Times Staff Writer

At the midpoint of the 39th Cannes Film Festival, the impact from the combined dreads of terrorism and the drifting radioactive cloud from Chernobyl is clear.

Although the festival has had the benefit of what many Cannes veterans say may be the best weather ever, crowds are thinner on the streets, on the beaches and in the restaurants. And the usually chaotic press conferences have taken on the aura of calm business meetings.

The American presence here is almost nonexistent. Had Rosanna Arquette shown up with "After Hours," one of four American films in competition, she would have been treated like Rita Hayworth by the celebrity-starved paparazzi.

But she stayed at home, as did director Martin Scorsese, and for the first time in years, a press conference had to be canceled for lack of representation by the film makers.

The European press was eager to settle for Grace Jones, here on behalf of New World Pictures' upcoming vampire comedy, "Vamp," but she is holed up at a resort 15 miles out of town.

Now that Robert De Niro has officially declined to attend the weekend's world premiere of Roland Joffe's "The Mission," the star shutout seems complete.

This could be the year that perennial starlet Edy Williams has dreamed of.

So far, the hit films of the festival have been England's "Mona Lisa," an offbeat love story about an ex-con (Bob Hoskins) and a high-priced hooker (Cathy Tyson), and Andrei Tarkovski's "Sacrifice," a 2 1/2-hour Swedish drama that some dissenters say was harder to sit through than a toothache.

No one can accuse the festival selection committee of being too high brow. At least not when it comes to selecting French films.

In back-to-back competition screenings Tuesday, audiences sat through one French movie about a man who falls in love with a key chain (it has a lady's face on it and says, "I Love You" every time he whistles) and another about a woman who has an affair with a chimpanzee.

It doesn't help that these two films--Marco Ferreri's "I Love You" and Nagisa Oshima's "Max, My Love"--were made by former Cannes Gold Palm contenders.

Not even the attendance of such French stars as Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee--co-stars of Claude Lelouch's 1966 classic "A Man and a Woman" and of the current sequel shown out of competition here--was able to create much of a stir.

Lelouch's sequel, titled "A Man and a Woman, 20 Years Later," was a major disappointment to most critics and the director and his stars were kept on the defensive during their press conference.

Prizes for hosting the biggest and the smallest press conference this year go to Cannon Films and the mayors of Cannes and Beverly Hills, who jointly announced the twinning of the two wealthy cities.

The mayors--Cannes' Anne-Marie Dupuy and Beverly Hills' Charlotte Spadaro--talked at length about the advantages of adopting each other, but there were fewer than a dozen reporters on hand to hear them.

The Cannon press conference, announced with full-page ads in the papers published each day in Cannes, overflowed the ballroom of the landmark Carlton Hotel.

Menahem Golan, Cannon's chief executive, besieged the international horde of journalists to carry the word forth that a new day has dawned for cinema and at one point even asked them to pray for the company's success.

Cannon, which has been buying everything from films to studios to theater chains, is dominating the festival both physically and in inches of daily news coverage.

The main street of Cannes--La Croisette--has been turned into a virtual landscape of Cannon posters, trumpeting everything from Burt Reynolds' "Heat" to Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear."

Among the announcements Golan made at Tuesday's Champagne and orange juice press conference attended by at least 300 reporters; a four- situation deal with author Norman Mailer. Mailer will not only write the screenplay for "King Lear," but he has now agreed to play the title role as well, Golan said.

("Mailer has possibilities for Lear," Golan said. "He has five daughters and he's had a crazy life.")

Mailer also will write and direct the adaptation of his novel "Tough Guys Don't Dance."

Cannon will make 15 low-budget children's movies, adapted from such classic tales as "Rumpelstiltskin" and "The Frog Prince," for Saturday-matinee viewing only.

Cannon, through the pre-selling of theatrical, television and video rights, is already in profit on the 30 movies it will make next year.

Dustin Hoffman is now out as star of "LeBrava" and Al Pacino is in, providing Francis Coppola agrees to direct it. ("Francis said he wants to do it, but he has two other movies to do first," Golan said.)

The previous backers of "Two Jakes," the plagued sequel to "Chinatown," have agreed to sell their interests to Cannon for "50 cents on the dollar" and that both star Jack Nicholson and writer/director Robert Towne have agreed to make the film for Cannon.

Cannon also distributed a production brochure Tuesday listing films to be directed by John Huston and Hector Babenco, both Oscar nominees this year, for "Prizzi's Honor" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," respectively.

Huston is to direct "Haunted Summer." Babenco will direct "The Second Killing of the Dog."

That is, if the movies get made. Cannon has announced a lot of deals over the years at Cannes that somehow dissolved on the way to the screen.

We'll all be praying.

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