Cannes journal #1:

No snakes on the plane

FEST REPORT The trip to Cannes always starts when I get on the plane in San Francisco looking to see if anyone I know is aboard. The 747 was huge, but full exploration didn't reveal any obvious candidates for the festival.

Once in Paris things change. On the transfer to Nice I always run into several friends making the final leg of the journey to the south of France and 10 days of movies, morning till dawn. We compare stories about how much sleep we did or didn't get, before leaving and on the plane. And make the inevitable jokes about being jet-lagged and surely taking naps in films.

Each year I also spot someone famous getting on my plane. One year I chatted with French superstar Jeanne Moreau. I had been involved in distributing a movie she directed, L'Adolescente. Another time, Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) was nervous about the trip. It was his first time in France, and he was appearing at the premiere of the movie Unstrung Heroes. He was a nervous wreck. He couldn't figure out how to use the pay phones and was scared by security and certain he would never find his way to the right gate at De Gaulle (a reasonable worry). I befriended him and showed the way.

This year, as the long line waited to board the flight, Snakes on a Plane star Samuel L. Jackson was escorted to the front of the line. A member of the Cannes jury, he had a hat pulled down so he'd only be half-recognized. Someone in the line called out, "I'll see you in Cannes," to make sure we all knew where they were both headed.

Arriving a day early has its benefits. The crowds haven't assembled. One can take care of accreditation and press orientation and study the various program books. A press screening of The Da Vinci Code was the only scheduled event. I had already seen it and instead chose to have dinner with friends.

On the first day of the festival I saw three films, all of them official selections caught at press screenings. A good way to start off the morning was with something not too demanding: Paris Je T'Aime is a collection of 20 five-minute films by an eclectic group of international directors — including Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuar??n, Alexander Payne, Gurinder Chadha, Tom Tykwer, and Wes Craven — guiding a superstar cast that ranges from Natalie Portman to Gena Rowlands, Sergio Castellitto to Fanny Ardant. (Ben Gazzara, Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi, and Bob Hoskins are also featured.) Each piece is about love in Paris. They are like simple short stories; the best ones aren't overly ambitious.

Next up was a film from Paraguay, Hamaca Paraguaya. At only 78 minutes, it was still not the kind of movie to see when jet-lagged. When the lights went up, I asked my neighbor, author Phillip Lopate, if I'd snored. He said I was a very considerate napper and wanted to know how he had done. Just fine, I guess, as he didn't wake me up. I have no doubt it will be hailed as a work of art by someone.

Much better was Summer Palace, the first competition film. Director Lou Ye (Suzhou River, Purple Butterfly) has constructed a complex story of relationships, starting in 1989 China. A student leaves her small town and boyfriend to attend university in Beijing. She discovers both friendship and sex, with the pleasures and confusion they can bring. We journey through the political changes in China and Germany (where some of the characters go) over the next 15 years as the group of friends separate and rejoin. The result is often powerful, vibrant, and involving. The film overstays its welcome at 140 minutes; some careful editing will help make it even better.