Cannes set to sparkle in a depressing year

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The Cannes Film Festival will unreel May 13, although the global recession has damped business at the picturesque French seaside resort renowned for its rich playboys and beautiful women.

Hotels beg for customers despite steep cuts in room rates, and many yacht parties have been canceled. Hold the Champagne, please — make it wine, and the less expensive stuff at that.

Still, recession has not affected the expected lineup, which includes some of the greatest masters of cinema. Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino, Johnnie To, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and Terry Gilliam will premier movies.

Previous Palm winner Tarantino’s much speculated “Inglourious Basterds,” which traces the story of a group of American soldiers fighting Nazis in World War II, will compete with 19 others for the festival’s Palme d’Or. Another Palm winner, von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Manderlay”), will present his horror work “Antichrist” — about a couple who turn reclusive after the death of their son.

Australia’s Campion, the first woman to win the Palme d’Or with her 1993 film “The Piano,” will be at Cannes with her literary biopic “Bright Star.” Featuring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, the film depicts the love affair of 19th-century poet John Keats with Fanny Brawne.

Pedro Almodovar, also a Cannes regular, will screen his melodrama “Broken Embraces,” starring his eternal favorite Penelope Cruz.

British director Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” about a troubled young soccer fan, will vie for the Palm, as will To’s French-made “Vengeance” starring pop legend Johnny Hallyday as a hit man out to avenge his daughter’s death.

Cannes’ astounding ability to turn bring sparkle to dark times has had its undying admirers as well as cruel critics. Arguably the world’s top film event — certainly several notches higher than even the Hollywood Oscars — Cannes has been debased as one shamelessly selling art. But the festival is an extravaganza of pure cinema, a monolithic market offering titillating glamour. It also has a history of being political.

The first festival that kicked off Sept. 1, 1939, ended as soon as it began: That day Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, France and England declared war, and the beaches of Cannes — decorated with a huge cardboard model of the Notre Dame Cathedral to promote William Dieterle’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — suddenly seemed frivolous.

The festival’s first chapter might have been shot down by war, but politics continued to be a factor of Cannes. In May 1968, while the festival was in swing, a huge student protest in Paris snowballed into nightlong clashes with police. Termed “The Night of the Barricades,” street fights in the city’s Latin Quarter led to major workers’ unions supporting the students. Though the government prevented much of the news from reaching Cannes, the little that filtered in caused unrest among the guests. Young film directors led by Francois Truffaut — already persona non grata at the festival because of his consistent and caustic criticism of the annual event — literally pulled the curtain down a few days after Cannes opened.

Cannes’ political face would seem to be a foregone conclusion if we look at what motivated its creation in the first place. When French director Jean Renoir’s antiwar masterpiece “La Grande Illusion” won the Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1937, Hitler was so angry that he banned the movie in Germany and Italy. A year later, when the Venice jury wanted to honor an American film, Berlin applied pressure at the last minute and the top prize (the Mussolini Cup) was shared by two utterly Fascist propaganda works — Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Olympiad” (about the 1936 Berlin Olympics) and Goffredo Alessandrini’s “Luciano Serra pilota.”

Such blatant rigging and cheerleading angered the French contingent especially, and Philippe Erlanger, a civil servant, returned home convinced that a counterfestival — for the free world — was needed. From that seed of an idea, the Cannes Film Festival grew and bloomed.

Cannes remains the world’s premier film festival, ahead of Venice or Berlin. One important reason for Cannes’ status is the stability it has always enjoyed. For the first 50 years of Italy’s Republic, there were 60 governments and as many heads of the Venice Film Festival. Cannes, meanwhile, was led by Robert Favre Le Bret for 43 years and Gilles Jacob for 25 years. Now, Thierry Fremaux will probably head it for as long. Therein lies Cannes’ essential secret of success.

Chennai, India-based journalist Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Cannes Film Festival for 18 years.