It's just a Cannes of worms

Who needs a festival that offers rubbish films and second-rate starlets? asks John-Paul Flintoff

For two weeks people wandered about in free T-shirts. Some promoted a particular film, others celebrated the "Cannes Film Festival: Last of the Century". By the end of the fortnight, many wondered if it should be the last ever.

The festival at Cannes, designed as a rival to Mussolini's film jamboree in Venice, was first scheduled to take place on 1 September 1939. But that day Hitler invaded Poland, so the festival was cancelled. This grave turn of events was not deemed inauspicious, however, and Cannes started again immediately after the war.

Fewer films are shown at Cannes than at Venice or even Berlin - let alone the much larger festival at Toronto. What's more, Berlin (which takes place in February) and Venice (in September) commonly attract many interesting films, whereas Cannes, in May, is timed perfectly for the screeds of unchallenging rubbish intended for summer release. But it's Cannes, for some reason, that captures the public attention.

Among the many traditional items of interest is the public chewing-up of some young hopeful. This year that role was taken by Tom Parker Bowles, godson of Prince Charles, who had started to make something of a career for himself. All who encountered him were impressed by the professional manner in which he handed out promotional materials for a film called Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Then it was revealed that Tom relied on more than green tea and rice cakes to provide the requisite oomph for 14-hour days charging up and down the Croisette. But what did anybody expect? Film-makers are driven to great extremes by the challenge of spending their enormous expense budgets, and Cannes is no place for young innocents. On the contrary - it's full of danger. For a start the place is crawling with mafiosi (at many restaurants on the front, menus are available in Russian). And this year one of the 200,000 visitors to the festival turned up with a bomb (thankfully discovered and dismantled by experts).

Aside from that, the news from Cannes was extremely thin. Richard Harris was upset because his role in a Russian epic had been pruned drastically (this was not altogether surprising, since the film as originally cut by the director lasted six hours). Terence Stamp was another actor reportedly cross about something, though few remember what this was.

The news pages of the nation papers were rejigged occasionally to accommodate photographs of actresses wearing skimpy outfits. But if people thought that exciting, what would happen if they went inside the cinema and watched the same actress stark naked?

The same principle applied to male actors. Film enthusiasts who watched Jonathan Ross's report from Cannes on Film 99 were treated to the sight of Ewan MacGregor paying a brief visit to promote his next project. He stepped off a boat that was tethered safely to shore, stood for a few minutes before the paparazzi, then clambered back on board and motored away up the coast. Now I'm a bit of a fan, but I must say I've seen more thrilling stuff from MacGregor - such as when, in Trainspotting, I saw him dive head-first down a lavatory bowl. So why does he bother with this uninspiring ballyhoo?

The reason is simple. His visit was meant to drum up interest in a project (a film about James Joyce) that probably hadn't yet attracted production and distribution deals. But will the project return next year, when the deals are done, to feature in the official competition? Don't count on it.

Entering the official competition has become a no-win proposition. If you don't win, your film must be hopeless. If you do, you have probably produced something slow-paced, bleak and obscure. Let's face it, this year's winner - memorably described by the Guardian as "a small film from Belgium" - is unlikely to show at many multiplexes. Two years ago the Palme d'Or was shared by films from Iran and Japan, The Taste of the Cherry and The Eel. One was about a young man who wished to enlist the help of others in his suicide; the other concerned a convict thinking about doing himself in. Hands up anybody who saw them.

The director Michael Winterbottom has put it like this: "I don't think many people in, say, Manchester go to see a film because it was at Cannes." It is hard to determine whether this remark is more offensive to the people of Manchester or to the jurors who have patiently sat through his films, but the point he is making is clear.

That's why Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut, and the new instalment of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, did not appear at Cannes. Of what possible benefit could it have been to either to win an award? Who wouldn't have laughed long and hard if they hadn't?

Even taking into account the absence of Hollywood blockbusters, many of the films chosen for the competition are by well-known directors, with production and distribution deals already in place. But these projects, too, sit uncomfortably in the competition. Even Ken Loach, to many minds the epitome of a Cannes director, has kept quiet about the prizes he has won there. Posters advertising his recent film, My Name Is Joe, did not include any reference to the acting prize awarded to Peter Mullan. Did this matter? Yes, it was crucial. With the help of those posters, My Name Is Joe proved to be Loach's biggest-ever commercial success. Next year I'll make my own T-shirt. The slogan? "You Cannes, but I shouldn't bother."