Cannes Film Festival Readies for Its Close-Up

The Cannes Film Festival conjures images of glamour and decadence -- black ties, red carpets and the blue Mediterranean bobbing with the glowing lights of yacht parties -- as film glitterati from around the world converge on the French Riviera.

The global audience for the annual event, which opens Wednesday, makes it a favorite place for Hollywood to introduce potential Oscar films as well as some of its biggest crowd-pleasers.

This year, Cannes will showcase 57 full-length films from 31 countries. American offerings include the latest "Indiana Jones" movie, director Clint Eastwood's 1920s-era mystery drama "Changeling" and the DreamWorks animated comedy "Kung Fu Panda."

"Cannes is the world stage," says Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of The Weinstein Co. "It's got good acceptance in the United States, but not the mass acceptance that it has in Europe, Asia, the Middle East. People from everywhere come to the Cannes Film Festival."

This time, Weinstein is rolling the dice with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The romantic comedy, written and directed by Woody Allen, stars Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz in a story of American sisters who visit Spain and are drawn into love affairs with a painter and his explosive ex-wife.

The on-screen erotic couplings of the top stars has generated much talk leading into the festival, and Allen acknowledges that the emphasis is less on comedy and more about the chemistry.

"This is mostly a romantic film. It's really about the complexity of relationships. It's a love film," Allen says. "I had the good fortune to be able to bring together a tremendous cast of actors, and it made the thing really sing for me. Same script not done in Barcelona, not done with these people, would not have the same resonance."

Weinstein is counting on the movie's lightheartedness to win admirers. "Sometimes at Cannes you watch a lot of serious films. All of a sudden you see a movie like this, and it lifts your spirit," he says.

Positive word-of-mouth can add rocket fuel to a movie, as it did for Weinstein with "Pulp Fiction" in 1994 or Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" in 2004, both of which won the festival's Palme d'Or grand prize.

But the festival also can deliver a critical wounding. In 2006, the sci-fi black comedy "Southland Tales" (from "Donnie Darko" filmmaker Richard Kelly) was booed at Cannes and went on to belly-flop in release.

Among other high-profile films:

"Blindness." The festival's opening-night movie, starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Sandra Oh in a sci-fi fable about a mystery illness that causes everyone in the world to lose their sight. It's directed by Oscar nominee Fernando Meirelles ("City of God," "The Constant Gardner") and based on a novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.

"Changeling." Angelina Jolie stars in this Prohibition-era drama about a woman whose child vanishes in Los Angeles, and when he is returned to her, she insists it's not her son. Directed by Eastwood and co-starring John Malkovich.

"Synecdoche, New York." Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) makes his directorial debut with this tale of a theater producer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who builds a mock New York City in a warehouse and begins living his life there with his cast.

"Che." A double-feature of Soderbergh's two-part Che Guevara biopic, "Guerrilla" and "The Argentine," starring Benicio Del Toro as the South American revolutionary. It's Soderbergh and Del Toro's first onscreen collaboration since they both won Oscars for 2000's "Traffic."

Meanwhile, thousands of newcomers also will be swarming the seminars and scheduling lunches with power brokers, trying to get their movies seen. Among them will be screenwriter Jeff Van Hanken, a film professor from the University of Tulsa, who will be pushing "Billy Fail," a story of a boy who tries to reclaim his family farm.

"I have two images," Van Hanken says. "One is that it will be the most wonderful, collegial atmosphere I've ever experienced, and the other is that it's going to be this madhouse and I'm going to spend eight days working miserably to keep my head above water."

Each year a few sure-thing American-made blockbusters launch from Cannes, such as "The Da Vinci Code" and last year's "Ocean's 13." Following in that tradition this time: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas and star Harrison Ford will be there for its first showing at the festival's Grand Theatre Lumiere on Sunday.

"It's really an exercise in reaching the international press. But it's a nice way to do it. I've been to Cannes three or four times. But I've never been in the marketplace aspect of it, where you go there to sell something," Ford says.

The frenzy around the festival can be intense, even for someone who is used to the flashbulbs and awkwardly worded foreign-language questions. Ford sums it up simply: "It's very bizarre," he says, reiterating in an exaggerated French accent: "Beez-are!"