You can't buy a ticket to the Cannes Film Festival. Entrance to the 23 films in competition for the Palme d'Or and the thousand others screened in this Cote d'Azur paradise is granted by press pass or market badge (for members of the industry). But lacking those, you can always try begging. One Frenchwoman, denied admission to a screening of Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, sobbed at the barricades with such fervor that she could have earned a role in Les Miserables.
The woman didn't get into the screening, but she should have got into the movie; she surely would have done a better job in Von Trier's bad-vibes musical than its star did. This heartfelt, incompetently made singing tragedy, about a factory worker who is going blind, showcased the minimal talents of Icelandic pop star Bjork. She's a quadruple-threat artiste: can't act, can't dance, can't sing, can't compose. By all accounts, Bjork behaved like a bjerk during filming, and she skipped the press conference, only to show up on the red-carpeted steps of the Grand Palais in a blushing-pink gown that seemed to be made of bunched crepe paper.
Glam and grim: that is the Cannes cocktail. Though flashbulbs still pop and traffic stops for stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Calista Flockhart, the festival no longer pays much notice to big-budget Hollywood films, and the feeling is mutual. Gladiator is not here, nor Mission: Impossible 2. Gilles Jacob, the Cannes program director, who will step down after the current festival, has not been to Hollywood in five years. Instead, he woos the reigning masters of Europe and Asia, as well as America's indie auteurs. Jacob wants the universe of movie people in Cannes to find artistic life, and perhaps even commercial vitality, beyond Hollywood.
But Cannes still has its beguilements and ironies. Visitors can choose between seeing a brutal drama about the Egypt-Israel Yom Kippur War and attending an AMFAR benefit dinner featuring top models in Victoria's Secret skivvies--and some choose Kippur.
With high art butting up against crass industry, and the sublime meeting the slime, Cannes is catnip for a connoisseur of bad taste like trash auteur John Waters, who showed his fizzy anarchistic jape Cecil B. Demented out of competition. "When I hear people say they hate the festival," he told TIME's Jeffrey Ressner, "I wonder why they bother to stay in show business." Cecil B. was typical of the American films premiering at Cannes this year. Ribald or sedate, they were all off-Hollywood. The Coen brothers offered a surprisingly genial odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with a turn by George Clooney that taps all his reserves of seductive con-artistry. Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) brought Nurse Betty, a dark comedy with Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman and high romantic spirits to match its high body count. James Ivory was back in form with The Golden Bowl, an elegant and precise Henry James adaptation starring Nick Nolte and Uma Thurman.
Thurman also played the lady of every man's desire in Vatel, director Roland Joffe's English-language costume epic with Gerard Depardieu. On opening night she wore a backless, faultless frock. If stately sensuality had a name here, it was Thurman.