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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cannes Renews Its Identity Crisis

CANNES, France -- As the Cannes Film Festival opened Wednesday, the perennial question was again raising its head: What is this festival about, anyway?

Last year's festival left an even stranger aftertaste than usual, with results that many felt were the most bizarre in years.

Remember Emmanuel Schotte and Severine Caneele? Probably not: They won two of the top acting awards, and they'd never acted before. They beat out popular veterans like Richard Farnsworth, an Oscar nominee this year for "The Straight Story," and Bob Hoskins for "Felicia's Journey." Not to mention acclaimed actresses such as Cecilia Roth and Manuela Marisa Paredes in Pedro Almodovar's popular "All About My Mother."

And remember "Humanity," the slow-moving and sexually explicit tale of a simpleton cop investigating a sordid murder? No? Don't feel bad - few paying customers ever saw the film, even in its native France. But it won three of the top five awards, including those picked up by Schotte and Caneele.

Then there was the best screenplay award to Russian entry "Moloch," a movie that told us much more than we wanted to know about the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. During press screenings, journalists deserted the plodding film in droves; the jury headed by Canadian director David Cronenberg saw differently.

Finally, there was the award ceremony itself. It fell apart when steamy French actress Sophie Marceau emerged to present the Palme D'Or, or Golden Palm, to Belgium's "Rosetta." The badly unprepared Marceau rambled on so mysteriously and incoherently that hostess Kristin Scott Thomas had to cut her off in mid-speech.

The next day, most newspapers savaged the awards, and festival head Gilles Jacob felt compelled to issue a statement. Though he stood by the jury's freedom of choice, he changed the rules to ban the awarding of too many prizes to one film. Cronenberg defended his choices, saying the jury was not in the business of playing slave to public tastes.

This year's festival is looking to start afresh. The jury is headed by Luc Besson - a Frenchman, but as Hollywood as they come here.

Besson, director of 1997's futuristic "The Fifth Element" and the recent "Joan of Arc," would "lead the festival decidedly into the future," Jacob said.

All the same, the films themselves are the traditional hodgepodge of established names and new faces, with a heavy dose of Cannes favorites, such as veteran British director Ken Loach, Denmark's never-boring Lars Von Trier, and famous American brothers and Cannes darlings, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Coen brothers' latest offering - "O Brother, Where Art Thou" - is among the films touted as possible festival prize winners.

The Coen brothers ruled Cannes in 1991 with "Barton Fink," starring another Cannes regular, John Turturro, who's back in this story about three chain-gang escapees on a musical journey through 1930s Mississippi. Also back is John Goodman and another Coen favorite, Holly Hunter. But if the star quotient here is off the charts, the reason is George Clooney, the erstwhile Dr. Doug Ross of "ER." His journey up the famous red steps of the festival palace should bring the loudest screams of the fortnight.

Danish director Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" is also garnering attention. Von Trier scored big in 1996 with "Breaking the Waves," then reduced many to head-scratching with "The Idiots," his 1998 study of young people pretending to be idiots to get in touch with their inner selves. Hisnew film stars French icon Catherine Deneuve alongside Icelandic pop singer Bj?r k - surely already a winner in the strange-pairing category.

Also in the running is Loach's "Bread and Roses." With "My Name Is Joe" in 1998, the British veteran of social drama looked at a former alcoholic struggling to keep his life together in gritty Glasgow. This time, Loach looks at immigrants in Los Angeles.