Cannes rolled out the red carpet Wednesday for Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who launched the 2004 film festival with a dark tale of child abuse in a Roman Catholic school. Critics raved about La Mala Educacion, billed as Bad Education for English-speaking audiences, and fans screamed for Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, dubbed "Sex Mex" by the French press for his smoldering good looks and hot performance in the earlier international hit Y Tu Mama Tambien. It was the first time a Spanish film ever opened the world's most famous film festival, and Almodovar said, "My film may not be in competition here, but opening the Cannes Film Festival is a prize in itself." The audience, usually treated to a frothy comedy or rollicking adventure on Cannes's opening night, were this time served up a film noir cast of pedophile priests and drug-raddled transvestites.
Traditionally, the gala is the epitome of chic in the elegant French Riviera resort--even the paparazzi must wear tuxedos to film the stars arriving at the Palais des Festivals. Rain soaked the red carpet but the organizers were smiling with relief after one major black cloud was lifted--part-time French show business workers called off protests planned over welfare benefit cuts. Now the festival, last called off in 1968 at the height of student-worker protests, can look forward to 12 days of fierce competition for the coveted Palme d'Or. Heading the jury is American director Quentin Tarantino, who declared, "To me, Cannes is just heaven." Cannes can look forward to a hefty dose of Hollywood glamour with Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron jetting in to publicize their latest films to a captive audience of 5,000 show business reporters. Cannes has been criticized in the past for demonstrating a penchant for intellectual "auteur" movies that please only the most ardent film buffs. But artistic director Thierry Fremaux has gone much more mainstream this year with populist entries like Shrek 2, the follow-up to the worldwide animation hit.
In its 57th year, the Cannes festival's fascination with Hollywood shows no sign of fading but it has always prided itself on also providing a potent mix of world cinema, from Thailand to Bosnia. What has changed over the past few years is timing. Hollywood has acknowledged the enormous pulling power of Cannes in attracting an international audience to the big summer movies so beloved of American audiences. Over the last three years the Hollywood big guns have rolled out Star Wars, Terminator, and Matrix movies at Cannes. This year it is the turn of the new sword-and-sandals epic Troy. "Passez le popcorn," declared leading Hollywood trade paper Variety.
Packed with cigar-chomping moguls and scantily clad starlets, Cannes has proved to be a perfect manufacturer of celluloid dreams, combining both hard-sell deals and art-house movies. Whatever disgruntled critics may have said about last year's array of mediocre movies, Cannes has still not lost its allure. More than 3,500 films were submitted to organizers this year by moviemakers eager for the Cannes cachet. It is staging a total of 46 world premieres.