Lisa Schwarzbaum
May 12, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Cannes offers celebrity, luxury, and frivolity!

Bonjour, mes amis, you can read it here first: all about the alpha and the omega, the soup and the nuts, the immense influence of cinema and the glorious history of France and how they all converged this past Wednesday night on the first day of the 53rd edition of the International Festival du Film at Cannes. I know; I was there, and I’ve got the photograph of Gérard Depardieu talking to the Prime Minister of France to prove it, with Claudia Schiffer and Brian De Palma nearby just out of camera range.

Where to begin? Let’s skip the part where I explain how one must be prepared to fight aggressive, closely packed, tobacco-perfumed mobs for every necessity of daily living, every day of the festival: to pick up one’s credentials; to present those credentials many times a day to a phalanx of security guards as liable to rule, ”Non, madame” as to bestow a smile; to secure a good theater seat; to retrieve one’s mail; to catch a waiter’s eye to pay the check after one has sipped a petite cup of espresso to stay awake for the next movie of the day.

Let’s start instead with the sight of Andie MacDowell sitting alone at a very long table for a very long time, looking very wistful during the grand opening-night dinner. MacDowell, you see, is a L’Oreal Girl — that’s her title — whose sole duty is to personify pulchritude on an international standard, specifically pulchritude enhanced by L’Oreal cosmetics, one of the Festival’s major sponsors. Gong Li, Claudia Schiffer, and Virginie Ledoyen are also L’Oreal Girls, but they hadn’t yet showed up, or maybe MacDowell was very hungry, or else just polite, being one of the very few guests who actually arrived on time.

The dinner specifically honored ”Vatel,” a gogglingly luxurious, dramatically lax historical drama about the life of a lower-class Frenchman who rose to become the Martha Stewart of his day, an inventive caterer who impressed Louis XIV. Vatel is played by Gérard Depardieu, Uma Thurman plays an aristocratic lady drawn to his unassailable sense of decency, and Tim Roth plays a court miscreant. Enough of that, what matters is that the dinner was itself designed and displayed in the style of the court of Louis XIV: pretty French women in bosom-revealing old gowns, men in wigs, pipers piping, rose petals scattered, game birds hung on the wall, that sort of ambiance.

Most of the guests arrived after the evening screening of ”Vatel.” Some of us, having seen ”Vatel” in the morning, arrived after the evening screening of ”Bread and Roses,” Ken Loach’s hammeringly unsubtle drama about the glory of unions, the greed of bosses, and the hardships of illegal Mexicans in modern-day Los Angeles. Nothing to do with King Louis, or his courtiers, far from it. Nice French class-conscious touch, oui?

And voila, there was Andie MacDowell, waiting for breadsticks. Depardieu, a reverberating presence, worked the room. Uma Thurman clung to her publicist at another table. Atom Egoyan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sam Mendes, Isabel Huppert, and the rest of us ate concoctions of lobster, flambes of fish, delicacies stuffed into delicacies. Before each course, actors lit from behind a gauzy screen mimed a scene of royal dining. Before dessert, sparklers ignited on cue at each table, followed by an explosion of gold confetti. The prime minister of France dug into his asparagus tips surrounded by movie stars.

When Andie MacDowell called it a night some time after 1 a.m., so did I. Thursday morning at 8:30, I was at a screening of a nicely creepy psychological drama, one of those setups where a stranger invades the life of a family. Of course, the word is that the movie the Cannes programmers really wanted this year, the one that got away, is ”Mission Impossible: 2.” C’est la vie, eh?

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