It's Cinema Roulette at Cannes : Movies: This is the town where journalists, filmmakers, buyers and sellers all converge to wheel and deal.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

After the picture comes The Word, and this is where The Word begins.

Probably no one knows exactly how many hundreds of films are screened at the 12-day movie triathlon that is the Cannes International Film Festival. Or how many thousands of journalists, filmmakers and buyers and sellers from dozens of countries, including such unlikely places as ravaged Yugoslavia and unrepentant Iran, show up to wheel and deal and talk up their particular end of the business.

But everyone is here just because everyone else is here, and everyone else is here because in its 45 years Cannes has become the world's pre-eminent cinematic billboard, a place where reputations are made and hearts are broken.

Cannes is Cannes because alone among the world's major festivals it somehow combines the yin and the yang of the film business, linking in the same site the tony elite of the world's movie artists and a brazen international marketplace where money is the only language spoken and Uzi-toting femmes in abbreviated dress is the most convertible of currencies.

All this takes place in a polished resort community whose multiple palm trees make it oddly reminiscent of Los Angeles. With its bevy of security men in black-and-red-check blazers and its own fleet of immaculate, flag-waving cars (this year's choice is the $65,000 Renault Safrane, a model so new it's not even on the market yet), the festival takes over the town but completely. It is a city within a city whose influence extends to the billboards on the streets, the props in shoe stores and the authors prominently displayed in bookstores.

The films that are actually part of the festival are divided somewhat confusingly into four main categories. First come those in competition, eligible for the Palme d'Or and other kudos. Un Certain Regard is the official sidebar event, for films the festival likes but for one reason or another chose not to put in competition. There is also the Director's Fortnight, not part of the official process at all and usually featuring work from first-time directors. If that wasn't disorienting enough, still other films, often big-budget major studio releases, are listed as Out of Competition. The Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman movie "Far and Away," for instance, will close the festival on May 19, and Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct," flush with the 45 seconds the domestic ratings board got huffy about, opened things Thursday with the director and stars Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in attendance.

The relation between American films and the festival is especially close this year. Not only does a stunning photo of the late Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 "Shanghai Express" grace this year's poster, but five of the 20 films in competition--Robert Altman's "The Player," Sidney Lumet's "A Stranger Among Us" (formerly "Close to Eden"), David Lynch's prequel "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," Gary Sinise's "Of Mice and Men" and Hal Hartley's "Simple Men"--are from American directors, the most in more than 20 years.

The United States is also nicely represented in the other areas. Aside from Edward James Olmos' "American Me," a new documentary by Jonathan Demme, "Cousin Bobby," and Abel Ferrara's "The Bad Lieutenant," are in Un Certain Regard. Potentially as interesting, if not more so, are the three debuts in the Director's Fortnight: a comedy by Stacy Cochran called "My New Gun," and work by a pair of actor-directors, John Turturro's long-awaited "Mac" and Tim Robbins' "Bob Roberts," which sounds much like a modern updating of Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd."

Despite all this, however, it seems unlikely that an American film will walk off with many of the major prizes. For one thing, U.S. independents in the form of "sex, lies, and videotape," "Wild at Heart" and "Barton Fink" have won the Palme d'Or three years running. For another, the jury, whose lone American presence is actress Jamie Lee Curtis, is chaired by French actor Gerard Depardieu, who has two of his compatriots on it with him.

Aside from Depardieu, who has been reminding French journalists that he first visited the festival as a 15-year-old who slept on the beach, the national media has been most fascinated by one of the French entrants, "The Return of Casanova," which features the return of the much-loved Alain Delon. The handsome, gracefully aged actor is on the cover of about half a dozen French magazines, with breathless headlines such as "Delon the Eternal Lover" and "Delon Speaks of Love."

Aside from the British "Howards End," the most intriguing films in competition look to be "Crush," the debut picture by New Zealand's Alison Maclean, the only woman director in the competition; Bille August's "Best Intentions," from a script by Ingmar Bergman; "El Sol del Membrillo," Victor Erice's first film since "The Spirit of the Beehive," and, from Italy, Gianni Amelio's "The Stolen Children." There are also two highly anticipated films from what used to be the Soviet Union: "Luna Park," directed by "Taxi Blues' " Pavel Lounguine, and "The Independent Life," whose director, Vitali Kanievski, won the prestigious Camera d'Or for best first feature two years ago with "Freeze, Die, Rise Again."

If all this seems too rarefied, a head-clearing visit to the Marche is always possible, where such films as "Emmanuelle 7," "Biker Mice From Mars" (don't worry, it's a cartoon) and "Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde" ("Desperate Kids, Bonded by Passion and Crime") can be talked about and sometimes even seen. Truly, Cannes is a festival where you pays your money and you takes your chances.

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