CANNES, France -- Frances McDormand has some favorite routines when she comes to Cannes with her husband and brother-in-law, aka the Coen brothers: She strolls through the old section, visits the fruit market, suns on the topless beach.
Director David Lynch likes to cruise the Croisette and watch the bobbing yachts from his window at the Carlton Hotel.
The mere fact that the Coens and Lynch have "routines" at Cannes would make many colleagues jealous. While others clamor for a coveted spot at the film festival, these U.S. filmmakers are part of an elite group that gets invited again and again.
The festival loves them, and they love the festival -- both for the buzz it generates back home and for its help in conquering the European market.
For the Coens, it's an especially remarkable relationship. The St. Louis Park, Minn., natives are here for the sixth time, and they've only made nine movies. It seems they could make a toothpaste commercial and it would be selected for Cannes.
"We're not arguing," laughs Joel Coen.
This year, of four U.S. films in the main selection, three are from Cannes "darlings." Besides the Coens and Lynch, Sean Penn, presenting "The Pledge," is so liked here that the festival threw him a tribute last year. (The fourth U.S. film this year is DreamWorks' animated "Shrek.")
Another favorite is Francis Ford Coppola, whose "Apocalypse Now" got a crucial boost when it won the Palme d'Or in 1979. He's back this year with a longer version, "Apocalypse Now Redux," which showed out of competition.
Among non-U.S. filmmakers, similar status is accorded to Lars von Trier, whose "Dancer in the Dark" won the Palme d'Or last year, and Manuel de Oliveira, the 92-year-old Portuguese director who has presented 10 films here.
The much younger Coens can proffer only vague theories of why they're so popular at Cannes and in Europe, where their crafted and quirky films generally perform better than back home.
McDormand, who won an Oscar for the Coens' "Fargo," says that "European audiences have always understood them better than U.S. audiences. It's about education. European audiences are more educated in film."
Her husband isn't so sure. "I don't think I'd say that," Joel Coen says. "I think Europeans like American culture, especially the history of American culture."
Ethan Coen, sitting beside him, takes mock umbrage at the suggestion his films succeed here because they're small, quirky and intellectual. "Our films aren't successful small movies!" he says. "They're failed mainstream movies."
Lynch can't do much better at explaining his success here. The director of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks" won a Palme d'Or at Cannes with "Wild at Heart" in 1990, then surprised everyone when he brought the quiet, pastoral "The Straight Story" here nine years later.
He's here for the fourth time this year with "Mulholland Drive," about an accident on the famed road in Hollywood.
"Very generally, Europeans appreciate abstractions more," he says. But he doesn't care to analyze. "It's always a thrill to come," he says. "I just like being here, with all this film around."
The Coens also have a Palme d'Or on their resume, for "Barton Fink" in 1991. They took the directing prize for "Fargo" five years later. Last year, they were back with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", their most successful film at home thanks to a memorable soundtrack of American roots music and the presence of George Clooney.
Now the Coens are back with a film noir set in 1949 small-town California. "The Man Who Wasn't There," which opened Sunday, is a classic hard-boiled crime story, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a chain-smoking, passive barber; McDormand as his philandering wife; James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos" as her temperamental boss; and Michael Badalucco of "The Practice" as a chatterbox brother-in-law.
The real star is the look of the film, which was shot in color but printed in elegant black-and-white, creating a period feel.
The movie has garnered mixed reviews, and the Coens say frankly that they don't expect it to do as well as "O Brother."
"It's riskier, darker," Joel says. "Our goal isn't to make more money each time. Just to be able to make more films."
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