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'Modern Times' At Cannes?

Usually, the Cannes Film Festival seems to take the pulse of current events. In the past few years, movies at the glitzy Riviera festival took on sobering subjects like Israeli-Palestinian tensions or the American death penalty.

Not this time around. The festival starts Wednesday, and in this year of war in Iraq and surging French-American tensions, the lineup at Cannes seems almost apolitical.

There's also a large dose of moviemaking nostalgia.

The festival pays tribute to Italy's Federico Fellini. The closing film is Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," digitally remastered. And the opening film is a remake of a French costume drama from half a century ago - "Fanfan la Tulipe," a swashbuckling costume romance about the Louis XV era starring Penelope Cruz and Vincent Perez.

It seems the Cannes directors are trying to bring a little lightheartedness to tense times. They're also trying to keep up a spirit of international cooperation.

"At a festival, you hope to say something in films that sometimes the world isn't able to express," the festival organizers said in a statement.

There are more French films than usual - five out of 20 films in the main competition were homegrown - but there's no shortage of American movies. Cannes directors say the U.S.-led war had no impact on their choices.

U.S. directors Gus Van Sant and Vincent Gallo will compete for the top prize, and Clint Eastwood, too, is back with the crime drama "Mystic River." He was jury president in 1994.

Van Sant, who made "Good Will Hunting," has one of the few films in competition inspired by the news. Filmed with nonprofessional actors from Portland, Oregon, "Elephant" is about high school violence - as was Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," one of the movies that generated the most buzz at Cannes last year.

One of the only other films in the main contest to take on current events is about a young woman in post-Taliban Afghanistan. "A cinq heures de l'apres-midi" (At five o'clock in the afternoon) was filmed by an Iranian director, Samira Makhmalbaf. At 23, Makhmalbaf is already a regular at Cannes, which runs through May 25.

Another movie about Afghanistan, "Osama," is part of a smaller competition for directors.

While last year's festival had an Israeli and a Palestinian film - "Kedma" and "Divine Intervention" - this year there is neither. There are movies from French-speaking Canada to Turkey to Brazil, and two are from Japan.

The film generating the most pre-festival buzz is Lars von Trier's "Dogville." Von Trier is a Cannes habitue, and his "Dancer in the Dark," a movie about the death penalty in America that starred Icelandic singer Bjork, won the top prize in 2000.

His new film features Nicole Kidman - whose appearance on Cannes' red carpet is sure to be a highlight for stargazers. Kidman, her hair cropped in a severe blond bob, plays an outsider in a small American town in the 1930s.

More star power will come from the futuristic sci-fi sequel "The Matrix Reloaded." It isn't competing for prizes, but it makes its world premiere in Cannes, and Keanu Reeves and the rest of the cast will be there.

One of the annual games at Cannes is trying to predict the jury's tastes. Members include actress Meg Ryan, Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai - a former Miss World - and Steven Soderbergh, who at 26 became the youngest director ever to win the top Cannes prize, the Palme d'Or, for "sex, lies and videotape" in 1989.

The jury president is Patrice Chereau, the French director who made the costume drama "La reine Margot" - which won a prize from Eastwood's 1994 jury. In an interview with a French cinema magazine, Chereau gave a few hints to his taste: He admires Asian movies, as well as von Trier's "Breaking the Waves."

But Chereau says he can be tough.

"If a movie doesn't interest me, in general, I leave the theater," he told Studio. "If there's not a surprise, something that grabs me, I have a hard time staying. In Cannes, I'll be obliged to."

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