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Cannes casts off virus shadow

Cannes, May 11 (Reuters): The 56th Cannes film festival, which begins on Wednesday, has been dogged by late entries, security concerns and fears that Asian participants might bring the SARS virus with them.

Yet film stars and paparazzi are descending in droves on this Mediterranean resort for the extravaganza that mixes intellectual cinema with Hollywood razzle-dazzle. Hotels are fully booked, lavish parties are being planned and the Riviera resort is abuzz wit h anticipation. “A lot of things have happened in the past year, but life must go on,” said festival President Gilles Jacob whose biggest headaches are late-landing films and last-minute withdrawals.

While playing down concerns the star-studded event could be derailed by a terror attack, organisers have drafted in a security team of several thousand to add to 600 local police. And to appease SARS concerns, industry players coming from Asia have agreed to undergo medical checks on arrival in France.

The Cannes crowd will run to tens of thousands, from actors and directors to fans coming to soak in the atmosphere and glimpse stars like Clint Eastwood and Elizabeth Taylor. Actress Aishwarya Rai will be part of the nine-member jury of the festival. Security was tight last year with even the stars undergoing body scans and bag checks. Police say they are also out to stop the muggers that habitually prey on wealthy foreigners at night.

As usual, deep-and-meaningful foreign films risk being overshadowed by a giant Hollywood showing — the much-hyped sci-fi sequel Matrix: Reloaded.

But critics are keenly awaiting new offerings from Denmark’s Lars Von Trier, revered for his dramatic tearjerkers, and Peter Greenaway, the British master of outlandish eyebrow-raisers. Also competing for the coveted Palme d’Or, is movie veteran Eastwood with crime drama Mystic River, five French directors and films from as far apart as Russia, Brazil, Iran and Japan. “The strength of Cannes lies in discovering original works, outside the mainstream and not Hollywood-made. But the big movie producers will be there too, so pressure will be intense,” said Fordham University Media Studies professor Paul Levinson.

The festival has a feel-good opener — an out-of-contest remake of Fanfan la Tulipe, starring Penelope Cruz as a tousled-haired gypsy with a plunging bosom to rival any starlet. Nicole Kidman, ex-wife of Cruz’s beau Tom Cruise, will be looking somewhat more dowdy as the downbeat heroine in Von Trier’s Dogville, but is sure to dazzle on the red carpet.

And for fans stuck outside, open air screens will pay tribute to the legendary Federico Fellini, whose reaction on winning the 1960 Palme d’Or for La Dolce Vita makes up this year’s Cannes poster — in large pink letters, “Vive il Cinema”.

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