A few days after the Sundance Film Festival wound down in Park City, Utah, I traveled to the 28th International Film Festival Rotterdam, which has a growing reputation as one of the most essential international events. From January 27 to February 7, Rotterdam, the world's largest port, hosted 200 features and feature-length documentaries, and presented more than 250 short films, videos, installations and CD-ROM offerings. Screenings were held all over the city, but by far the most comfortable venue is a state-of-the art multiplex in central Rotterdam, filled with patrons sipping espresso and beer and smoking endless cigarettes. Inside the theaters, where you can bring your Grolsch but not your cappuccino, there is stadium seating and pristine projection, with viewing conditions only slightly undermined by the Dutch insistence that moviegoers “fill in” theater rows by sitting next to one another. The overall effect is like being in Germany without the Germans.

Rotterdam is a great festival, but more important, it's a necessary festival. There are now more than 1,000 film festivals worldwide, which for serious moviegoers serve an indispensable function: These days, the only way to keep up with international cinema is to travel, usually outside your own country. In one of their press releases, officials refer to their event as “the supportive festival.” In contrast to Sundance, which is tightly limited by the narrowness of its mission and the unfortunate solipsism of many of the American movies it programs, the best film festivals look outward and inward at once. For a festival like Rotterdam or Toronto, this doubled view is as much a survival strategy as an ideological prerogative. Unlike Cannes or even Berlin, Rotterdam isn't best known for its high-profile premieres. What Rotterdam does have is an admirable selection of some of the most provocative — and often least commercial — films from around the world. Over the course of one week I saw everything from a gritty feature about a Chinese pickpocket (Jia Zhangke's Xiao Wu, shot entirely with nonprofessional actors), to a rapturous Japanese film about a hit woman (The Black Angel Vol. 2, from Ishii Takashi, director of Gonin), to a slick Thai horror fantasy (303 Fear/Faith/Revenge, a kind of I Know What You Did 20 Summers Ago), to a dreamily poetic feature about a wayward boy and the French prostitute with whom he finds sanctuary (Victor . . . pendant qu'il est trop tard, from Sandrine Veysset).

I sampled other selections, too, mainly from the Far East (the festival is known for its Asian programming), along with a handful of features from writer-director Catherine Breillat, one of this year's “filmmakers in focus.” Little known outside France, Breillat published her first novel in 1968 at the age of 19. Eight years later she directed her first film, Une vraie jeune fille, a surreal portrait of an overheated schoolgirl. With its conflation of sexual desire and sexual disgust, the film, which was never released, limns terrain close to that of French novelist-philosopher Georges Bataille. In one scene, the girl inserts a spoon in her pussy while seated at the family dinner table; later, she fantasizes that the man she lusts after is inserting a live worm in her — a reverie that climaxes when he tears the worm apart and places its wiggling pieces on her vulva.

Nearly as unsettling is Breillat's 1996 Perfect Love!, which opens with a man being interrogated about the murder of his lover, then backtracks to show us the affair between the 28-year-old and his older girlfriend. The moral of this story is that men will fuck you, love you, kill you — which more or less says everything about Breillat's philosophy of the bedroom. Her newest outrage, Romance, isn't much more optimistic about heterosexual coupling, but its violence is more metaphysical. The film, which had its world premiere at Rotterdam, essentially follows a woman who embarks on a series of sexual adventures after her boyfriend refuses to fuck her. The shock of the film isn't its explicitness (the lead spreads her legs for the camera), but its emphatically cool tone, a coolness that continually shifts emphasis from roiling flesh to restless ideas. “Let's say it's hot,” Breillat has said of Romance, “but that it burns like ice.”

However attention-grabbing its programming, the festival's underlying strategy toward the world market is equally arresting. Rotterdam isn't a pseudo-market like Sundance or a rarefied boutique like the New York Film Festival, but a highly rationalized answer to the stark realities of late-century motion-picture production, distribution and exhibition. Central to its strategy is CineMart, a co-production market that brings together filmmakers with prospective financiers. This year, CineMart brought 80 directors and producers, representing 44 projects in various stages of completion, together with 320 financiers for daily panels and meetings. The results are impressive: At the market's end, many of the projects had secured partial funding, with 10 having been financed in full.

Additionally, through its Hubert Bals Fund, the festival offers modest completion funds to films from developing nations. It's a strategy that, along with Rotterdam's recently launched video line, Tiger Releases, not only helps sustain production in countries that don't have the benefit of established movie industries, but helps insure the continued viability of festivals such as Rotterdam, festivals that are dependent on international cinemas to maintain their distinctive profiles. Among the festival films that were partially financed through the Hubert Bals Fund is Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple, which opens in L.A. early next month.

One of the bitterest ironies of contemporary American film is that Sundance is big and getting bigger, not because the films are getting better or more important but because independent cinema has evolved into little more than a handmaiden of Hollywood. Writing in The New Yorker recently, David Denby ventured that Sundance is “the center of youthful desire in the film world.” But while Sundance is youthful, both in years and in its fetishization of directors who are barely post-pubescent, in the last few years it has become more desperate than hopeful, and, like Hollywood, defined as much by its failures as its successes — successes that are, finally, inevitably, measured at the box office. Sundance is the most important festival in the United States, but is it necessary for American movies? Is it healthy? Indie-film guru John Pierson has suggested that one way to save the festival is to rid it of its various competitions, which, he argues, impede creativity. Cutting back on the number of guests and films might also help, but both scenarios are unlikely. There is simply too much already at stake — cable channels, a theater chain, entertainment magazines, a ravenous celebrity culture.

Over the last several years, Sundance has developed a curious sort of public cachet. “Sundance,” my neighbor said on my return, her face brightening. “How was it?” It wasn't particularly good, as numerous attendees have already reported, but invariably no one believes you. People want Sundance to be significant, though less out of some unarticulated fealty to all the movies they will most likely never see than because of a widespread sense that Sundance matters — not the films or the filmmakers, but the actual festival. The reason is that, for better and often worse, Sundance has come to stand not merely for the promise of independent cinema, as Denby suggested, but for the enduring dominance of the American movie industry, both here and abroad. Which is why next year, while I'll again return to Sundance, I'll be looking forward to Rotterdam.

LA Weekly