Somewhere in the middle of the Cannes film festival, Patricia Arquette encountered what she called ''a kind of madness.'' Her new movie, Beyond Rangoon, had just made its black-tie premiere at the Palais, the huge, shoreline warren of theaters. Afterward, she and husband Nicolas Cage fled to the calm of their hotel suite. ''We were asleep at four in the morning, and my husband started yelling,'' Arquette recalled. ''There was a short, fortysomething Frenchman coming into our room, and Nicolas had to jump out of bed naked and chase him out. I don't know if he wanted to stab us or cuddle with us.''
If the Frenchman was simply lost, he had plenty of company. Just last year, the Cannes crowd could set its sights on Red, To Live, and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction movies that gave the festival a jolt of adrenaline and a hotly competitive slate for the Palme d'Or. But this time around, the 48th annual Festival International du Film seemed as lost as Arquette's secret visitor, bumbling from drab art-house fare like Terence Davies' The Neon Bible, a work of stilted Southern gothic, to Jim Jarmusch's mystical Western Dead Man, a Johnny Depp vehicle that prompted one French viewer to holler, ''Piece of sheet, Jeem!'' To be sure, fine films emerged, telling tales of Chinese mobsters (Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad), the Spanish Civil War (Ken Loach's Land and Freedom), and brutality in a French housing project (Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate). But as the 12 days wore on, folks spent much of their time grousing, walking out of movies, and waiting for a real winner. Any winner.
They got one, albeit not the kind of Palme apt to electrify an American audience the way Pulp Fiction, The Piano, and sex, lies, and videotape have in the past. Emir Kusturica's Underground, a breathtaking account of the fate of Yugoslavia since World War II, sent the festival reeling with its absurdist mix of pratfalls and sorrow. In the end, it took home the top prize. But with a running time of 3 hours and 12 minutes, a narrative based more on madhouse imagery than straightforward storytelling (in one key scene, a chimpanzee operates a tank), and a nerve-shredding soundtrack by a Slavic oompah band, Underground seems destined to live up to its title. By the last curtain call, neither Underground nor its runner-up another three-hour saga of the Balkans called Ulysses' Gaze, directed by Theo Angelopoulos had even landed an American distributor.
Slowly, the festival did churn out its nnual crop of hot tickets. Count on early Oscar talk for Jonathan Pryce, who locked up an acting prize playing gay writer Lytton Strachey in Carrington. ''When you play someone for that length of time, you become enormously sympathetic to him,'' Pryce said of the frosty but ultimately endearing author of Eminent Victorians. A lot of Cannes babble hovered around films outside the main competition: Gus Van Sant's darkly hilarious To Die For; Diane Keaton's loopily sentimental family saga Unstrung Heroes; and a pair of plasma-soaked gangster pics that simultaneously echoed and ducked the Tarantino template, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and The Usual Suspects.