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Men walk on the red carpet before the screening of Ichimei at the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2011 in Cannes. (VALERY HACHE / AFP/Getty Images)
Men walk on the red carpet before the screening of Ichimei at the 64th Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2011 in Cannes. (VALERY HACHE / AFP/Getty Images)

Cannes 2011

Despite the hype, some meaningful film business gets done in Cannes Add to ...

The world was born in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, and came to an end in Lars von Trier's Melancholia. But you can be sure of one thing: The spin never stopped.

The astronomical odds of having two feature films linking family crises to cosmic events is, in many ways, typical of Cannes, where coincidences and echoes abound. With 20 films in competition, satellite sidebars and a festival market, this is a cacophonous, 12-day world cinema conversation. And with the greatest concentration of media of any event outside of the Olympics, Cannes is also the CERN accelerator of hype.

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The most prominent example followed a couple of vociferous boos that were heard at the end of the press screening of Tree of Life. They triggered an instant cloud of Twitter comments which an hour later had formed into a news consensus: divides critics.

Then there was the von Trier Nazi embarrassment. Few people here believe that Lars von Trier is any more a Nazi sympathizer than members of the British Royal Family (although the ridiculous documentary Unlawful Killing suggested they might be). But the Danish filmmaker's run-at-the-mouth press conference assured him headlines. Google the words "Trier" and "Nazi," and you'll see results in the millions.

Moving from publicity to more personal meaning, Cannes films this year were often about crises in parenting. The directors of three films - Sleeping Beauty, Le Havre, The Kid with a Bike - described their stories as fairy tales of imperilled innocence. Bad guardians were everywhere, from the deluded American parents of We Need to Talk About Kevin to the deadbeat Belgian father of The Kid with a Bike to the predatory pedophile in the Austrian entry Michael.

Some people talked about the kids, others talked about money. The business conversation, taking place in hotel rooms and on BlackBerrys around the marketplace, was hopeful but cautious: "Cannes is back, on a budget."

The feeling is that the economic pendulum may be swinging in the right direction. This year, Cannes reported a 10-per-cent boost to attendance. Walking through the rows of market stalls in the Palais, you could see busy traffic in horror and martial-arts films, which translate easily across languages. As well, the 3-D format is here to stay, as smaller Asian markets pump out their animated answers to Shrek and Rio. Unfortunately, the festival's first official foray into the third dimension, Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, was a flat affair on every level.

Another technical innovation, the digital cinema, has cut distribution costs in recent years, especially in Europe (movies can be downloaded to theatres, rather than shipped as physical prints). This should free up money for more films. But if James Cameron and Peter Jackson are talking about blockbusters at accelerated frames-per-second, it's not considered a game-changer elsewhere.

And video-on-demand - a big deal in North America, where it's hoped to generate revenue to mitigate declines in DVD sales - hasn't cut a swath in other territories. According to Charlotte Mickie, who handles international sales and a acquisitions for E1 Films, North America's couch potato-ism is not a universal trend: In Europe, people like to go out to watch movies. "It's considered part of civil society," she says.

China, meanwhile, is undergoing a cinema boom and is Hollywood's fastest growing new market. Judging by the enthusiastic reaction to movies like the detective martial-arts flick Wu Xia ( Dragon), which played out of competition, Pirates of the Caribbean may soon be battling for box-office supremacy with the Gangsters of Xixia.

Cannes, of course, is really about that special beast known as the art-house film. But while recent examples such as The Black Swan and The King's Speech showed there's still a big audience for such movies, the modern quality movie is still a risky bet. "There are more medium-range bombs than higher-budget bombs," one Italian sales agent recently told Variety.

That's where Cannes comes in. Movie-making remains a famously changeable business, and, as Mickie points out, there never was golden age for non-star-driven movies with a modest budget. The one certainty in an uncertain world, though, is that Cannes delivers a bump for films that otherwise might never find an audience. So a challenging work like Sleeping Beauty, the first-time Australian director Julia Leigh's erotic feminist thriller, is headed for theatres from Sydney to Toronto to Amsterdam.

"If it's in Cannes competition," says Mickie, "it automatically generates interest around the world."

In many cases, she says, films are bought sight unseen for different territories, simply on the basis of having been invited to the festival. Though the petty controversies of Cannes can feel like they're restricted to a strange world all their own, what happens here in this Mediterranean town for a couple of weeks each year ends up screens around the planet.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

 

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