Year of the Bigfoot : ‘Godzilla’ is just the biggest example of the strong American presence--from movies even to the jury president--at the 51st Festival International du Film.


Think of this as the Morning After Festival, when the most celebrated film gathering in the world takes stock after one hell of a birthday party and wonders, is there life after 50?

To make the hangover potentially more painful, the 51st Festival International du Film is facing competition from within its own country as France prepares to host soccer’s 1998 World Cup. Local T-shirt bazaars are splitting their windows between cinema and sport, and a plainly schizophrenic McDonald’s, “restaurant officiel de la Coupe du Monde,” is running a “foot or cine” contest, offering the chance to win tickets to either the Cup or a film.

Given all that, the prognosis for this year’s festival is surprisingly positive. Gilles Jacob, the event’s director, who along with his staff watched a reported 1,074 films before making his final choices, says the selections are more satisfying this year than for the much anticipated, but finally disappointing, 50th.

If there is a troubling note here for the French, fiercely protective of their national cinema, it is the strength of the American presence, starting with Martin Scorsese as president of the jury. “Primary Colors” opens the festival tonight; “Lulu on the Bridge,” Paul Auster’s directing debut, opens the Un Certain Regard section; and Sony’s “Godzilla” puts its foot down and closes everything on May 24.


Even the French film magazines, usually eager to put one of their own on the cover for Cannes, have surrendered. Studio magazines may have gone with Jean Reno, but it’s for his English-language role in “Godzilla.” And Premiere has the popular Johnny Depp on the front under the words “Cannes Parano,” a play on “Las Vegas Parano” (“Las Vegas Paranoid,” the French title for Terry Gilliam’s in-competition version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”).

While Sharon Stone will be here only briefly to promote “The Mighty,” that was enough to give this “bombe” the cover of Telemax, where, in an exclusive interview, she tells the presumably astonished French public that “I am not a Barbie.”

Aside from being a star the French love, the other way to get your film into the festival is to have done it before. The competition is filled with new work by been-here directors, from the English John Boorman (“The General”) and Ken Loach (“My Name Is Joe”) to foreign-language types whose not-prime-time names make it into print only at festival time: Greece’s Theo Angelopoulos (“An Eternity and a Day”), Italy’s Nanni Moretti (“Aprile”), Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien (“The Flowers of Shanghai”) and Denmark’s Lars Von Trier (“Idiots”).

Some of the American films in the various sections here have already been seen back home, including “The Apostle,” “Blues Brothers 2000,” “Dark City” and “Zero Effect.” More unusual and explicable only by the director’s popularity with the festival is the presence in competition of Hal Hartley’s “Henry Fool,” a film that had its world premiere back at Toronto last September.


The most notable thing about the festival’s American presence is how many directors, including Hartley, are connected via either Sundance or Telluride to the independent movement. Former Sundance Grand Prize winners named Todd are especially well represented, with Haynes (“Poison,” “Safe”) in competition with the highly anticipated “Velvet Goldmine,” and Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) in the Directors Fortnight with “Happiness.”

Also in competition is the English-language, French-financed “Claire Dolan” by “Clean, Shaven’s” Lodge Kerrigan. Also in the fortnight are two films from last January’s Sundance, Marc Levin’s “Slam” and Lisa Cholodenko’s “High Art,” while yet a third film, Tamara Jenkins’ “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” came recommended by executive producer Robert Redford. Un Certain Regard, meanwhile, has “The Imposters,” Stanley Tucci’s follow-up to “Big Night.”

Because journalists come here every year in greater numbers than for any event except the Olympics, Cannes is also a place where films not yet finished are promoted. Disney is bringing 45 minutes of “Armageddon” and showing it, according to one report, to a carefully selected group of 5,000. And glimpsed on one street was a billboard for the film version of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” proudly announcing not an impending release but that the film would go into production in the fall of 1998.

The festival itself has added some new wrinkles this year. There is a sidebar tribute to a group of nine veteran producers and a new award, the Trophee Chopard, designed by the Swiss jewelry firm and to be given to a promising young producer. Chopard has also redesigned the venerable Palme d’Or, transforming its plastic base into “a rock crystal cushion, cut in diamond-emerald style"--about time, too.


Perhaps bored with all this focus on what’s new and trendy, Cannes has also made room for a pair of vintage films. The Directors Fortnight will feature a restoration, complete with live music, of Paul Leni’s 1928 silent “The Man Who Laughs.” And October Films has chosen Cannes to premiere a new version of Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil” that is closer to what the director intended.

Also traditional at this festival is being on the lookout for new films in the market section that have the silliest titles. Some early contenders are “Four Dogs Playing Poker,” “I Should Have Died (Last Night),” “Pornogothic,” “Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang” and, from the always reliable Troma, “Schlock and Schlockability: The Revenge of Jane Austen.”

A class act all the way.