Despite positive reception, U.S. films, such as ''Dogma'' and ''The Virgin Suicides,'' didn't pass the jury's muster

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated June 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

You know the Cannes film festival is lacking in excitement when it’s Hugh Hefner and his harem of buxom Bunnies who are playing host to the stars on the Cote d’Azur. Yes, Hef says, if it’s Kevin Costner, Jeff Goldblum, or Jack Nicholson you want to spot, try swinging by the Bunny boat, a 175-foot chartered yacht that makes the Titanic look like a rubber duckie. Just be sure you go on the right night. ”Zeh party eez Tuesday,” sneers the surly French bouncer. ”Today eez Sunday.” F Actually, eez Monday, but no matter. Here at the 52nd Festival du Cannes, days and nights merge into one sybaritic blur. ”Cannes is a very strange place,” says writer-director Tim Robbins, who attended with his critically acclaimed Cradle Will Rock. ”There’s this great mixture of art and prostitution.”

What distinguished this year’s festival was the vast disparity between the two. For 12 days, attendees were subjected either to austere art tales of murder, incest, and no-good losers, or to desperate-sounding cell-phone conversations and meetings during which anything and everything was for sale. Everything, that is, except the best films in the competition, almost all of which were already owned by distributors, rendering the Croisette a pretty dull bordello for business. Sony made John Sayles’ meditative, coolly received Limbo, while Sony Pictures Classics snapped up Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother — possibly the most enthusiastically received film — in January. The latest directorial efforts of a trio of indie-minded stalwarts — David Lynch, Robbins, and Spike Lee — were taken in advance by, of all companies, Disney. And Artisan had an unusually high profile at the festival thanks to marching in with the newest films from The Sweet Hereafter‘s Atom Egoyan and Out of Sight‘s Steven Soderbergh.

With Egoyan, Lynch, Robbins, Sayles, and Jim Jarmusch in competition, it should have been shocking that not a single English-language film earned any recognition from the jury, which was headed by director David Cronenberg and included Jeff Goldblum, Holly Hunter, opera singer Barbara Hendricks, French playwright Yasmina Reza (Art), French actress Dominique Blanc, and directors Doris Dorrie of Germany, Andre Techine of France, Maurizio Nichetti of Italy, and George Miller of Australia. But perverse prizes have become the Cannes norm; there hasn’t been a truly popular Palme d’Or winner since 1994’s Pulp Fiction. Last year’s winner, the unloved Greek film Eternity and a Day, is only now limping into a few theaters (the runner-up, Life Is Beautiful, fared somewhat better).

This year, it was the bleak Belgian drama Rosetta that earned the Palme d’Or and scored its star, 18-year-old Emilie Dequenne, best actress honors; the movie was promptly picked up by Barry Diller’s newly formed USA Films. The runner-up was Bruno Dumont’s meandering L’Humanite, which also took two acting prizes despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time that caused a loss of sensation in many audience members’ lower extremities. Its Grand Jury Prize was booed by some at the Palais, while Jury members looked on in surprise. ”I’d gathered that the atmosphere there is sometimes volatile,” said Goldblum, ”but I felt like we made our passionately arrived-at choices with as much integrity as we could.” And while festivalgoers were thrilled that Almodovar won best director, the Spaniard was ambivalent about going toe-to-toe with longtime friend Egoyan and his film Felicia’s Journey. ”I don’t like competition,” Almodovar said. ”We do enough competing at the box office.”