With an unexpected switch against expectations, Bertrand Tavernier’s “Fresh Bait” hauled in the top prize at the 45th Berlin Intl. Film Festival Feb. 20.

The film triumphed over strong competition from perceived front-runners such as Wayne Wang’s ensembler “Smoke” and offbeat Brit road movie “Butterfly Kiss.”

Prior to the appearance of the French pic – the last to screen in competition – most gamblers had been putting their money on the Wayne Wang-Paul Auster Miramax release about a group of friends who congregate around a Brooklyn smoke store.

“Smoke” copped the runner-up Special Jury Prize (with a special nod for Harvey Keitel’s “outstanding performance”) and “Butterfly Kiss,” first theatrical feature by Michael Winterbottom, went unrewarded in any category.

Many had tagged “Kiss” leads Amanda Plummer or Saskia Reeves as likely for best actress, which unexpectedly went to veteran Hong Kong thesp Josephine Siao for her perf as the daughter of an Alzheimer’s victim in “Summer Snow.”

As widely predicted, Paul Newman took best actor for “Nobody’s Fool,” though the announcement at the press conference drew a mixture of boos and cheers. Roundly booed was the jury’s best director award to Richard Linklater for the Euro-set two-hander “Before Sunrise,” which had drawn blah critical reaction.

Along with “Kiss,” Abel Ferrara’s vampire pic, “The Addiction,” and Stanley Kwan’s “Red Rose White Rose” went away empty-handed.

The Blue Angel Award went to Norway for Marius Holst’s edgy family drama, “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die,” while Silver Bears went to the visual design team of Chinese entry “Blush” and to the Russian “Play for a Passenger.”

The awards capped a Berlinale that was slow to warm up and delivered less in practice than it had promised on paper.

But the Panorama section held its ground as a showcase for international fare. Discoveries included two first features – the German relationships comedy “Die Mediocren,” widely reckoned the best German pic of the fest, and the in-your-face, but surprisingly tender Generation X drama “Jumping Into the Void” from Spain. Also, the section saw the return after 20 years’ absence of Pascal Aubier with the French film-buff comedy “The Son of Gascogne.”

Gay and lesbian fare, traditionally a Panorama tent-pole, was generously in evidence. Cynthia Roberts’ AIDS drama “The Last Supper” won the Gay Teddy Bear Award. Miramax pickup “Lie Down With Dogs,” Wally White’s comedy about a summer in Provincetown, failed to excite many. However, both Marita Giovanni’s “Bar Girls” and a trio of AIDS minifeatures (“Africa, My Africa,” “Lazos” and “Paradise Framed”) were hot tickets.

The fest-within-a-fest Intl. Forum of Young Cinema came up with a particularly rewarding selection of offbeat fare this year. Topping most observers’ lists were Azerbaijani discovery “The Bat,” plus the Polish “Miraculous Place,” Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb,” the Chinese “The Day the Sun Turned Cold,” French docu “Citizen Langlois” and Japanese indies “Elephant Song” and “Tokyo Siblings.”

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