The Berlin Film Festival flourished at the midway point with an exciting “Kiss,” then quickly leveled off as critics pinned their hopes on the last screenings of the event.

The fest fixed its big buzz on Michael Winterbottom’s “Butterfly Kiss”; the other midweek favorite was Robert Benton’s “Nobody’s Fool,” and as the Feb. 9-20 event headed into its final days, those two remained the standout entries in the competition pack.

There were warm, but not enthusiastic, receptions for Wayne Wang’s “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face” (the latter of which is ineligible for a prize). Both played to SRO crowds, but neither stirred up the kind of reaction given “Butterfly” and “Fool.”

But critics’ hopes were still pegged to three key films that had yet to screen at press time: the Mainland China call girl movie “Blush,” Abel Ferrara’s vampire pic “The Addiction” and Bernard Tavernier’s wages-of-sin drama “The Bait.”

Beyond that, reactions to other competition screenings were subdued. The highly anticipated Canadian lesbian drama “When Night Is Falling” drew mixed reactions, but fell substantially short of overall expectations.

Germany’s four-film competition slate laid an egg with critics. But one of the best-received German films was relationship comedy “Die Mediokren.” It played in the Panorama section – which in many respects packed more action than the official competition – with such other pix as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Priest.”

Dissenters at the fest say the Panorama sidebar has lost its cutting edge – particularly compared with the Forum section, which featured a strong lineup of fun midnight pix and delivered exotic surprises like Salayev Ayas’ “The Bat, ” from Azerbajian.

As the fest continued, the field of strong award contenders narrowed – but then, so did the list of judges. French jury member Jean-Claude Brisseau checked out of his hotel Feb. 15. Berlinale officials later confirmed to Variety that a medical emergency involving Brisseau’s wife had forced him to return to Paris.

In accordance with festival policy, Brisseau’s vote then fell to the jury chairwoman, Lia van Leer.

(Illness had caused a juror to withdraw in mid-fest once before, and in 1979, three jury members from the former Soviet Union dropped out of the festival in protest of “The Deer Hunter.”)

Meanwhile, as Brisseau was leaving, major buyers were preparing their exit as well, without having closed any deals. Marketgoers incessantly bemoaned the scarcity of good films, which was in part attributable to the continuing trend toward pre-fest sales.

Even the delinquent drama “A Boy Called Hate,” which screened in the Panorama section, sold two days before the fest; “The Promise,” Margarethe von Trotta’s Berlin Wall love story (which opened the festival), sold to Fine Line on Christmas Eve. It screened here to strong reactions from the local crowd, but out-of-towners were less passionate.

Belgium’s foreign-language Oscar nominee, “Farinelli,” sold Hungarian and Baltic states’ distribution rights here in Berlin, but will wait to sew up deals for the U.K. and Scandinavia at AFM. (The pic had already been sold in more than two dozen countries and will be released in the U.S. by Sony Classics.)

Although the market was quiet, Samuel Goldwyn acquired international rights to the WWII docu “Liberation” (U.S. rights are still up for grabs) and Pubcaster’s Showcase signed for the feature documentary “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter” prior to its Oscar nomination.

Transit Films, which is selling rights to both that film and Terry Zwigoff’s much praised docu “Crumb,” said they were fielding offers and weren’t likely to close until post-fest.

Newcomer indie Seventh Art Releasing, based in L.A., picked up North American rights to the Austrian docu “Totgeschwiegen” and “Siren Song,” a sassy romantic comedy based on a bestselling Israeli novel.

There were plenty of gloomy, brooding pictures for sale, but they landed with a thud at the market; buyers were more taken by edgy tales, often of lesbian love. In addition to “Butterfly Kiss,” foreign reps were eating up the carpet for low-budget love-triangle “Bar Girls.” Among national blocks, Scandi product elicited favorable responses for its improving commercial appeal.

“All the right distribs for quality foreign films are here,” said Jeannine Seawell, whose “Manneken Pis” – a Belgian “Romeo and Juliet” that opened nicely at home – will play San Sebastian and Montreal this year and has been attracting considerable international attention.

Though interest in the market was expectedly higher among European than U.S. buyers, one Australian distributor told Variety he had stopped going to screenings mid-fest in favor of sightseeing. Another distributor from a major European capital left Feb. 15, having told her replacement not to bother coming.

Industryites were also disappointed early in the week when it was announced that the festival’s spotlight celebrity, Robert Redford, would not be appearing. Redford’s absence strained relations between Buena Vista and fest organizers and also hurt promotion for the out-of-competition screening of “Quiz Show,” which opened across Europe last week. Festival director Moritz de Hadeln claimed the studio had breached a pledge to deliver the star in exchange for the film’s prominent promotional slot. Studio execs insisted there was no binding commitment.

Redford, who never personally negotiated with the festival, told Variety that he never planned to go Berlin.

“I have no idea what was promised behind my back,” an upset Redford told Variety. “I told the Disney people five weeks ago that it would not be possible.”

Redford said his new deal with Disney is not in jeopardy as a result, but he plans to have “a serious discussion” with studio executives this week.

Redford, who personally apologized to de Hadeln Wednesday, said the demands of his Sundance Film Festival and new shooting schedule on “Up Close and Personal” precluded the possibility of a Berlin trip.

His absence left the fest with its thinnest veil of star cover in recent memory, with other cancellations reducing the celebrity contingent to Rob Morrow, William Hurt, Harvey Keitel and Julie Delpy.

Nevertheless, “Quiz Show” was very well received here.

Derek Elley and David Stratton contributed to this report.

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