- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

CANNES, France The Cannes Film Festival kicked off yesterday by looking back nearly 400 years, to the decadent and intrigue-filled court of Louis XIV.

Workers hammered and sawed furiously to transform part of the festival palace into a replica of a 17th-century chateau in honor of "Vatel," a lush costume drama starring Uma Thurman and Gerard Depardieu chosen to open the 53rd annual festival.

The 12-day event values both serious art and serious glamour, not to mention serious business. Its opening night always tends to favor the glamour, with films chosen to attract big-name stars at that first ritual mounting of those famous red-carpeted steps.

The names were there yesterday. Young French actress Virginie Ledoyen, best known for starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Beach," was mistress of ceremonies. Mr. Depardieu and Miss Thurman declared the festival open, along with Spanish actress Cecilia Roth, star of last year's "All About My Mother." Later, some 700 people were invited to a sumptuous dinner in honor of "Vatel," including French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a first-time visitor to the festival.

Other luminaries climbing the red steps were model Claudia Schiffer, actress Andie MacDowell and even Calista Flockhart, TV's Ally McBeal, whose star-studded film, "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her," was screened out of competition.

The real contest begins today, with 23 films vying for the coveted Palme d'Or, or Golden Palm.

"Vatel," directed by Roland Joffe of "The Killing Fields" fame, is based on the true story of a loyal servant called upon to prepare a lavish welcome for a three-day visit to his master, a financially struggling prince, by Louis XIV and his entire court.

The servant, Vatel, played by Depardieu, responds admirably, preparing extravagant meals and dazzling theatrics, such as ice sculptures and fireworks displays, to amaze and amuse the king and his court.

The strength of the film is in its intricate depiction of these festivities. The prince's grand chateau at Chantilly is faithfully re-created, and the grand theatrics produced to dazzle the king truly are dazzling. The food, too, is beautifully presented, with the help of experts on 17th-century recipes.

But the acting is more uneven. Part of the problem has to do with language: Mr. Depardieu speaks English here. In French, this amazingly prolific actor has no problem appearing seductive, but in English, he seems stilted, even when uttering the elegant words of Tom Stoppard, who adapted the French screenplay.

It also is tough to sense any romantic chemistry between Mr. Depardieu and Miss Thurman, who plays Anne de Montausier, a lady-in-waiting to the queen who catches Louis' roving eye. Anne beds the king but covets Vatel in her heart; later she beds him, too.

Mr. Depardieu does convey well his character's honesty and decency in a cynical, backbiting world, traits that ultimately lead to the movie's tragic end.

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