It was hard to believe that a world-class film festival could emerge from the behind-the-scenes shambles that was Cannes just two nights ago.
But old hands only laughed at what seemed to be major demolition still in progress backstage, and predicted that by Wednesday night at 7:30 the annual Cannes miracle would take place.
Sure enough, a red carpet replaced the ice-cream papers that littered the marble steps of the Palais des Festivals, and the makers of the opening-night film, "Big Blue," ascended into 41st Cannes Film Festival history in wet weather that matched the film's setting.
More than 20,000 movie fans, journalists, stars, film makers, moguls and other assorted entertainment-industry types have settled in along the famed Promenade de la Croisette here for the annual two-week rite du cinema .
If last year's 40th festival was, in the words of Delegate General Gilles Jacob, "a memorial of an anniversary, a celebration of the past," this year, very intentionally, youth will be served up on the Croisette.
"This year we try to guess the cinema of the next 10 years," Jacob said, "to discover new talent and raise a new wave of directors."
And Jacob's program seems as good as those oft-repeated intentions. About 24 films, compared with the 60 last year, are in the main In Competition category.
Another 20 films figure in the Un Certain Regard (A Certain Look) division. There are smaller categories, too, such as Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Choice.
In addition, there will be scores of screenings of less lofty material for the distributors who flock to Cannes seeking marketing rights. Altogether, about 500 films are up for grabs to distributors this year.
Rubbing shoulders with such well-known names in world cinema as Carlos Saura, Margarethe von Trotta and Istvan Szabo, audiences will find cinematographer Chris Menges' directorial debut, "A World Apart." Based on a true story set in 1963 Johannesburg, it stars Barbara Hershey and young Jodhi May, and is a film that arrives with strong word-of-mouth. There is also "Chocolat" set in the Cameroons, a film by young Claire Denis, a former assistant to director Wim Wenders.
Early festival talk puts Vincent Ward's "The Navigator," Chen Kaige's "King of the Children," "A World Apart" and possibly Clint Eastwood's "Bird" into main contention for the Golden Palm, the festival's top award.
Wednesday night's opener, "Big Blue" by director Luc Besson, turned out to be a soggy quasi-romance about the lure of the deep for those who compete in depth-diving competitions, i.e. by holding their breath.
Made in English and in 70-millimeter, the film is a faintly mystical, breathtakingly pretentious affair in which Rosanna Arquette competes with the sea and dolphins to get her lover's attention, unlikely as that seems.
Perhaps water is an unfortunate medium for opening night films, but "Big Blue" only brought back memories of Polanski's "Pirates" two years ago. The "Pirates' " galleon also reappeared this week to bob in the harbor like a hangover you can't escape.
" 'Big Blue' is the kind of film we are condemned to make (as an opener)," said Jacob. "Simple, very spectacular, not too intelligent, not too sad."
Arquette's opening-night appearance provided the star quality that French festival-watchers demand, along with the ongoing presence of jury member Nastassja Kinski (last-minute replacement for Isabella Rossellini) and "Dark Eyes" star Elena Sofonova. Snapped from every angle as they arrived at the Palais, the night's pictures of Arquette, Kinski and Sofonova would have fit perfectly in the photo show mounted upstairs in the echoing inside hall.
Forty vast blow-ups, about the size of D-Day invasion maps, dominate the entrance hall of the Palais. We might irreverently call the pictures pin-ups, but the French call them "the feminine myth": Brigitte Bardot, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Louise Brooks, Michelle Morgan, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Jayne Mansfield and Ingrid Bergman.
"We try to have some stars," Jacob said drolly from his office. "And unless you count the Pope or Bjorn Borg, that means stars of the cinema: Clint Eastwood, a quick visit by Robert Redford, George Lucas for closing night."
Eastwood, with "Bird," about the late jazz great Charlie Parker, and Redford, with the French debut of "The Milagro Beanfield War" are among six actor-directors the festival is highlighting. The others are Max von Sydow with "Katinka," Bob Hoskins with "The Raggedy Rowney," Gary Sinese of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater with "Miles From Home" and Ron Howard, director of the closing night's "Willow."
Out on the Croisette and around the cappuccino bars, the buzz certainly seems to be about the young directors Vincent Ward and Chen Kaige.
Neither is making his debut, and both already have notable track records. New Zealand's Ward was first spotted a few years ago with his extraordinary film "Vigil." This year he's bringing "The Navigator," described as a "medieval odyssey," which begins in the year 1348 and apparently ends in 1988. Chen of China is here with his third film, "King of the Children," a follow-up to two stunning works, "Yellow Earth" and "The Big Parade," which were seen recently in Los Angeles.
One last crotchety note: Cannes seems exceptionally touchy about its universally unadored and unappealingly modern new Palais, nicknamed "The Bunker." In the festival's official, slick paper catalogue is this querulous warning:
"DON'T BE A 'HAS-BEEN.'
"In Cannes, there is no 'Bunker' but a real 'Palais des Festivals,' suited to its purposes. No matter what building would have been erected there, it would have been criticized. Festival-goers' eyes just need becoming (sic) accustomed to it. In their own time, erection of the Eiffel Tower, and of the Pompidou Center caused an uproar. . . ."