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Cannes: Mix of Hype and Artistry

`Basic Instinct' lights Europe's fancy, but more substantial offerings also stoke interest

THE official poster for this year's Cannes International Film Festival carries a picture of Marlene Dietrich, as compelling and commanding a star as the screen has ever known. The decision to honor her in this way was made well before her death, which occurred just one day before the festival began, turning a much-deserved tribute into a sadly appropriate memorial. Many a festivalgoer has paused here between screenings, conferences, and interviews to remember Dietrich and all she gave to the world of mov ies. But that world is driven as much by practical realities as by sentimental feelings, and Dietrich would surely have understood how speedily attention has returned to the whirl of pictures, personalities, and projects from every corner of the world.

As always, the thousands of people attending the festival represent many different aspects of the film scene, from producers and directors to programmers, promoters, financiers, journalists, and fans. As always, too, this heterogeneous bunch can be divided into two camps that were named by a savvy observer years ago: the moths, who spend their time spotting stars and angling for party invitations, and the moles, who burrow into dark screening rooms and emerge as rarely as possible into the warm French Ri viera sunshine.

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At this writing, a few days into the festival schedule, both groups have been buzzing most eagerly about the opening attraction: "Basic Instinct," the Hollywood sex-and-violence thriller that caught on with American audiences a few weeks ago and has now arrived in Europe with an equal splash.

At a festival dedicated to the art of film, you might not expect such a movie to appear at all, much less in the prestigious opening-night slot. But then, last year's biggest attention-getter here was "Madonna: Truth or Dare," which had moths and moles alike craning for glimpses of Madonna.

Fortunately, there have also been many substantial offerings in the festival's first days, and some of these have been greeted with widespread enthusiasm. The most impressive showings so far have been made by productions from the United States and from the former Soviet Union, where cinema has apparently been holding its own despite political and economic upheavals.

On the American front, the foolishness of "Basic Instinct" was soon brushed aside by the artistry of "The Player," Robert Altman's brutally brilliant examination of exactly the sort of anything-for-a-buck movie exploitation that "Basic Instinct" personifies; and by the exquisitely civilized "Howards End," James Ivory's poignant look at England's bittersweet transition from 19th-century certainties to 20th-century doubts and confusions. These films embody the diversity as well as the energy of American f ilmmaking at its best.

Russian filmmaker Vitaly Kanievsky kicked off his country's roster of movies with "An Independent Life," a coproduction sponsored by France and the new Commonwealth of Independent States, where the picture was shot. Set during the years immediately after World War II, it tells the story of a rural boy's journey into early manhood, under conditions so depressed and deprived that it's a wonder the human spirit survives.

Beneath its frequently scathing details - which recall Mr. Kanievsky's earlier "Freeze, Die, Come to Life," about the same main characters - the movie is an allegory about the evils of authoritarianism and a testament to the resilience of humanity, symbolized by the improbable beauty of the film's colorful images. While the characters of the story never become as engaging as one would wish, their cinematic surroundings are never less than fascinating.

More contemporary political problems are the focus of "Luna Park," directed by Pavel Lounguine, whose "Taxi Blues" was a recent international success. Set in "post-perestroika Russia," this frenetic parable centers on a member of a right-wing mob called the Cleaners, which is determined to drive Jews out of Moscow by whatever violent means it considers necessary. This grim topic is treated with equal measures of outrage and irony in Mr. Lounguine's drama, which has its turning point when the thuggish her o discovers the embarrassing fact that his own father is an eccentric Jewish musician.

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The movie vacillates between explosive action, pitch-dark humor, and pointed satire with varying degrees of success. Lounguine doesn't quite succeed in making a coherent statement on the important issue of resurgent fascism and anti-Semitism in his troubled country, but he calls attention to it with unmistakable urgency.

The third world, also broadly represented at Cannes this year, has contributed one of the most touching films seen here so far. "And Life Goes On" takes place right after the devastating Iranian earthquake of 1990 and follows the effort of a compassionate Teheran resident to drive into the stricken countryside and learn what happened to two young boys who once appeared in a movie directed by a friend of his - the same person, in fact, who directed this film. His name is Abbas Kiarostami, and he does a su perb job of depicting this sad yet often hopeful journey with great visual and emotional resonance.

Other films shown in the sprawling Palais du Festival have been predictably varied. "The Return of Casanova," directed by Edouard Niermans, represents the French "tradition of quality" at its finest, with Alain Delon as the fabled seducer in the twilight of his sordid though adventurous career.

"Through an Open Window," directed by American newcomer Eric Mendelsohn, packs surprising depth and subtlety into the half-hour-long tale of a woman (played by Anne Meara) forced to confront the shallowness of her life when a seemingly minor household incident shakes up her usual self-centered assurance.

The action continues until May 18, when Hollywood again has the last word with "Far and Away," a sort of Irish Western starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Stay tuned for further details.

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