Blurring the line between art and commerce

It was exactly forty years ago that the Cannes Film Festival finally

recognised that cinematic art could not exist in an economic vacuum by

deciding to formalise a trading venue for buying and selling film

distribution rights across the world.

The Marche or Cannes Market, as this rather amorphous sideshow is known, only added to the schizophrenia of an event that has always teetered precariously between glamour and gaudiness. On the one end

of the Croisette festival-anointed auteurs were making their dignified way

up the Palais red carpet while at the other deal memos were being hurriedly scrawled on the backs of table napkins and sealed with a fat cigar and an impromptu press conference.

Such surreal collisions of high artistic endeavour and crude commercialism reached their apotheosis in 1985 when a Majestic Hotel lunch between schlock-meister Menahem Golan and that most impenetrable of French cineastes Jean-Luc Godard ended with a quick deal for him direct a screen version of King Lear. Sure enough the film got made, with Norman Mailer the screenwriter and filmmakers Woody Allen, Leos Carax and Godard himself among the cast-members, but it turned out to be something of an obtuse in-joke at the expense of producers in desperate need of artistic credibility.

Today, the joke has turned in on itself. Godard, for so many years derided as the Holy Fool of European cinema, is returning to Cannes with a film in competition that some believe has a much stronger commercial potential than so many of his recent essays on the impossibility of making movies. Moreover, the very idea of an even the most esoteric of international filmmakers playing to the crowds no longer seems as ludicrous as it did in Golan’s go-go days at the helm of Cannon.

Just look at last year’s Cannes competition line-up. Greeted at the onset with the now usual cries that it was light on star-driven American fare and heavy on festival-friendly directors from obscure corners of the globe, last year’s competition ended up being unexpectedly money-making. Films like Dancer In The Dark, In The Mood For Love, Yi Yi and O Brother Where Art Thou’ all broke new commercial ceilings for their respective filmmakers. And, of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set a new benchmark for not only for Asian cinema in particular but also subtitled feature films in general without even the benefit of a bankable name in its cast.

Vincent Maraval, whose Wild Bunch boasts this year an astonishing nine festival films between the Official Selection and Un Certain Regard, believes that it takes between two and three years for the marketplace to catch up with what’s hot on the international festival circuit. Sure enough, we are now starting to see inklings of a new-found fervour among English-language territories for foreign cinema, notably from hitherto unknown Asian directors. Miramax has already taken US rights to Mamuro Oshi’s Avalon; while Tears Of The Black Tiger, a homage to the Thai western genre by first timer Wisit Sasanatieng has just been sold to Pathe in the UK and Dendy for Australia and New Zealand.

While we may still laugh now at the notion of Godard re-working Shakespeare for Golan, it is not inconceivable that some of these more unfamiliar, even unpronounceable, of Cannes filmmakers will end up being deployed to much more mercantile ends. After all, the same Darren Aronofsky that assaulted the Cannes festival last year with his unremitting Requiem For A Dream is now working on the next instalment of Warner Bros’ Batman. And CrouchingTiger’s Ang Lee is making The Incredible Hulk for Universal. It seems that the line between art and commerce, once so indelibly drawn in the Cannes sand, has never been more blurred.

Colin Brown IN NEW YORK