trier) collaborated with Iceland's top pop star (Bjšrk), you can bet that the movie (Dancer in the Dark) will be set in rural America. Venezuela's Fina Torres teams with Spanish seductress Penelope Cruz for Woman on Top, set in San Francisco. France's young hope, Arnaud Desplechin, sets his new drama Esther Kahn in London's East End, but casts the American Summer Phoenix (sister of River and Joaquin) as his 19th century Anglo-Jewish star. And although Gabriel Garcia Márquez continues to write novels in Spanish, his son Rodrigo Garcia makes movies in English in the San Fernando Valley outside L.A. His delicate Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her stars Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Ally McBeal's Calista Flockhart.
It is, of course, foolish and reductive to try tracing the contours of a film fortnight in its first few days (Cannes began last Wednesday). Already there were signs of life from the usual quarters. Dominik Moll's Harry: He's Here to Help is a French comedy thriller — in French, no less! — about a wealthy man's solutions, usually fatal, to each of his poor friend's problems. Iran continued to impress world audiences with Blackboards, dramatizing the plight of Kurds on the Iran-Iraq border; director Samira Makhmalbaf, just 20, proves herself a young master of artful compositions and poignant dislocations. The American Nurse Betty, from the acerbic director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), meanders in its first hour through weird violence — a murder by scalping — and much slapdash comedy before finding its bittersweet romantic tone in its story of a waitress (Renee Zellweger) with a mad crush on a soap opera star (Greg Kinnear). Delusion and obsession never seemed so pure.
The festival jury, headed by director Luc Besson, will choose its prizewinners from among these three films and 20 others. But much of the action will be elsewhere: not just in the several parallel programs of new movies, but outside, on the steps of the Festival Palace, where flashbulbs popped for Flockhart ("Ally!" Ally!" the paparazzi cried) and traffic stopped for Adriana Karembeu, the model and soccer-wife bedecked in a pink, low-cut '50s-bombshell gown. Lionel Jospin was there too on opening night, but the French premiere couldn't compete as a photo op.
So the Riviera is still a place of sun (intermittent) and skin (resplendent). And in the plus-ça-change category, producer Menahem Golan, who has been peddling trash at Cannes for a quarter-century, was back to announce his newest project: Elian — The True Story of Elian Gonzalez. "Shooting now in a secret location," the ad announces. "Delivery — September."
Hmmm ... wonder if they could get Depardieu to play Janet Reno?