June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Dante’s Inferno, with teeth. A Breughel painting. The Tailhook convention.

That’s how a few of the dazed patrons pegged the 54th annual Cannes Film Festival, an art-filled, trash-strewn, toxic and intoxicating mélange of movies, commerce, and madness. Here, Tilda Swinton, in town with the suspense drama ”The Deep End” (a Sundance prizewinner) alit from her limo to find herself face-to-face with a man dressed as a giant condom. Here, the Coen brothers discussed the importance of tackling ”existential dread” in black and white for ”The Man Who Wasn’t There,” while only yards away, Jean-Claude Van Damme lounged aboard a yacht, ruminating on God, vegetarianism, and his latest high-kicking role as ”The Monk.” Even jury member Terry Gilliam embraced the art-film-meets-carny-show schizophrenia, appearing for official photos in a T-shirt that read, ”Can Be Bribed.”

The anything-goes atmosphere extended from the Palais screening salons down to the film-market conference rooms and trading aisles, thanks to last-minute lineup selections, a competition slate perceived by many as weak, and a dearth of purchase-worthy product for the distributors who did show up. Going in, the big trend continued to be the Asian renaissance: A record three films from Japan vied in the main competition, including two-time Palme d’Or winner Shohei Imamura’s ”Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.” But the USA had a surge, too, with five American films — ”Shrek,” ”Moulin Rouge,” David Lynch’s ”Mulholland Drive,” Sean Penn’s already-released ”The Pledge,” and the Coens’ new noir dramedy ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” — among the 23 pictures contending for d’Or prizes. Lynch and Joel Coen ended up splitting best director honors — the first win in that category for an American since Coen himself won for 1996’s ”Fargo.” The Un Certain Regard sidebar was also dominated by American titles, including Abel Ferrara’s ”R-xmas” and Todd Solondz’s ”Storytelling,” while the rest of the main lineup was a mix of past European masters and Cannes regulars.

There was squawking, as always, from countries shut out of competition, especially Germany (always a big part of the buying market at Cannes). But such complaints were small pommes frites compared to the long shadow cast over the Croisette by Hollywood strike terror and studio cutbacks. ”It’s like someone decided to throw a party, and then said, ‘Disregard the invitation,’ and then told you it was on again,” said Catch 23 president Jeremy Barber, describing the half-baked feel of the fest. Even though the marketplace drew more participating registrants than ever, Fine Line president Mark Ordesky observed that ”it’s a lot flatter than the numbers would suggest…. There wasn’t a single bruising bidding war.”

Indeed, three of the top prizewinners — ”Mulholland Drive,” ”La Pianiste” (”The Piano Teacher”) from France and Austria, which swept the acting prizes, and ”The Son’s Room,” the Italian film that took the Palme d’Or — do not yet have U.S. distributors. American studio executives were so notably absent that it was actually possible to find a seat at the Majestic hotel, their usual hangout for late-evening drinks. The classier Hotel du Cap, tired of dealing with the riffraff, gave up the Bellini trade this year and simply closed its bar.

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