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As Cannes Opens, Critics Play Guessing Game

Before the festival begins, our reviewer looks over the list of entries with a hopeful but practiced eye

The lineup at this year's Cannes International Film Festival looks mighty exciting -- on paper, at least.

This doesn't mean critics are in for 12 days of nonstop thrills as we lurch from one screening room to another in search of the next masterpiece. Pictures that appear tremendously tempting before they're screened -- because of a gifted director, an attractive star, or a stimulating subject -- often turn out to be less alluring than promised. Occasionally they prove so bad you can't believe they're in the festival at all.

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Faced with this reality, yet determined to keep hopes and spirits high, reviewers ponder questions like these as the festival opens tonight:

*Can an ultrahip filmmaker like Jim Jarmusch, director of such cool concoctions as ''Night on Earth'' and ''Stranger Than Paradise,'' score with a black-and-white western called ''Dead Man,'' about 19th-century friendship between an Indian and an Englishman?

*Will the sardonic Michael Moore, whose ''Roger & Me'' was a hugely popular documentary, reclaim his reputation with the fictional ''Canadian Bacon,'' starring the late John Candy as a Niagara Falls sheriff caught in a war between the United States and Canada?

*Now that filmmaker Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li have broken off their longtime personal relationship, will their just-completed melodrama ''Shanghai Triad'' be a gem of Chinese cinema like ''Ju Dou'' and ''To Live,'' or have behind-the-scenes tensions spoiled their chemistry?

And then there are questions pertaining to the differences between American audiences and their European counterparts, who'll be getting their first look at pictures already released on screens in the United States. Will the continental crowd like the elegant ''Jefferson in Paris'' or the rowdy ''Kiss of Death'' better than Americans, who've shown less enthusiasm than studios had hoped?

Still more question marks arise from the presence of many new and untested filmmakers in the Directors Fortnight, a sidebar series meant to showcase directorial styles. Fully half of this year's program represents fresh talents in their first feature-length outings, although such well-known figures as Mike Newell and Todd Haynes -- directors of the sweet ''Four Weddings and a Funeral'' and the explosive ''Poison,'' respectively -- are also on board.

By contrast, several name-brand filmmakers have pictures in ''Un Certain Regard,'' the festival's most important sidebar. That's the place to learn what Diane Keaton thinks about ''Unstrung Heroes,'' where Wim Wenders is headed in ''Lisbon Story,'' and what John Boorman sees in ''Two Nudes Bathing,'' among other entries.

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It's also the place for Europeans to find out what happened to ''The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain,'' by newcomer Christopher Monger, a film deservedly dismissed by many US critics but still unscreened across the Atlantic.

Looking beyond American and European attractions, observers interested in non-Western cultures will be curious about offerings from developing countries. Among films competing for the Palme d'Or, the festival's grand prize, are three from Asian directors. Zhang's offering, ''Shangai Triad,'' is one hot prospect in this category. Also on tap is ''Haonan Haonu,'' by Hou Hsiao-hsien, surely the greatest of Taiwan's filmmakers, and ''Sharaku,'' by Masahiro Shinoda, a veteran of Japanese cinema.

Just as tantalizing is ''Waati,'' a Mali-France-Burkina Faso coproduction by Souleymane Cisse, whose ''Yeleen'' is a major classic of African film.

Why should moviegoers far from Cannes be interested in these unfamiliar names and titles? It's because one of the films I've mentioned -- or some other obscure-sounding work by a director who's never seen a Hollywood studio -- could well become a major hit with international audiences, and Cannes will have set the stage for this. That's what happened last year, when Krzysztof Kieslowski's resonant ''Red'' zoomed from festival-circuit enthusiasm to Oscar-nominated fame, without even winning one of the jury's major awards.

Will this year's Cannes jurors -- a group so diversified that distinguished actress Jeanne Moreau and sleaze-loving director John Waters are both sitting on the panel -- be as ornery as last year's prizegivers, slighting a ''Red'' so a ''Pulp Fiction'' can triumph? The answer to that won't be apparent until closing night on May 29, when the tribunal unveils the results of its deliberations.

The victors could be pictures already established in American theaters -- like ''The Madness of King George'' and ''Ed Wood,'' both respectable contenders -- or fresh entries with titles like ''Kids'' or ''Angels and Insects'' or ''The Neon Bible.''

All of which look extremely promising -- on paper, at least.

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