PIE IN THE FACE : CANNES FESTIVAL AS CARNIVAL

Times Arts Editor

Each running of the Cannes Festival needs a little something to set it aside from the previous editions. One year it was medical students demonstrating along the Croisette and daubing all the statuary with red paint. Another year it was an anarchist's bomb (which luckily did no damage). Still another year it was a strike at the hotels.

This will probably go down as the year Jean-Luc Godard caught a pie in the face. The cream pie, thrown by an iconoclastic Belgian journalist, it was said later, was so perfectly aimed and timed--happening in front of television cameras and a platoon of still photographers--that the suspicion grew and has not fully subsided that Godard, himself an iconoclast, might have engineered the moment himself. But the generally startled expression on his face suggested that if this were so, he didn't get the flavor he ordered.

Godard had just come for the press conference after the screening of his new film, "Detective," which was resoundingly booed there and again at the public screening in the evening.

Like most of Godard's films, "Detective" leaves no one indifferent. The Godard faithful loved it; his detractors felt reconfirmed; the left positive, the right negative.

It is, in fact, an inchoately enigmatic thriller, set in a grand hotel in Paris, involving preparations for a prizefight, an unsolved Mafia murder, an ancient Mafia leader, a free-lance airline pilot, various ladies (generally unclad), missing millions of francs and cryptic allusions to Conrad's "Lord Jim" and other literary works. It features rock star Johnny Hallyday, Nathalie Baye, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Claude Brasseur.

What it all means is not immediately clear, and the anti- Godardistes are quick to say there is far less to "Detective" than meets the eye. But as always Godard has a way of creating arresting images and wonderfully tense and tortured performances from his actors, who you suspect may well not know what's going on either. Yet at generating atmospheres of anxiety, world-weariness, despair and a pervasive inability to find pleasure in pleasure or anything else, Godard has few equals. To the exasperation of his critics, he does it all with a mocking sense of humor--"Detective" is often very funny--although, with all else, it is never quite clear whether Godard is mocking his own pretentions or his audience.

Godard further enlivened the trade press here at the festival by signing a contract on a cloth napkin in the cocktail lounge of the Majestic Hotel, to do "King Lear" for Cannon Films for $2 million, a contemporary version for which the ideal casting, Godard said, would be Marlon Brando as Lear and Woody Allen as the Fool. Keen observers of the local scene elected not to hold their breath until the project is in general release.

It is still not certain that enough good films are being made in the world to sustain all the festivals that want and need them. Gilles Jacob, the former film critic for L'Express who is now the director of the Cannes Festival, thinks there aren't. Building this year's program, he looked at 38 French films and no fewer than 260 films from other countries, Jacob says. "We have 19 strong films in competition, but. . . . " Jacob waves his hand eloquently, to indicate that he did not have to contend with an embarrassment of riches.

Any major film festival, but Cannes more than most because of its size and seniority, is an anthology of force and drama, a carnival and a family reunion, a confrontation of new hopes and last chances, a market for sleaze but an important launching pad--because of its conspicuousness--for major new projects.

Saul Zaentz, the risk-taking producer-financer of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and last year's "Amadeus," held a splashy lunch on Monday to announce two formidable ventures. He will produce and Phil Kaufman ("The Right Stuff") will direct an adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

In collaboration with producer Jerome Hellman, Zaentz will also produce, and Peter Weir ("Witness") will direct Paul Schrader's script of the Paul Theroux novel "The Mosquito Coast." No writer has yet been set for the Kundera project, although Kaufman is off to see Kundera in Paris, where he now lives in exile. Production is due to start in March, 1986, possibly in Yugoslavia.

The father and son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind pioneered the use of airborne advertising at the festival, and banners proclaiming the coming of "Superman" flew back and forth above the Cannes waterfront for what seemed like years before the film actually went into release. This year the Salkinds have outdone themselves and a squadron of 10 planes flew over in formation during the weekend, proclaiming both "Santa Claus" and "Spiderman," complete with producer credits.

The festival has released some fairly awesome statistics, such as: there are 82 films in various festival series and an additional 400 for sale in the marketplace totaling something like 1,500 kilometers of film. The festival also estimates that 370,000 pieces of paper will be printed during the festival. This, however, seems conservative. That many sheets of paper appear to be strewn about the press area every day.

More characteristic of the Cannes selling activity than the flyover advertising is the battle of the actor Robert Forster, who made an impressive debut in "Reflections in a Golden Eye," to sell a small independent feature, a private-eye spoof called "Hollywood Harry," which he made and in which he stars. Forster hands out "Hollywood Harry" buttons, less costly but longer-lasting than going airborne.

Along with film makers, Cannes attracts the world's most adroit pickpockets. Actor Ben Kingsley was separated from his wallet on the train as he arrived. Phil Kaufman put his hand in his pocket only to find a hand already there. The pickpocket, foiled, smiled pleasantly and slipped away into the crowd. Times photographer Jayne Kamin was accosted by a family of pickpockets, but grabbed one and held on until her wallet was returned. She then started taking pictures of her assailants, which dispersed them faster than tear gas.

At that, film festivals are finally about movies and those who make them. Sunday afternoon a single overhead spotlight created a small pool of light at center stage of the darkened Grand Auditorium Lumiere of the Palais. The light symbolized the strongly felt presence of the late Francois Truffaut.

Actress Jeanne Moreau, who starred in his early triumph, "Jules and Jim," walked briskly in from the wings and began to call the roll of other Truffaut stars: Jean-Pierre Leaud of "The 400 Blows" and the other Antoine Doinel films that followed, Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Aumont from "Day for Night," Charles Denner who was the original "Man Who Loved Women," Brigitte Fossey from that film and from "The Green Room," Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, Jean-Claude Brialy, Claude Brasseur--26 performers in all on stage, an honor roll of French cinema over the last quarter-century or more. Their presence drew an even larger crowd to the streets outside than opening night, and louder cheers.

On stage, the stars took a bow and there followed a superb documentary about Truffaut--20 clips from his films, interviews with and about him. (Alas, it will have been seen only twice, that afternoon and that night on television, and is not available for wider distribution.)

When the film ended, there was again only the vacant pool of light at center stage, and then silence and then sustained applause.

"I never thought a circle of light could be so moving," film maker Milos Forman said on the way out of the Palais. "But I tried to say that to somebody and I couldn't make words."

The homage was in fact one of those unrepeatable pieces of history that make the frenzies and the follies of film festivals worth enduring.

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